Digitization and its implication for research

At a recent (sadly unsuccessful) job interview I attended, an interesting question was put to me about the rapid digitization of archival manuscripts. Given the technologies now available, it was suggested, why do we still need to spend precious money in storing a lot of rotting old papers?

We now live in an age of massive expansion in terms of the types, volumes and quality of archival documents online. I often wonder how my forebears managed to submit MA and PhD theses in manually typed form, knowing the arduous process that even editing in electronic format can involve. But the genie is now very definitely out of the bottle and it is completely conceivable nowadays to write an entire article, if not even a book, based on primary source material, without ever once having to leave the comfort of your own home. If we think in terms of even the last twenty years, then this is a massive step.

As an example, I’ve just finished and submitted an article on the history of shaving in the eighteenth century, and its role in relation to politeness and masculinity. Were I to have attempted this in, say, 1992, lengthy trips to the British Museum would have been involved, as would days spent manually trawling through their newspaper archive. Now, I can not only see the pages of the papers to a level of high detail, but can search their contents by keyword. The database software, while not always perfect, has pretty much done the job better than I could have, and in a fraction of the time, and minus the travel costs.

But does all this digitized content have qualitative implications for the ways that historians conduct their research. I think this is an interesting question. In many ways I’m a traditionalist in terms of actually seeing the original documents. There is something (sad as I am) about the sight, touch and even smell of seventeenth-century documents that is familiar and reassuring.

But, more seriously, there are certainly methodological implications raised by digital documents. Even simple things like the size of a manuscript can be important, as can its size and even feel, that a digital document cannot replicate. Thinking about a recent article I wrote on recipe collections, I was able to identify the origins of the paper used in a particular Welsh document through the watermark on its paper; no digitized document – at least as far as I know – currently allows for this level of detail, but without it, this important point would have been missed.

The serious point is this. Digitizing is fantastic in terms of widening access to documents for everyone, and certainly not just academics. It allows people who might never have visited – or ever intend to visit – a record office, and in many ways is better for the survival of these often rare and fragile things.

But even the basic examples I’ve mentioned here should alert us to the dangers of abandoning MSS althogether. While technology is a tool, a useful adjunct and undoubtedly a friend to the researcher, I think there is still a strong need to study documents in the form they were originally created in, to fully grasp and understand them.

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