The following paragraphs are excerpted from a paper I gave on 22 March 2013, entitled “What’s it all about, Alfie?: conducting research in a digital age – Sensuality, Serendipity, and Sources.” The paper was part of the Women’s History in a Digital World conference held at Bryn Mawr College under the auspices of the Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education. This material must be cited and may not be reproduced without my permission.
There is something about the smell of dust in the archives that represents research. Learning to negotiate the physical space of the archives is a rite of passage for historians and remains an essential part of “what we do.” I am sure that all of us remember our early experiences doing archival research–the mysterious soft lighting, the smell of old paper, the gloves required to examine photographs, and yes, the dust of elderly pages– all of our senses engaged in the process of research. There is a certain sensual allure to the archives and we can hardly deny the attractions of archival research.
Yet there are negative features as well–the distances we must travel to access materials and the costs of getting there, the restrictions that must be imposed on handling rare materials, not having the requisite pencil for note taking, the inaccessibility of key sources, the limited hours. All of obstacles to research frustrate the historian, and the increasing availability of digital collections certainly helps to reduce some of the challenges inherent in research. Does utility trump sensuality? Does working with digital sources change the way we interact with them?
The ability to find, to record, to access, to connect, to explore massive numbers and kinds of sources has changed the way we practice history. Digital projects make women’s stories accessible to those who would never have had the reason or resources to work in an archive. As we embrace the richness and range of what is available to us, we need to think carefully about how and whether access to digital archives and other sources will change the way we practice history and how we need to refine our skills and training to use such sources appropriately and effectively.
One aspect of research that may be lost with increasing reliance on digital archives is the sense of serendipity and discovery as one works diligently through a box of folders. Not knowing what is there and what may be found is part of the allure of archival research. The box next to the one that looked so promising may actually yield better results. Consider for a moment the changes emerging technologies have made in how we access a source as simple as a letter. Initially, transcripts of letters were published online, providing access to the text, but simultaneously losing some of the historical sense of the letter – what the writing looked like, how this particular letter related to others in the archive. Scanning technologies provide us with the actual appearance of the letter and the 3-D imaging that is now available augments that interaction. Despite technological innovations, we are still distant from the actual source, leading to a different kind of intimacy with our materials. We look at the same object, but do we do so in the same way? The result may be similar in the way that we write about the letter, but is the experience of doing research the same . . . and does that matter?
As historians, especially as historians of women, we try to shine a light on the past and discover what we can about those who lived it. Digital technologies offer many advantages as we pursue our craft, but we need to reflect on how changing practices influence and shape how we work as historians.