Thursday, March 25, 2010

Will Our Digital Lives Become Digital Histories?

A recent episode of Spark on CBC radio made me think about the way we teach history. The program dealt, in part, with using digital technology to preserve memories, heritage and culture. In a particularly poignant story, Meryl Swiatek recalls finding a cassette tape of her mother reading children’s stories nearly nine years after her mother died of cancer. Meryl notes the importance of technology in preserving the memory of her mom and comments,

“. . . that got me thinking about how my life is preserved.
I have almost 1000 twitter updates . . . and a handful of videos on YouTube. I preserve myself and my life digitally every single day without even thinking about it.”

And that got me thinking about the first time I ventured down this thought path.
It started as a conversation about narrative when Alec Couros @courosa helped me recognize how the digital medium changes story telling.

And that is where I was stuck for oh . . . 5 months.
Although we weren't discussing history in these tweets (above) , that is where this has ended up for me.

Digital History

The internet has no shortage of
digital history resources.
Digital history involves the use of digital media to preserve, present and study history. Scanned archives, audio files, timelines and interactive maps are examples of digital history and history teachers are using these resources to bring history to life for students. But there is no reason why history students shouldn’t contribute to the digital history ‘pool’. Ideally, they should be creating digital history resources by capturing oral histories and archiving documents and they should learn these research and archiving skills in their history classes. The CBC Spark episode referenced at the beginning of this post provides suggestions and ideas for scanning and capturing audio, including interviewing tips.

Currently, digital history seems confined to websites or blogs as public museums or places that house resources for the study of history.
It has yet to fully embrace the idea of digital texts as primary sources. If we are preserving ourselves and our lives digitally every single day, these records will be the historical evidence we use tomorrow.

Shouldn’t students’ research skills shift to consider digital resources, like websites, blogs and tweets, as historical texts? If a diary entry is a primary source, a blog post is a primary source. Shouldn’t students understand how they differ (hint: audience and purpose) and how that shapes the reading of these texts?

Will political historians consider tweets?
What will the future make of tweets like this one by President Obama (or his ghost tweeter) which may have been read by as many as 3, 477, 140 of his Twitter followers?

What happens to the study of history in a world of living documents?

What happens to social history in the world of social media?

What happens when our students ask “how do we reference twitter in an essay?”

Please share your thoughts on our digital lives becoming digital histories.

Photo by / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


  1. It is true that many stories will now be preserved digitally, the digital world is far from being accessible by all the voices in our country or world. Until this is the case, historians will continue to battle with trying to find and tell the stories of the many groups--just like in the past--who are unable to leave their stories as primary documents for us. These stories, just like those of women, of the poor, of those living in developing countries in the past, will be continue to be subject to the interpretation or censure of those who choose to tell them. As anthropologists and sociologists have tried to do so diligently to record stories in the past, there will be even more compelling reasons for us to ensure that all people have the skills and resources to access the tools for preserving their own (hi)stories as they see fit.

  2. Thanks for noting this, Eleanor. It is very true. Accessibility to technology remains an equity issue and a global issue. The use of digital media is also a literacy issue. When we study history, we access the voices of the literate and educated. What does it say about what needs to occur with the teaching of literacy skills if we already recognize that only some (hi)stories will be accessible as digital histories?

  3. Matt Walkinshaw - @mwalkinshaw - AppleMarch 25, 2010 at 12:24 PM

    Hi Kim,

    I listened to that edition of Spark on the weekend in the car with my nine year old twin daughters. It was a touching story that lead to a lot of questions and thought about our own digital histories and that of their grandparents. This gives me another reason to work on Digital literacies with these two generations and got me to thinking, I've struggled introducing my parents to technology and found it frustrating at times but perhaps my children, who are pretty adept with a laptop, could work with their grandparents and create some memories that would last a lifetime, and more....thanks for your blog on the subject

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  5. Hi Matt.

    You might be interested in a blog post by Lisa L. Winebrenner (@EdTech4Me). I should have mentioned her in my post. She writes about preserving family history at

    You have hit on a key point for me, and that is getting our children and students involved in preserving the memories/records. Lisa's post actually inspired me to try a family blog, but we didn't get very far because I 'own' it and this replicates what we do in the classroom with our students. I need to follow up and find ways for my children to design the process. It may not be a blog. My son, 14, has traced our family back to Ireland using census records that can be accessed online. Maybe we should start with his interests and not mine :) You can see my limited efforts at creating a family blog here

  6. This is such a huge issue when you look at it from the perspective of a student. Particularly later in education when you're researching a paper in University/College. The majority of professors in schools my friends have attended still do not allow many online resources such as Wikipedia to be sourced.

    And Wikipedia is nearly 10 years old now. How much longer do we have to wait until teachers can agree that there is valid information here?

    Then you look at Twitter which is 4 years old and Facebook which is 6. It boggles the mind how slow education is to make use of these mediums.

    Anyways, as far as digital archiving goes, I'd urge enthusiasts to check out ThinkTank ( This company is currently working with the White House to better make use of Facebook and Twitter as a means of opening communication channels with the people.

    A separate, yet related project of interest is The Library of Congress choosing to archive all of Twitter's public timeline ( Though personally I'm a little annoyed at their buzzing around Twitter and ignoring greater efforts like the one at which aims to archive the entire internet. If it weren't for projects like, all of Geocities truly would be dead right now considering Yahoo! was against the idea of any backups.


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