Digital history and the archives: loss or gain?

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?

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4 Responses to Digital history and the archives: loss or gain?

  1. Being in China, the digital academic archives I have access to (through a major university) are a boon. But I think it actually makes me more sensitive to the missing pieces rather than forget them. Online materials constantly point me to offline sources, constantly dangling goodies before me I can only get to physically, not digitally.

    There’s other reasons I don’t see what the point of the article is. For example, as digital archives grow and allow more amateur and serious scholars to do research, the more I believe they’ll be drawn into the obscure corners where little attention has been paid, naturally leading them to offline sources. Meanwhile, easier access to major works on a given topic will help them to find those nooks and crannies in the first place.

    Also, if someone is seriously looking at Steinbeck, as the article begins, how could they not visit Salinas, his birthplace, to see what lingers, especially since online sources open the playing field to more competition?

    The only message in the article that seems of any merit is the complaint that there isn’t enough money for these institutions. There never was, and there never will be. Such is the fate of the archivist – their work is never done.

  2. Claire says:

    Digitization is definitely a benefit to scholarship. I had to shape my research around what I had the financial resources to do, having more information available online would have opened up a whole world of knowledge.

    For everyone who simply can’t afford to take the time off work to visit archives, digitization is a wonder. Maybe some people will research things in a different way, as they spare 20 minutes from their lunch break every day. I don’t know what kind of research that will produce, but the internet makes it possible.

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  4. peacay says:

    It’s a gain certainly.

    Amateur researchers (moi!) have a great wealth of material at their disposal that they wouldn’t have dreamt of tracking down without the aid of the digitised format. That information may flow through to a larger audience by way of blog publishing for instance — historically important (!?) material on the internet (may) gets seen which in turn may pique curiosity for a student’s future vocation or a homebody’s burgeoning interest in some obscure topic — the very same people who may go out and find useful material, digitise it and upload it or advocate for same within their local or professional community. So in the broader picture I sense there is only gain.

    [I think that the argument that there is a skewing of the story because of the priority of digitisation is only important in the amateur arena when the material present is somehow contradictory to the overall historical picture. Case by case in other words. And anyone who develops a serious interest in a niche subject will soon learn of the deficiencies in the web stock – as davesgonechina intimates]

    I suppose the idea of funding pressures curbing academic research offline is a worry to the extent that it succeeds. It seems to me that it is probably less of a general concern and more of an individual and/or institutional (potential) problem; but as you say, a serious researcher must track down the obscure material within their field, otherwise their research output will suffer and this itself will militate against narrowing the focus to online material, surely?

    Thanks. Interesting food for thought.

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