Meaning Making in the Digital Age

This week, I’ve been invited to speak on a panel about digital technologies and open access in the university. I’ll be addressing these issues as they relate to my field of Canadian history. We have been provided with a series of questions to address. Here are two of the most significant questions that we will consider on this panel:

How does the digital – tools, technologies, methods, instruction, etc – connect with the ways you make and find meaning in your discipline?

Digital tools, technologies, and methods have transformed the discipline of history in three primary areas:
  1. Scholarship
  2. Teaching
  3. Public history
The ways in which the digital has changed history as a discipline are numerous, but I will provide a couple examples in each of these three areas.


Digital technologies have changed the scale of historical research and precipitated a need to develop new digital methods for search, analysis, and communication. These changes begin with the digitization of research sources. In the discipline of history, digitization has had its most transformative effects on primary source research, working with original historical records. Mass digitization projects have created enormous digital archives of primary source records easily available online. The availability of digitized primary source records has created the need for the development of better systems of metadata for searching these new digital archives. Digital historians are also developing their own custom search engines to meet their particular research needs. The ability to search and access large digitized primary source collections has created “big data” challenges for historians. Researchers can now collect more records than they have ever been able to before. When once a historian might have scoured a newspaper archive on microfilm using labourious (and arguably inefficient) search methods of manual review, she can now use keyword searching and other digital search methods to acquire mass databases of digital records that exceed a scale that can reasonably be analyzed with traditional close reading methods. Making sense of that massive digital archive now requires what some digital humanists call “distant reading,” the use of machine reading technologies to organize data and even generate analytical insights that cannot be observed via traditional methods. Digital text analysis tools and geographic information systems are two technologies that facilitate distant reading that have become more common in historical research today.


Digital technologies and methods have influenced history education at all levels. The implications for historical scholarship that I described above all apply to the work of students in history courses. In the classroom, teachers also have access to a wide range of digital sources and digital tools that can change how we teach history. Textbooks are one example of where digital technologies have changed history education. Digital reading is now the predominant form of reading in nearly all of the classes that I teach. While I still assign monographs, even those books are now available as e-books. Digital reading can be convenient and more affordable for students. While the pleasures of reading off a printed page in a beautifully formatted book remain, they are often overshadowed by the convenience of having access to an entire library of books and articles on a single device. The best textbook a student can have is the one that she can have with her at all times. Digital reading introduces new opportunities for engagement with course materials. Recently, I started using a tool called, a web-based group annotation tool that allows students to highlight and comment on their digital textbook and share those annotations with their classmates for online discussion in advance of their in-person tutorials and seminars. The digital textbooks that I assign also make use of rich media including, high-resolution images, audio, and video.

Public History

Public history incorporates methods and practices for conveying and communicating history outside of academic institutions. Digital technologies and methods have already reshaped the work of museums, archives, heritage institutions, and other public history organizations. For example, Heritage Toronto, a charitable arms-length agency of the City of Toronto tasked with promoting public knowledge about the people, places, and events that have shaped Toronto’s history, has long had a program for creating historical plaques and markers throughout the city. It is one of the most active historical plaques programs in Canada. Recently, Heritage Toronto completed a digital database of its entire collection of historical plaques, making that data available for re-use and re-mixing by others. One of the results has been a partnership with Driftscape, a mobile app developer that has integrated the Heritage Toronto plaques database into its geo-location app. App users can explore the streets of Toronto and be alerted when they are near any of Heritage Toronto’s plaques. They can access the full text of each plaque and an image of that plaque. This is just one of thousands of examples of public history organizations leveraging digital technologies to further their missions to disseminate historical knowledge to their communities.

How do you understand the role of open access in the twenty-first-century university?

The open-access movement has tremendous potential for reshaping teaching and research at Canadian universities. In many ways, it has already made significant inroads. In the discipline of history, its influence is still nascent and faces some significant pedagogical and scholarly barriers. In teaching, open access offers students two main advantages:
  1. Cost savings
  2. Access
Open access journal articles, textbooks, and other readings for course work can help reduce the cost of education for undergraduate students at Canadian universities. The cost of textbooks is not an insignificant barrier to education for undergraduate students. With rising tuition costs, the use of open access readings can help to partially mitigate the financial burdens students face. Anecdotally, we know that many students forgo the purchase of expensive textbooks and attempt to complete course work without access to the materials they need to succeed. Open access readings can also make reading easier for students. To take an example from my Canadian history survey course, I adopted an open access textbook in 2016. This book can be downloaded in multiple formats and accessed digitally in HTML from any web browser on a desktop PC, laptop PC, smartphone, and tablet computer. Students also have the option to purchase an affordable print-on-demand copy. This flexibility in access is a result of its open access copyright status. Barrier-free access means that students do not need to deal with cumbersome login and authentication systems. They can download and copy the textbook as many times as they want, keeping duplicates on their laptops and their phones. The use of open access readings in teaching, however, raises pedagogical challenges for instructors. When designing a course, when should you choose open access sources over closed sources? Should you exclude a book or article because it is not open? How does this shape the pedagogy of your course design? In research, open access is gradually changing the university for historians. More journals published in Canada are transitioning to open access models. This has largely been driven by the Tri-Council Agencies and their open access policy for journals that use federal publishing subsidies. Some university press publishers are also moving toward open access book publishing. Athabasca University Press and University of Calgary Press stand out as leaders in Canada in open access publishing. The movement toward open access publishing, however, has been slow in Canada and confronts certain limits. For history, many of the leading journals published in Canada have not adopted open access publishing models. Canadian Historical Review, for instance, remains a closed access journal. Open access publishing is a major financial challenge for scholarly publishing. Some publications have adopted a consortium model like the one developed by Érudit and Public Knowledge Project that sees journals and libraries partner in ways that help journals with the financial challenges of transitioning to open access publishing. For historical researchers, open access helps fulfill part of the mission of a public university to create and disseminate knowledge. Historians who receive federal research grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada must now deposit their digital research data in open institutional repositories, such as YorkSpace. This makes research materials accessible in ways that were not possible in the past. It has also encouraged researchers in history to move away from proprietary views of their work. While there has been resistance to these open access mandates from SSHRC, the advantages for researchers at public universities are significant and open new opportunities for scholarly communication. Our open digital repositories make our work accessible to new communities. These include students, of course, but they also include a global community of scholars who previously might not have had access to research findings and data from Canadian university researchers. In my field of Canadian history, the global community that we can now reach via open access policies includes scholars from the global south based at institutions that could not afford subscriptions to our journals as well as researchers from around the world whose institutions would not ordinarily subscribe to Canadian history journals or order Canadian history books. Open access for Canadian history then could fulfill the objectives of disseminating knowledge about Canada around the world that have been part of the mission of Canadian Studies organizations and Canadian governments for the past half century. Finally, open access is creating new opportunities for novel forms of scholarly communication and a revival of scholar-led publishing. The combination of open access research policies and the development of digital institutional repositories is establishing a new independent publishing infrastructure for historical researchers at Canadian universities. For the past couple of years, I have been involved with a team at the Network in Canadian History and Environment to develop a new scholarly research paper series called Papers in Canadian History and Environment. This is a scholar-led, peer reviewed, open access publication developed in partnership with York University Libraries. Using YorkSpace and support from our digital librarians, we have published our first paper. This is potentially a new form of scholarly publishing that retains the strengths of traditional peer-review publications in history while leveraging the advantages of digital and open-access publishing.

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