The NYT has an interesting article on progress in digitisation of historical sources, and the gaps being left behind (reg. required) (h-t).
It contains an argument, though, that I have some nagging doubts about: that, as more sources are digitised, those which remain available only in the archives will be more neglected than they were before.
Even with outside help, experts say, entire swaths of political and cultural history are in danger of being forgotten by new generations of amateur researchers and serious scholars. …
While the Internet boom has made information more accessible and widespread than ever, that very ubiquity also threatens records and artifacts that do not easily lend themselves to digitization — because of cost, but also because Web surfers and more devoted data hounds simply find it easier to go online than to travel far and wide to see tangible artifacts.
“This is the great problem right now, and it’s a scary thing,” said the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. “The dots are only connected by a few of us who are willing to go to the places to make those connections.”
But only a few of us ever were willing or able to go out there in the first place. Archival research has always been a minority pursuit, given the commitment and resources (including time) it demands. For most sane people, there must be more appealing pursuits.
Is it really the case, though, that the minority will be even smaller in the future because some research can be done without leaving one’s desk? Or is digital history creating large numbers of new researchers who, even if what they’re doing is limited by what’s available online, would never have even contemplated visiting archives or record offices to look at original documents?
I can imagine scenarios in which academics and postgrad students make decisions to restrict research projects (largely) to what they can do at their computer, where they might previously have unwillingly endured research trips. (Though I do find it harder to imagine any historian building a serious academic career entirely based on digital sources.) On the other hand, I can imagine how digital sources are likely to open up new possibilities for scholars whose options were previously narrowly circumscribed by their circumstances, lack of material resources, other personal and professional obligations.
[ETA: Writing that reminded me of something I'd read about Natalie Zemon Davis. The confiscation of your passport (as a suspected Communist) is undoubtedly a more unusual restriction on research travel, although she also faced more familiar problems; the way in which she subsequently made a virtue out of necessity is also well worth reading.]
I can imagine how the priorities of digitisation projects are likely to reinforce the emphasis of much popular history. At the same time, not all digital sources are records of the Great and Good. Far from it. There are now vast swathes of online sources about ordinary people, records which would previously have been accessible only to the
chosen crazy dedicated few.
Loss or gain?