Digital Sources and the Digital Divide

Stephen Ellis, in his 2002 article “Writing Contemporary Histories of Africa,” reflected on the difficulties of finding adequate sources to write contemporary histories, arguing that “it is unlikely that historians seeking to write the history of Africa since independence will enjoy the same quality of documents as their colleagues studying the colonial period” (12). This article, the first half of which continues to shape my approach to researching issues with current relevance, reflected on the “contemporary” sources available to historians, but was radically short-sighted for its failure to recognize the digital revolution that was, and continues to be, as Peter Alegi notes in 2012’s “Podcasting the Past,” fundamentally “reshaping the field of history” (206).

Ellis’ 2002 oversight is cast in stark relief by Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig’s Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web (2005).  While Ellis discusses the available “contemporary” sources available to historians, he doesn’t even touch on the digital record that was being generated even as early as 2002, but has completely revolutionized the way that scholars attempt to analyze contemporary pasts.  Cohen and Rosenzweig, just three years later, engage directly with all of the potential benefits and drawbacks of historians’ engagement with digital technology.  Though some of the technologies they engage with are dated, and their piece is largely devoid of social media as a whole, their lines of reasoning are sound and continue to hold contemporary relevance.  In this way, Davies and Razlogova’s 2013 article in the Radical History Review continues the work put forth by Cohen and Rosenzweig, illustrating clearly the powerful ways that digital technologies not only provide sources, problematic or not, but how digital technologies have fundamentally reshaped history itself.

Cohen and Rosenzweig also deal with both the benefits and drawbacks of these types of digital sources head on, as well as addressing the notable digital divide between the Global North and the Global South.  “The best-known danger—the digital divide in computer ownership and Internet use between rich and poor, white and non-white—has diminished somewhat,” Cohen and Rosenzweig notes, “but it persists despite politically motivated claims to the contrary.”  While their digital divide referred to access to telephones and internet service (problems which have lessened in large part), this disparity, as Peter Limb argues in “The Digitization of Africa” (2005),  in terms of access and fairness linger.  Limb argues that in the process of digitization, there has emerged “a new ‘scramble for Africa,’ for information resources to digitize—either for open access, or for profit” (3).  In scrambling to digitize records, such as those discussed in Ellis’ piece, it is not, as Limb shows, simply the quality or biases of the records that need to be investigated; instead, it is developing a dialogue with and the infrastructure necessary for African-based scholars to preserve their own pasts (and as Alegi notes, to contribute their own voices to the debates).  As Limb notes on p. 16 of his article,

To provide long-term solutions to deep-seated educational and publishing crises in Africa, it will be necessary to develop Africa-based resources and competencies, as well as to strengthen the international collaboration glimpsed in the above-mentioned projects. In all such projects, the future may lie in the combination of open access with not-for-profit models, to improve access to scholars globally and ensure the sustainability of the projects.

However, this foundation of sustainability may be difficult to establish, due both to long-standing inequalities in relationships with Westerners, as well as the “cloud of inertia” which has descended over South Africa’s archival management system, revealed by Graham Dominy in “Archives and the ‘Clouds'” (2013).

This discussion  is not to imply that we should not, as Ellis suggests, critically engage with the validity of contemporary sources; the issue is in the way in which he goes about this analysis and his failure to note the growing importance of digital sources and platforms.  Perhaps if Ellis engaged with more of the issues of accessibility and infrastructure underlying Africans’ engagement with the rest of the world, as opposed to pondering the gossip-y nature of “African” conversations, his piece would provide real guidance to scholars grappling with how to present contemporary pasts using relevant, and ,now, largely digital, sources.

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This post is one of the requirements for South African History in a Digital Age, a graduate course in history which I am enrolled in this semester, drawing on the assigned readings for January 16.

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