History students increasingly turn to the Internet to find textual primary sources to quote in their essays. Those digitised sources take many forms, with the digitiser deciding which attributes of the original were most important to capture in the virtual environment. Some decide to photograph the original; others opt for a transcription; others still choose to structure elements in the text. No matter the approach, students will tend to think of the digitised copy as good enough to use, because their use almost invariably is to quote what they read. Students rarely pause to consider how the decisions of digitisers affect the types of historical conclusions we can pursue.
This paper reflects on a class assignment at the University of Hertfordshire that challenged history students to open up new research possibilities by re-curating and re-imagining that which had already been digitised. This assignment is an alternative to the traditional essay and instead asks students to view the digital archive as something that can be constantly revised. They reorganise, correct, categorise, link, and mark-up already-digitised records to ‘add value’ and build something that is more than both the original and the digitised copy. This paper discusses two iterations of this project in which students added value to the Alumni Oxonienses, 1500-1714 originally digitised by British History Online, and the Chelsea Hospital Examinations, 1800-1815, digitised by The National Archives.
Students were given direction in what is possible in a digital environment, but what value they choose to add was entirely up to them, resulting in diverse and creative new datasets that open up new possibilities for historical research. The new datasets are remarkably high quality examples of scholarship far beyond what we tend to ask of undergraduates. Thus they become co-creators in our pursuit of historical knowledge, challenging the master-apprentice model of higher education.