Digital History Interview of Professor Meredith Oyen

  1. What did you think when Digital Humanities became a “thing”?

I am on the younger end of the department and therefore started using Digital Tools in grad school.  Where I started to notice how much I could do via new websites, tools, databases was after grad school when I moved to China. I was trying to do research in many countries that I did not have access to their research.  China does not have full archives.  I used to have to go down to the basement and pull out old microfilms whereas later on, I could just log onto the website and find all the articles I wanted.

  1. How do you see Digital Media Tools changing the Practice of History, Specifically Research?

I did notice an extraordinary number of archives in my field have come online in the past few years.  Now you can just access so much more than you could before.  People who work on any country can now bring in articles from that country because of these databases.  You don’t have to read their languages to be able to study their history.  The cooperation through digital sharing of these databases and documents allows articles and documents that might not have lived long, are kept safe online.

  1. What encouraged you to use Digital Media Tools?

They were so much faster.  When I discovered Proquest, it was like the Heavens opened up and light shone down.  The ability of being able to pull up articles and dissertations through interlibrary loans online whereas before you had to go to the library that had them.  The speed at which you can get things done has just increased so much.  Your ability to check and double check things has just gotten so much better.

  1. How have Digital Tools helped aid in your research?

I feel like the books that are coming out now or so much richer in their source bases because of how much we can get and so quickly.  The things that used to take months are now simply the building blocks upon which we build something else.

  1. How have your methods of Research changed over time alongside the evolution of the Digital Age?

A big thing is that I rarely make photocopies anymore.  I now take my camera into the archives and take pictures of anything I want or need.  This is a good and bad thing.  It is good because I get to save paper and therefore money.  It’s bad because I take way too many pictures even of things that are only interesting to me.  This means that I have to go through all of them later.  Many people print those photos but I like to keep everything digital.  The fact that you can store everything is a great boon.  I can have a portable hard drive with 20,000 archival documents on it and I can carry it with me.  You can go anywhere and get work done.

  1. Do you see a future in which your research is even more affected by Digital Media Tools?

I am sure it will be.  I am almost wondering if when we figure out how to better preserve and store archives if there is less and less travelling.  I see that as a bad thing because you lose the authenticity and understanding of the culture which shapes your interpretation of the document.  If I only sit down in my office all day and do research, my spoken Chinese would disappear.

  1. What Digital Media Tools have you used for your research?

I use a lot of digital archives and databases such as ProQuest.  I also use digital databases such as Cold War International History Project, National Security Archives, CIA vaults etc.  Zotero is a great tool for organizing information.  I use it a lot in my own research.  I have used Digital Translation Tools.  I have a digital dictionary that reads my handwriting and tells me what character I am looking at (regarding Chinese characters). I also have an app that takes a picture of the character and tells me what it is.

7a. Have any piqued your interest that you would use in the future?

Offhand, no.  I am at a happy medium right now.

  1. Has Digital Media Tools changed how you view the field of history, specifically the research aspect?

I think it wakes up history and opens possibilities.  Certainly for students where they can do real research without having to go into the archives.  It is amazing how so many primary sources are online now.  I can now answer student emails at Six pm on a Sunday which I am always getting in trouble for.

  1. What did you discover about yourself when you began utilizing the Digital World and specifically Digital Tools for your research?

I didn’t really have trouble adapting to it but it has opened up.  It fed some of my worst perfectionist tendencies whereas I used to say “oh well, I cannot access that”.  Now though, I tell myself that “I can find this on the internet”. For example, I was trying to find this exact quote from this exact book and I was searching for 45 minutes online for it before I realized that I had the book on my shelf and I could have just opened it up.  I think it has given us wonderful opportunities but there are definitely drawbacks.  I do believe that the standards and advancements are only getting better and better and therefore kind of eliminate the drawbacks.

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