The Pitfalls of a Keyword Search

The ability to search by keyword through terabytes of files may at first seem like a helpful shortcut to cutdown on time spent rifling through unrelated sources, but as Ian Milligan argues, we cannot simply “outsource our intellectual labor to a search engine like Google.”* Instead, as historians, we must equip ourselves for the age of digital research by increasing our data fluency and understanding the pitfalls of abundance.

One of the main concerns to methodology in the digital age is the threat of losing the evidential value that defines the traditional archive. Evidential value is the organization of archival materials so that researchers understand the context of the sources. Archivists work to establish as close to the organic whole for each collection and organize it in such a way to maintain the historical context. A keyword search has the potential to isolate a source from its place in a collection and remove the original context completely.

As we¬† lose our “paper trails” maintaining the context will become an even greater responsibility for the historian. That being said, context is not impossible to retain within in a digital archive, but it will require historians to think about context more carefully as they sort through digital sources.

Another concern is that the traditional questions we apply to archives – who created this archive, where did the material come from, what has been removed or is missing – may be harder to ascertain unless we learn an appropriate level of data fluency. Historians need to actively think about how data (and metadata) operates, how digital files are stored and retrieved, and “humans’ role at all stages” of the creation and use of data management.*

While some skills in a historian’s toolbelt will come in handy in a new age of digital archival research, for new methodological obstacles we may currently be ill-equipped or ill-prepared to do our research responsibly.


** Ian Milligan, “Historians’ achival research looks quite different in the digital age,” The Conversation, August 19, 2019.

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