Libraries today are full of books. The Radcliffe Camera in Oxford is a fine example – a beautiful library with space for no fewer than 600,000 books.
Books are the main way in which we understand the past five hundred years or so. We supplement them with art, architecture, and other physical relics (bits of things, bits of people) to create an overall picture of the past.
Studying history, though, basically means reading lots of books – certainly when you’re studying History (with a capital ‘H’) at university, like I did – because it’s in books that previous cultures and societies were recorded best.
And the times, they are a-changing
Clearly that’s not going to be true of our culture or society today.
The ability to create artefacts that in some way record aspects of the current age has been democratised. It’s quick, cheap and easy to create and store material in blogs, on Facebook, on Twitter, on YouTube, on SoundCloud – and that material is likely to be around a good while since digital items should degrade much more slowly than physical ones.
That will have an impact on how our era is studied by the historians of the future. The Radcliffe Camera won’t be as useful for the early twenty-first century as it is for the eighteenth.
What might the study of History look like in the future?
1. Increased scale: There will be a whole lot more material to get through. In 2010, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt said that every two days we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilisation up to 2003. Even if it’s not quite as much as that, that’s an incredible amount of info and it’s only going to get bigger.
2. Fewer books: As described above, a smaller proportion of the information created about our time will be stored in printed books.
3. Language barriers will get smaller: There are numerous web-based tools and apps that translate foreign languages on the fly. Google Translate is going to get better rather than worse, so written texts in other languages will become increasingly accessible, and combining it with something like Siri will open up spoken texts too. The end game here is that studying becomes language-agnostic, since texts in all languages are accessible.
4. Digitisation: As pretty much everything will be digitised (either its original form will be digital, or a digital copy will be made), it should be much easier to access information that might be of interest. Many books and journals currently exist only in paper form, so you need a physical copy in order to reach the information they contain.
5. The role of the librarian will be reinvented and become much more highly-valued: Students of the history of today will need expert sherpas to guide them through the wealth of information available. There’s an interesting parallel here with some of the suggestions on how high street shops (including bookshops) might survive – as locations in which subject-matter expertise can be delivered in person.
6. Standardisation to assist discovery: We may need international standards for meta-tagging, categorising, or otherwise making information searchable. Otherwise even the experts will find navigating a path through it rather tricky.
Those suggestions will do as a starter, but I think this merits further exploration.
The future of History will be very different to its past.