Expert discusses effects of digital research on historians

Reagan Ritterbush

Lara Putnam, professor and chair of history at the University of Pittsburgh, spoke Wednesday at Garrison Hall on the importance of digital research and its impact on future historians’ researching practices. 

“We don’t own the past and never will,” Putnam said. “But we can learn to understand its implications on society using different methods of research.”

Putnam discussed the role of historians finding societal connections across different scales of time and criticizing sources in order to gain a better understanding of how to pick out good information from a source. She emphasized how digital research will make it easier for historians to do their job by being able to compare data from different time periods.  

“Being able to aggregate data sources digitally will help historians connect societies across time on a transnational level,” Putnam said. “It will also allow historians to share their findings with the public without an intermediate.”

Putnam, however, stressed the need for future historians to not only learn and use digital research, but to incorporate those skills into the old forms of data research, such as primary and secondary sources that include books, transcripts and hand-written documents. She suggested historians conduct place-based research, which involves historians physically going to the place where they are researching. 

“It’s unrealistic to say that we need to stick to the old ways of research and to ignore advances in technology,” Putnam said. “We need to make sure people know that the data they see online isn’t just from digital research, but from books and hand-written research as well.”

History graduate student Andrew Akhlaghi said the lecture helped him see how digital research was changing the way historians collect sources and how this new change will impact his future career.

“This has given me the push to think about different research projects I can do,” Akhlaghi said. “I’m going to have to rethink what classes I take and where I want to
ultimately work.”

Associate history professor Tatiana Lichtenstein, who helped run the lecture, said she hopes the lecture taught students about the two methods of research that will help improve the quality of data-collecting.

Future historians need to find a balance between doing research in front of a computer day in and day out and actually going outside and getting a better understanding of what they are studying through experience,” Lichtenstein said.