The Emmet’s Inch: Small history in a digital age

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Digitization has usually been considered a facilitator of what has been called “big” history. While digital history projects increasingly make good and sensitive use of individual and granular records and use them to bring human complexity into a larger analysis, the digitization of published material and archives have mostly been discussed by historians in aggregate: they are valued chiefly for their ability to give us “big data” about phenomena in the past. Yet for those interested in questions and methodologies of microhistory, biographical history, history from below, and other kinds of what we might call “small” history, the digitization of archives and individual records is an equally transformative development. This article will examine the way that digitization has changed how historians discover, concatenate, and communicate small stories in their narratives and arguments. I will consider the practice and the ethics of telling and digitizing individual histories, and I will suggest some different ways of dealing with the new boundaries—and boundlessness—that the “mass digitized turn” throws up, particularly for historians working in the period after 1800. Finally, amidst an increased emphasis on digitization and big data in the field of history, I want to assert the continuing power of all kinds of small histories to explain the past and to connect it to our present, and ourselves.




Laite, J. (2020, June 1). The Emmet’s Inch: Small history in a digital age. Journal of Social History. Oxford University Press.

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