Dec. 3-9, 1999

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Technology taking history into the 21st century

Stephanie Gross
Standing in front of Monticello are organizers of the "History and New Technologies in the 21st Century"conference, held at the nearby Kenwood estate last month. Left to right are: William Thomas, director of U.Va.'s Virginia Center for Digital History; Holly Shulman, of U.Va.; Jim Horn, from the International Center for Jefferson Studies; and Worthy Martin, U.Va. associate professor of computer science. Superimposed on the laptop computer screen is a letter-copying device, called a polygraph, which Jefferson acquired in 1804. U.Va.'s founder declared it "the finest invention of the present age."

By Charlotte Crystal

Information technology opens new paths for research into early American history, but it also has intro- duced issues that are yet to be resolved, according to participants at a conference in Charlottesville last month.

The meeting, which included 40 leading historians of the early American republic, was organized by members of Monticello's International Center for Jefferson Studies and three U.Va. entities: the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, Studies of Women and Gender program, and the Virginia Center for Digital History.

"This conference was the first-ever meeting of its kind to be held by historians," said Holly Shulman, research associate professor and a Dolley Madison scholar at U.Va. who was one of the organizers. "Changes won't take place overnight, but I have high hopes for the outcome."

Many history professors already incorporate new technologies into their teaching in many ways -- such as using e-mail to hold virtual office hours, accept assignments or post reserve reading on the Web.

Beyond those functions, research capabilities are expanding as more and more information is digitized and made available on the Internet. Data storage and data mining techniques create new possibilities for researchers to gather huge quantities of data and analyze them in new ways. Electronic publication opportunities also have expanded dramatically.

"Thomas Jefferson would have been fascinated by the Internet," said Jim Horn, Saunders Director of the International Center for Jefferson Studies. "Its global reach, speed, interconnectivity and potential for communication and education would have kept him at his writing desk for long hours."

Participants explored such issues as:

  • the question of "gate keeping" and how peer-reviewed journals could, or whether they should, retain control of professional standards;
  • the changing nature of "publications" from books and articles to multi-layered documents online that use hypertext connections;
  • the issue of finality in a medium that allows editing and updating virtually forever;
  • the ease of collaborating with other authors and new opportunities for interdisciplinary projects;
  • new relationships between authors and readers in a medium that allows for interactivity;
  • the importance of archives' structures, their maintenance and their ability to be searched over time as technology changes; and
  • the likelihood of an evolving role for historians as primary documents become accessible to almost anyone over the Web.

Conference organizers intend to keep in touch with participants and other historians interested in exploring the new capabilities that information technology offers. Their efforts will include a web site devoted to Jefferson studies and the early national period, sponsored by the International Center for Jefferson Studies, which will be developed in collaboration with the Virginia Center for Digital History and the U.Va. Electronic Text Center.

Conference discussions also will be summarized in an upcoming edition of the American Historical Association's journal, Perspectives.

See the conference web site at


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