a locked reading room at the National Archives of India Records Centre, Puducherry (Photo by Jecca Namakkal)

By Sneha Krishnan

Writing in the Atlantic in 1945, Vannevar Bush, who headed the US Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II, imagined a technological utopia in which all of humanity’s knowledge would be easily accessible. This fantasy – and its location at the heart of America’s benevolent empire is not incidental – has been invoked widely as the digital humanities have grown in popularity in the past decade. However, as scholarship in the field has long noted, this democratisation of knowledge is far from straightforward. Even as a growing number of resources are digitised, not all of it is open-access, as much remains behind paywalls that require affiliation to major Global North-located academic institutions. While there is a growing number of crowd-sourced archival collections – a good example being the South Asian American Digital Archive – major universities and libraries still do not have mechanisms to invite such contributions, and the distinction between public and professional history endures. 

Further, feminist, postcolonial, and indigenous scholars have made the argument that responsibility to the archival collections we engage requires that not all materials can be made openly available. For instance, archives constructed not as collections but as records of relationality, or which are meant only to be viewed in particular contexts or periods of times by the communities in whose lives they circulate, may need to be digitised in ways that are radically different in form to the traditional library.

Simultaneously, a controversy about the queer erotic zine ‘On our Backs’ which was meant for circulation within a small and closely-knit community when produced suggested the dangers that digitisation poses to expectations of privacy. The digital humanities’ commitment to a feminist politics of difference has also been questioned. In 2013, postcolonial scholars Adeline Koh and Roopika Risam initiated an online forum discussion, asking if the digital turn in the humanities  was a reactionary backlash against ‘cultural studies’ debates on race, class, gender, sexuality, and disability. . 

The Digital Humanities have also been plagued by a hack vs. yack (doer vs. theoriser) debate, raising questions of political economy and knowledge hierarchy.  The coders and technicians who build the tools that enable historians to produce visual analyses, and searchable transcriptions of archives are overwhelmingly employed in precarious contracts and are rarely credited as co-authors. The field of history remains, as Roy Rosenzweig wrote in 2006 (p.117), very much in the grip of a ‘possessive individualism’, which the COVID-19 crisis has brought into relief. Even as we become heavily dependent on digital technologies to continue teaching and researching, many universities are making redundant staff who are not employed on tenure-track or permanent contracts: the category in which many of the ‘technicians’ of the digital humanities enterprise will likely fall. 

COVID-19 has also directly prompted my writing of this microsyllabus. At Oxford, I am teaching a course to help undergraduates, whose thesis-research plans have to be rethought in light of travel restrictions, to design desk-based projects for the summer. As my goal is to introduce key debates on the writing of digital history to undergraduates, there are several books and papers that have been key to advancing debate in this field that I don’t include in this microsyllabus. Two notable exclusions that I highly recommend are Safiya Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression and Roopika Risam’s New Digital Worlds. The former makes the argument that search engine algorithms reproduce the structural racism inherent in our everyday worlds. In the latter, Risam unpacks the ways in which digital worlds are as much produced in a colonial afterlife as our physical everyday realities. 

The works I include below all push the reader to think how the historian’s craft is shaped by the geographies of the digital archive – where materials are located, how they are positioned relative to each other, and their newfound capacities to indicate multi-scalar processes unfolding simultaneously at transnational, local and embodied levels of experience. They also ask how professional history has been reshaped by the digital. For instance, can there be an open source history, as projects like Wikipedia grow in size and power? Simultaneously, all the authors below take a cautious view of the digital, asking how processes of digitisation might sometimes make invisible hierarchies of power and knowledge that are too proximate to miss in a physical archive. 

Roy Rosenzweig,Clio Wired: The Future of the Past in the Digital Age. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

This collection of essays by Roy Rosenzweig is driven by the question ‘what if we could make history open source’. The essays – engagingly written and accessible to a broad audience  – ask how the internet has changed our encounter with history. Wikipedia for instance, on which there is a chapter in this book, has made many non-professional historians, and is increasingly used as a pedagogical tool by teachers of history who might get their students to edit a Wikipedia page as an assignment. At the same time, he makes the point that the histories produced in Wikipedia are not so much factually suspect – the crowd-sourced aspect of the platform means that there are very few actual errors – as driven by fact, rather than argument or theory, in a way that professional history isn’t. Another chapter asks what a history of the Internet written by future historians might look like: arguing that such a history would need to be rooted in the socio-economic world of the Cold War in the 1960s that might give us something of a clue as to why the seeming ‘openness’ of the web isn’t everything it seems. Overall, the essays in the book are something of an introduction to the big debates on digital technology and history: is it necessarily democratic; does it account for social difference; how can we write a history of the digital in which we are implicated? 

 Lara Putnam, “The Transnational and the Text-Searchable: Digitized Sources and the Shadows They Cast.” The American Historical Review 121, no. 2 (2016): 377-402.

Putnam’s essay is an excellent introduction to the stakes of doing digital history for the vast majority of historians whose work has not been fundamentally transformed by the digital humanities, but who use digitised resources extensively, nevertheless. Beyond the hack vs. yack debates, Putnam points out that what the digitisation of archival sources offers is ease of access – the capacity to do fieldwork without going to the field. And this, she argues compellingly, has driven the transnational turn in history: a growing focus on interconnections, and global processes that might have been difficult to map previously with resources scattered across vast geographical distances. Conceptually, she points out, this puts scale at the heart of historical research: given that I teach in a geography department, I find this argument particularly compelling. As both primary and secondary sources from across the world are increasingly available via metadata-searches, the historian’s capacity to study large-scale processes is no longer extraordinary. Simultaneously, text-searchability makes it possible for historians to track micro-processes – the occurrence of particular words or names in official papers or news publications: their frequency, their association with other names and words – with speed and accuracy in a way that would not have been possible in the past. Finally, Putnam reflects on the extent to which digitisation prioritises particular narratives – those of published sources; as well as easily digitizable materials largely located in the West. She argues also that the advantage of analog research – in a physical archive – was the extent to which it forced engagement with a range of materials that might not be directly pertinent to the topic of research, but which richly shaped the historian’s contextual knowledge. The digital, thus presents troubling questions for what it means to have place-based and deep knowledge that is rooted in context.  

 Elizabeth A.Povinelli, “The Woman on the Other Side of the Wall: Archiving the Otherwise in Postcolonial Digital Archives.” differences 22, no. 1 (2011): 146-71

Povinelli’s essay introduces a different kind of archive: one that she has conceived with indigenous communities in the Australian Northern Territory, with whom she has worked for many years. This archive – as a Smartphone App – would be managed by indigenous groups and use geotagging to operate only when a researcher or tourist is near a particular site, to present a storied landscape of indigenous life in the area. What, she asks, distinguishes the archive from a hoard or a collection? How does the unending labour of cataloguing, classification, and the shuttling of objects back and forth between museums, libraries, storage holds and boxes – all creating many forms of work for librarians, movers and conservationists – create what we experience as the archive? And how then, is a postcolonial archive – as a collection that speaks back to the power of the colonial archive – constructed in a way that introduces new forms of reading? What potential does the digital offer to such a collection, and how does the medium constrain it? The paper’s key contribution is in drawing out the relationship between archive and territory, which is heightened in the digital medium, where geotagging, multimedia and mapping capacities both open up potentials to tell stories in more embodied ways, whilst simultaneously anchoring the archive to a ‘proper’ map. 

 Johanna Drucker, “Is There a “Digital” Art History?”. Visual Resources 29, no. 1-2 (2013/06/01 2013): 5-13.

This paper asks what it might mean to ‘do’ digital history, when this history is not of text, which can be transcribed, but of visual material whose transcription into the digital medium is less straightforward. In some ways, Drucker’s paper parallels Putnam’s work, drawing attention to the particular questions of scale, and potentials for transnational history that the digitisation of art history might open up. In particular, she points out that images, when rendered into code become completely remediated objects, no longer still in space, but capable of being disaggregated into parts that have their own histories. For instance, it is now possible to analyse hundreds of images to extract from them details about pigments used in paint, which are embedded in long-durée and transnational histories of trade. Further, the use of visual modelling to reconstruct architectural sites, as well as virtual restoration and conservation processes draw attention to the ways in which our own bodies and their sensory capacities vis-à-vis visual objects are shaped by digitisation technologies. Drawing on this, she argues that in seeing digitisation as interpretation rather than representation, scholars might play more active roles in unpacking the role of metadata, cataloguing and mapping technologies in (re)producing the power structures of archives. 


Sneha Krishnan is Associate Professor in Human Geography at the University of Oxford. She is interested in how histories of colonialism and imperial afterlives shape experiences of childhood and youth. She is currently writing a book about women’s hostels in Southern India and has an ongoing collaborative project on digitisation and colonial archives.