Part of my day at History Camp was spent in this archive. Longtime readers of Tenured Radical who know about my penchant for trouble making of various kinds may be less aware of my devotion to the more traditional scholarly practices that make up a historian's day: assembling the historiography, figuring out a timeline that can organize a chapter, and sifting through an archive to figure out (to put it in an oversimplified way) "what happened."
While at History Camp I, and historians who spanned an age range of about 35 or 40 years, had some conversations about how much has changed about the nuts and bolts of doing research over the course of our lifetimes. Most of this has to do with digital and other technologies, and some of it only applies to people working on the recent past. Aside from the obvious things -- such as the death of the index card and the typewriter -- here are a few that occurred to us:
1. Cheaper xeroxing. This has had mixed effects. There was a while, starting in the 1980's, where being able to go into an archive to xerox everything you wanted was a great advance (at least for historians of modern periods who had a research budget) over the time when you had to take notes on everything, hope you had gotten it right and that your hands didn't give out, and then go back to the archive -- not just to check citations, but to check the quote and its context. The invention of personal suitcase-sized xerox machines was one solution that a few historians went to early on; then newer, faster office copying machines made duplicating all of your documents and sitting down with them in a more thoughtful way at home a more dominant mode. It made sense economically too, because the money you spent on xeroxing was a fraction of what you might spend on making a second trip or extending the one you were on for a second or third week. But one might make an argument for the possibility of better intellectual practices too. Cheaper xeroxing meant moving through a collection faster, which sounds less thoughtful, unless you take into account the advantages of having a facsimile of the whole document in your hands so that when you sat down to write you could read it all over again, reconsider it, and think it through in relation to the larger body of research. Now, that is changing again. Many archives have made copying more expensive, or limited the pages one can take away, because of heightened awareness of the stress all this activity, by multiple scholars, has on paper collections. Basically, every time a document is touched, picked up, put down, exposed to heat or light, it limits its life to some small degree. Archives are beginning to respond to this by allowing researchers to take pictures of documents with a digital camera, although many prohibit the use of flashes.
2. Wireless internet. Those with unmedicated ADD may be ambivalent about this, since the tendency to check email constantly can slow you down in an archive as it can anywhere else. On the other hand, you can look people up on the web when you don't know who they are, and search the collection you are in from your seat. When you find a reference to an important book, or an article that was in a book, you can log on to ABE, an online used and rare bookseller, see if you can come up with a copy for cheap, and order it immediately. Often, if you are working with ephemera of publications from marginal politics groups (feminists, movement conservatives) you can come up with a good, working copy of a book or mass-distributed pamphlet for a dollar or so, plus postage. And it's cheaper than xeroxing it! Eureka!
3. Email. This speeds up the planning for a research trip immeasurably, as well as facilitating any permissions that may be necessary. Guess what? We used to write archivists actual letters, on paper, which we would put in envelopes, stamp, and put in the post box. Then they would consult finding aids and write back, and so on, and so on. Now you send an email, and they write back -- often the same day, and sending a finding aid by document attachment if it isn't already posted to the web.
Collections that have been scanned and put on line. Need I say more? It hasn't exactly made microfilm obsolete (particularly at cash-poor archives like state and local historical societies, and many universities) but eventually it will, and certainly the capacity to just put documents on your desktop from archival web pages has speeded up the acquisition and the reading of many collections. This is also true of a lot of mass-distributed print culture that is now available on the web. Caveat: one topic of discussion at a history camp breakfast was that searchable data bases for newspapers and magazines often mean that one reads a story completely out of the context. In other words, without the surrounding stories, advertisements and ephemera that a reader would have ordinarily seen while reading the article, you may not have a sense of cultural context, or be able to think more broadly about the interpretive world that these ideas call into being. And this can be true of documents too -- some of the best insights I have had about how a document was understood by the recipient have been from penciled notes in the margins. These tend not to be legible, or even there, depending on how the document was reproduced.
So you would think, given all this, that we would write books faster than we do, wouldn't you? But we don't, because they still haven't figured out a way for digital technologies to reduce the number of committees we are on.