6. IT and the discipline of history

Such is the pace of adoption of information technology within education, and by historical researchers, this innovation will soon be accepted as standard and the norm. And it is hoped that this CD might make a small contribution to encouraging the diffusion of this technology and accelerating acceptance of its legitimacy as a means by which historians can both publish hard won historical source material and disseminate their interpretations of this information.

I hope this CD will appeal to a wider audience than those whose interests relate specifically to Bristol and its region. This is not the place to rehearse my general views on the contribution of information technology to the development and evolution of historical studies as these appeared about a decade ago, in particular in successive volumes of the Economic History Review published between 1990 and 1994.[16] Rather I hope to emphasise the potential of this type of research and this kind of media. It is all too easy for established historians to award credit to the known, be it the traditional form of publication, the monograph or the learned journal, or the familiar topic, best exemplified in Britain by the current over-exposure of students whose sequential revisitation of early twentieth century fascism leads so many to reject history, expressing the heart-felt cry of despair, "not those Bloody Dictators again!"

This, of course, is not to deny the importance of such topics as the Locarno Pact or the Munich crisis. Far from it and heaven forfend. Rather our problem is one of over-emphasis on one relatively short period of history, which now appears in the curriculum at almost every stage of a British student's education, at the expense of a broader, richer and longer perspective on history.[17]

And yet a more comprehensive perspective, methodologically aware and generated in part by original investigative reading on the part of a majority of students, is now a real possibility. Here IT can play a significant part by allowing the consultation of readily accessible electronic media; these include machine readable texts and data sets from floppy disks, CDs and, increasingly, the world wide web. We now have the potential to research and teach history in new ways, looking at new sources and engaging in new debates which could both extend the current repertoire of history provision in the Academy and expand the range of skills our students adopt to conduct their own research and, eventually, enliven and enlighten their own lives.

This prospect is a challenge for those of us who teach in higher education. We must search for effective and varied ways of teaching our students. We must provide them with competencies which will enable them to use in the future techniques which are either currently novel or have even yet to appear in the classroom, library or resource centre. The experimental nature of this process is obvious to those who have taught historical computing over the last two decades. At the most simple level I, for one, will freely admit that for the most part 'learning by doing' is the most effective way of acquiring the skills required to use the new technology. In this context, to learn to do requires a frame of mind which accepts that it is necessary to make mistakes in order to become accustomed to and hone these techniques. This, it can be stated with complete confidence, is not the mentality which history lecturers have traditionally taken into the lecture theatre or the seminar room.

A similar story applies to the history of historical computing more generally. Even in its relative short lifetime, there has been much trial and error, with not a few blind alleys and dead ends along the way. Fashion, along with a desire to perform at the cutting edge of technology, has produced not a few casualties and false dawns. Now, however, it appears that the technology is sufficiently stable and widely enough diffused for the future of historical computing to be certain, and its prospects bright.
For those of us in education there are additional challenges. The acquisition of sufficient and appropriate resources has been difficult at a time when budgets have been squeezed and when university administrators have looked for savings, rather than for new and exciting ways of engaging student interest which simultaneously train and re-educate.

The more mundane aspects are also important. Two examples, one drawn from each end of the classroom illustrate the less exciting aspects of this revolution in the provision of education and, more specifically, the discipline of history. On the one hand, some students have found it difficult to resist the temptations of plagiarism, though probably fewer than the most pessimistic of my counterparts would have it. On the other hand, university lecturers, in general, or at least history lecturers in particular, have been about as willing to learn new skills and methods as any other group in society challenged by the new technology; and this despite, or perhaps, because of the nature of their job in an education system which proclaims lifelong leaning as one of its major objectives.

However, there are consequences of this experimental status. While the continuing evolution of presentation conventions has already been identified others, including the vexed questions relating to copyright and intellectual property rights, remain a potential minefield. And, on a practical note, and in the context of the production of this CD, it has to be admitted that continual and persistent technical change is also a factor. Even during the two year period during which the CD has been assembled the technical parameters have changed significantly; for example, webpage design technology is now both easier to use and also much more versatile. But, as is often the case, this is two-side blade: while possibilities expand and broaden, the demonstration effect of such developments raise ambitions and set higher standards.