Digital Databases and the Illusion of Comprehension

This post is part of a joint series entitled “Digital Research, Digital Age: Blogging New Approaches to Early American Studies,” the Panorama and the Junto. This joint series stems from  stemming from a conference entitled “Revolutionary Texts in a Digital Age: Thomas Paine’s Publishing Networks, Past and Present,” organized by Nora Slonimsky at Iona College in October 2018. This series will feature one post every day this week, hosted by both the Panorama and the Junto, and Dr. Slonimsky’s introductory post is found here. The first post at the Panorama is by Lindsay Chervinsky, “High Politics and Physical Space: Rethinking How We Commemorate Place.”

The rise of the digital humanities over the past decade has brought attention and support to a wide range of projects. In its most triumphalist form, the narrative about digital humanities suggests that digital projects have made early American materials far more accessible than they ever have been. Where once researchers could only access materials by visiting an archive or perhaps using microfilm or microfiche when available, now we can work from our homes in our pajamas to read manuscript and printed sources from the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. And we can gather massive data sets about the past for quantitative or qualitative analysis.

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