Digital History Research

Digital Detecting

Earlier this spring I had the opportunity to metal detect at a site where Union soldiers camped in North Arlington in 1862. There are some interesting parallels with metal detecting and conducting digital research. First, the detector can only lead you to some close proximity as to where the artifact is buried. Second, you need another device, known as a “pointer,” that helps narrow your search. In digital research the pointing comes to play when you deploy the power of key words or metadata. A broader search can get you close to your subject matter, but it is the secondary or “pointing” that lets you know if you have found something of value.

Civil War artifacts discovered on Upton's Hill
A few of the items discovered on Upton Hill.

By now you realize that I am very much interested in the Civil War, and in particular what happened during the war in Arlington. Having lived in the area for almost 40 years, I am always interested in learning new facts about the people, places, and events that occurred over 160 years ago. But it has been the past five years that has been the most interesting in terms of Civil War research. All across the United States and even abroad, researchers have been digitizing, cataloging, and indexing their collections. What makes this important is that information that was once “buried” or lost is now so much more discoverable. New cognitive technologies, like facial recognition, makes historic photographs more compelling.

23rd New York Militia
Soldiers of the 23rd NY in Arlington, VA during the summer of 1861.

For example, the soldiers in the photo above can now be more easily identified. There were over eight million photographs printed during the war. Many have survived and there are special collections like the Library of Congress that provide an excellent resource for historians. The transcription of letters and diaries and their digitization is providing a fresh source of historic research. Research that is shedding new light on subject matter once thought already covered. In regard to the Civil War, these first hand accounts from the average soldier are providing a new perspective as to how the war was fought. For digital historians researching the Civil War the search for new subject matter has just gotten exciting. But as with all things uncovered, it sometimes takes awhile of poking, and investigating to determine if what has been discovered has value or just needs to be buried again.

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