The digital revolution has transformed nearly every facet of society, including our shared historical record. Increasing amounts of documents and record collections in archives, legal repositories and public information stores are ‘born-digital’, as is the vast trove of information created each day from social media. Yet even though such digital-born information is now integral to our cultural heritage, few scholars wield the skills necessary to carry out detailed analysis, and to draw relevant conclusions from the digital world with suitable integrity and accuracy. The Horizon 2020-funded DFitHH project, undertaken with the support of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie programme, explored the potential role of digital forensic methods for humanities research. Digital forensics is one branch of forensic science relating to the establishment of facts in the digital realm. The project uncovered what historians can learn from using these methods with born-digital records, and even how these new techniques affect scholars’ understanding of terms such as text, document and records. It also showed how archivists should preserve records in order to allow such research to take place in the future. “It is incredible how much historians can learn from the materiality of born-digital records, provided archives preserved and processed them in a way that enables this kind of research,” says Thorsten Ries, a literary researcher at Ghent University.
A forensic approach
The project used three born-digital archives as case studies: the personal digital archives of novelist, playwright and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi, technology journalist Glyn Moody, and the Mass Observation Project Archive. “The work with the archives resulted in awareness and advice for future improvement of archival workflows, tools and standards,” says Ries. The project was also motivated by the need to make born-digital records immutable, given how endangered digital records and formats are: “I was surprised to learn hands-on how fragile or even endangered born-digital historical records may be that are stored on present-day digital storage, especially in forensic terms,” says Ries.
“It was exciting to work with the archives and investigate types of historical file formats never analysed forensically before, types of forensic traces I rarely, if ever considered, including timestamp granularity, and the role of what seems to be data garbage in digital files,” Ries adds. Historical digital forensic knowledge has an impact on present discourse as well. “Being able to verify and critically appraise born-digital historical records and assess their credibility is vital to historical scholarship. And this ability is important to our democratic discourse already today, as it ensures accountability and reliability of the historical record in the future”, says Ries. Developing a successful cooperative relationship with his supervisor and collaborators at the Sussex Humanities Lab (SHL) was a very important experience for the researcher. “Both myself and the project greatly benefited from the cooperation, the team spirit and the supportive, open and inspiring scholarly atmosphere that makes SHL a great place to work at. And I hope I gave something back that made it even a little bit more excellent,” Ries concludes.
DFitHH, digital forensics, historical, record, documents, scholars, framework