History of the future

'The end of the book' by J. Brooks Thornley, 1896, State Library of Victoria H96.160/480

If you’re a history lover with internet access you should have discovered London Lives, an amazing resource for discovering ordinary Londoners of the past.

Tim Hitchcock is one of the people who created it and other sites such as Connected Histories.  He’s just written a fascinating post on what the creation of online historical resources might mean for our understandings of history as a practice and the book as an object at the basis of that practice.  Read the whole thing.

The Dictionary of Sydney, it seems to me, sits somewhere between the digitised source materials of Old Bailey Online and Trove Newspapers, and the venerable technology of the printed encyclopedia. We can include full sources, links to other sites, multiple entries on specific topics, sound and film, and other amplifications of the possibilities of the encyclopedia, and we also add an underlying data structure which connects every entity in the repository and which will eventually provide a way of asking new questions of the material we gather.

But with our current text-based focus, and our editing standards, we haven’t transcended the book, and I think Hitchcock is correct when he says:

This transition from the ‘book’, to something new, fundamentally undercuts what we do more generally as ‘historians’.  When you start to unpick the nature of the historical discipline, it is tied up with the technologies of the printed page and the book in ways that are powerful and determining.  Our footnotes, our post-Rankean cross referencing and practises of textual analysis are embedded within the technology of the book, and its library.

The Dictionary has these features as well as the links, browse and search functions that are new to digital history. As we have learnt how to edit, build and work with this linked information, it has become clear that our individual contributors’ work now sits within an assemblage of other material that might either support or contradict any given statement made by an individual historian. The author has well and truly ceded control of the context of their work. We don’t yet know how readers are reacting to these possibilities, and still, the most common question Dictionary staff are asked is ‘When will you be publishing a printed version?’, to which the answer is ‘We won’t’. At close to a million words, it’s already far too big.

Are we creating a transitional format for history here, one of many that will emerge in coming years? I hope so. It’s going to be fun finding out.

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About Emma Grahame

Emma Grahame has been Editorial Coordinator of the Dictionary of Sydney since May 2007.
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