Saturday, June 28, 2008

Bulletin From the Archives

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.


Susan said...

Yes, well also all these great advances don't make us think more quickly. We still have to READ it all. . .

Pete Jones said...

Hmm, I wonder if the pace of publishing has changed at all in the past 20 years?

anthony grafton said...

Dear Radical,

As ever, a useful and witty post. In the smaller archives where I work, the digital camera is fast replacing photo and xerox orders--less so in the big libraries, which seem slower to allow its use. My guess is that in a few years, it will be ubiquitous, and we'll have trouble explaining to our deans why we need so much time in the archives.

On David Abraham: a shame to have quote a piece from the Institute for Historical Review. Wikipedia describes the Institute as "an American Holocaust denial organization that describes itself as a 'public-interest educational, research and publishing center dedicated to promoting greater public awareness of history.' Critics have accused it of being an antisemitic 'pseudo-academic body' with links to neo-Nazi organizations, and assert that its primary focus is denying key facts of Nazism and the genocide of Jews and others. It has been described as the 'world's leading Holocaust denial organization. IHR published the non-peer-reviewed Journal of Historical Review." I hate to see them get any traffic from a site I love and respect.

Tenured Radical said...

Dear Tony,

Well, re. the Abraham link -- yikes. Consider it removed, since what I remember from the time seems to be true -- there is no discussion of this incident that isn't partisan in some way. Reflecting back, it seems like this incident was a kind of miner's canary of going after scholars in overwhelming ways, either for entirely political reasons where there was no error, or where there was error, and the scholar should have been asked to make corrections (as I believe Professor Abraham did, but his career as a historian -- though not as an intellectual -- was over at that point) without vicious accusations accompanying that request.

What I was trying to do with the link was point to the perils of not re-checking one's notes against the sources, and I'm afraid I didn't read it carefully. My memory was that Professor Abraham admitted he had erred in hasty note taking, thus losing accuracy *and* context in the process and making the work vulnerable to a partisan attack.

Which leads us to another feature of the digital age: which websites are reliable and which are not? And are we (I) used to moving so fast that we (I) sometimes miss something we (I) would have evaluated better at a slower pace?



anthony grafton said...

Dear Tr,

It's true: I couldn't offer an absolutely solid citation in place of the one you had, or I would have done so. And on the main point you're right, no question: this was an ugly case and the beginning of a long series of similar campaigns, and if the archival research had been better, the whole story would have been different.

All best,


Belle said...

Surely signs of the changes you note; last year I went to work in French archives. Sent an inquiry email on access (restricted re: security issues) and had a semi-immediate response. From a French archivist! Not only did they identify me quickly, they issued a new authorization that same day. No big hassle (in French archives?!) to get renewed permission.

Imagine my delight when I discovered that the archives themselves - full dossiers - are now available on DVD. Of course, now justifying a month in Paris is harder to do...

Anonymous said...

Hello Tenured Radical,
A very interesting post (and a reminder to sign myself up for history camp-ing sometime). I'd love to see this as a longer conversation, though.

What do you make, for example, of the perceived "marketability" of historical documents? While a wider crew of scholars can now purchase materials online (ebay as archive?), more potential donors now see their papers or family memorabilia as needing to be purchased rather than given to a local, public archive. How does this affect what we can find?

I've also had some interesting situations with larger archives on permissions. Collections donated in the early 20th C, with open access, have introduced requirements about the researcher finding the literary descendants and obtaining permission. Does the great -grand-daughter of the person who typed the notes for an organization have the right of ownership to the papers of the organization?

On changes in publishing, Anthony Grafton and Robert Townsend's article in The Chronicle of Higher Education ("Historians' Rocky Job Market," July 11, 2008), suggest a much more variable situation for access to time to acquire, read, think about, and write up archival materials than just university committees.