It’s the little things

By Kevin O’Sullivan

It was around this time last week. I was sitting at a desk in the OECD archives in Paris while the librarian showed me how to use Powerfilm, an unimaginably useful software programme that prints images from microfiche directly to pdf for the reader to take away and read at his/her leisure. Let me pause and run that by you again. Documents in the OECD are stored on microfiche, microfilm, or, in the case of more recent material, on pdf, so all that’s needed is to find the pages you want, click, save to a memory stick, and continue on your way. That means no paper print-outs, no photocopying costs, no hoping your digital photographs have come out ok when you get home, no more multiple packets of AA batteries for the same.

I know what you’re thinking: brilliant, and why can’t we have one of those. Yet in the midst of my stunned elation at saving time spent indoors when it was 24 degrees and, well, Paris outside, it did sow the germ of a question for this post: just how much has technology changed the way history is researched and written in the last two decades?

The simple answer – that nothing has really changed at all – is undeniably compelling. The most striking outcome of our recent Blogging the Humanities conference was how close that medium is to a more distant age of pamphleteering, fanzine-writing and myriad forms of do-it-yourself publishing. Those similarities can be extended to other forms of modern technology. I wrote this piece in three parts – on the Paris metro, an Air France flight to Dublin and a train to Cork – using Simplenote, a smart note-taking app that links noodlings on my iPod with my laptop via a web-based account. Useful, but Simplenote is arguably little different, and less battery-draining, from the more traditional model of small notebook, pen, and legible hand-writing.

Yet there’s no denying that history writing, and, in more general terms, access to history, have been radically altered by advances in digital technology. And it’s not just Powerfilm, the wholesale adoption of digital photography as an alternative to two months tied to a desk in a foreign archive, or the contribution of digital projects like the Irish Census, the 1641 Depositions project, or Documents on Irish Foreign Policy online, that are at the heart of that shift. It’s the programmes, applications and apps that have quickly come to dominate our research methods. It has become difficult for a generation to imagine work without MS Word, Excel, Acrobat, or database programmes like Access, Filemaker or Bento. Instead of an ‘irreplaceable if lost’ card system, materials can be divided and replicated at ease, backed up and recalled with speed. Instead of carrying sheaves of paper, we use apps like Instapaper and Goodreader, sites like Drop-box, or use memory sticks and ever-larger external hard drives. Instead of trawling through illegible notes, a search of Google Scholar, Spotlight or Windows will bring the answer to ‘where did I see that elusive quote’ in seconds.

With progress, however, comes a new set of questions. The speed with which I made my way through materials in the OECD made me wonder if our dependence on modern technology had actually made us lazier in our methods. If we possess – or can easily possess at the click of a mouse – digital copies of the documents and articles we require, does it discourage us from ever reading or, more problematically, knowing our materials fully? Are scanning and JSTOR the new photocopying (i.e. I have a copy of it, so I must know the information therein)? Do we take too many or too little notes? Is there a risk that with all our materials we find it increasingly difficult to articulate the broader argument, to see the woods for the digital trees? Do we write too much, or too thoughtlessly, knowing that material for a chapter, article or conference paper can always be deleted, edited and moved around? And, finally, what effect does that trendy question have on historians and students: is modern technology destroying our ability to concentrate? Or was it always thus?

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11 Responses to “It’s the little things”

  1. puesoccurrences Says:

    I think you have highlighted a really important point- I would agree that in many respects technology has made us lazier and has even narrowed our research horizons but its such a trade off it’s hard to call.

    I think most people have become reliant on the quick search methods which Store and Eighteenth Century Catalogue Online and other tools that databases offer ( and the not always reliable for their word search). It tends to be the history on the fringe of most projects which suffers. The vast majority would baulk at the idea of doing a quick search to locate material that affects their main theme but if its a sideline investigation and not as important to the central argument its quick and people undertake it.

    I think that’s where we suffer. Its just too tempting to take the short route. That said- could you give up the access you have to thousands of pamphlets on ECCO that you would never have had because you couldn’t travel to Philadelphia? Or that one pamphlet that you stumbled upon but never knew existed when you started your research? I don’t think I could!

    Great piece Kevin!


    • puesoccurrences Says:

      Thanks Lisa, and I’m agreed with you about the trade-offs of technology. The problem at times with search engines is what you miss, rather than what you see. Yet on the other hand the access to material, like ECCO, etc, is absolutely invaluable. Where problems arise are with incomplete archives. To give an example: when I was searching the Irish Newspaper Archive recently for material in the Irish Independent, I worked from a list of dates that corresponded to particular events that occurred over a long period of time. What struck me most was that by going through that archive date-by-date, I could see the big gaps where there were no scans of the newspaper at all – something that would seriously undermine the use of a general wordsearch for that period, since all that it would return would be ‘no hits’ rather than an explanation as to why there were no hits – i.e. nothing to hit.


  2. puesoccurrences Says:

    I have used the Irish Newspaper Archive myself for the Freeman’s Journal and I will have to say I have found the exact same thing. It is not reliable at all for word searches but invaluable to have online. There is a suspicion that people are becoming reliant on the Freeman’s Journal because it is online but it is incredibly biased in its reports particularly when it becomes a government organ in the later eighteenth century. I suppose that as more material becomes available online that the sources will balance out- the Burney Collection being a good example in the case of Newspapers- which I used on microfilm prior to it’s digitisation and found a wealth of material that I think I would have missed if I had used it online for the material I was originally seeking.


  3. Fintan Hoey Says:

    Good piece Kevin. I’ve found a huge change over a relatively short space of time. When I did my Master’s (2001-02) research in the PRO I trawled through the files, taking notes and marking selected documents for photocopying. Now (in the U.S. National Archives) I barely have time to look at the document and snap away with my digital camera if it looks even vaguely interesting. The result being I actually do the ‘archival’ work at home looking at a computer screen and assessing the documents’ value.

    This change is not limited to historians and researchers, I once found myself at a dinner sitting next to a documentary film maker who said that in the ‘old days’ (i.e. up to about 2004) they had to be so careful of what they filmed so as not to use up expensive film stock. Now they can shoot anything and it’s stored digitally, the result being they have much more to do in the editing suite.

    In both cases then an embarrassment of riches. The challenge is, as you say, to avoid falling into the old trap of thinking that possession means understanding.

  4. puesoccurrences Says:

    Fintan, you’ve hit on two significant things here I think: ‘archival’ work has largely shifted in location, from on-site work to reading in the office, home library or simply at home. I feel that we’re probably losing something there in terms of being more immersed in a foreign research environment and meeting fellow-researchers trawling through similar materials, but the pay-off of course is that it massively increases our access to a much wider range of materials. Which then brings the argument to your second, and probably most important, point: ‘to avoid falling into the trap of thinking that possession means understanding’. We need to be careful that we don’t lose the *feel* for the materials – literally and figuratively: their position in a file and the state of the page (unread since, or consistently referred to and dog-eared?) can be centrally important.


  5. Frank Says:

    While I agree with what is being said about the unreliability of online newspaper archives, I have really enjoyed going through the Irish Newspapers archive and Irish Times Digital archive. As with ordinary paper research, you find a news story and while reading the story you scan the page and come across something else of interest, though not necessarily for the article you are currently researching. One of the difficulties with online newspaper archives is when you try to print the page, it doesn’t tend to print as economically or as well as microfilm reader printers do. That said, it is wonderful to have access to original documents in the National archives and other institutions as you really get a sense of the item when you can see and feel it.

  6. Ida Says:

    Kevin, a very provocative article eloquently articulating what many of us are finding. I too have become a shutter-happy researcher. Lisa, all newspapers have bias -every story is spun in some way – and I find the Freeman’s Journal bias from the era you are talking about intriguing rather than limiting. There is a marvellous account of a clergyman in Gorey who was pitchcapped during 1798, the FJ bemoaning his treatment; a ’98 local historian I mentioned it to said “He was an awful blaggard.” On the issue of newspaper archives and what they contain and don’t, it is important to remember that, aside from gaps, there were also several editions of most newspapers,sometimes presenting stories in a different way for different readerships, but usually only one will have been preserved on microfilm.

  7. Brian Hanley Says:

    A few things spring to mind: having to take notes in an archive or library concentrates the mind in the way that ordering tonnes of photocopies or snapping away doesn’t. In the past the cost of photocopying archival material was also a big factor. (I have to bring all that stuff to a library to study it anyway as I find I can’t read it as thoroughly at home.) If you are looking for something quickly you may get lucky with a search on a newspaper archive on-line but you often miss a feel for the period if you don’t see what else is in the paper- the ads, the cinema listings, the fashions, the sport, the comment pieces etc. I would still recommend trawling through the microfilm or hardcopy if possible.

  8. Frank Says:

    Both the Irish Newspapers Archive and Irish Times Digital Archive have a page image option when you are reading an article so that you can see the article in its full page context if you so wish. Indeed the full page paper image can be scanned much easier in its digital format than in its microfilm equivalent. Also, unlike the microfilm reader, the digital image can be greatly increased in size from the original.

  9. Pue’s recommendations for October « Pue's Occurrences Says:

    […] This month I want to draw attention to a few new or newish digital resources, especially given Kevin’s post of last week. Trinity College Dublin’s library has a new electronic catalogue for archives […]

  10. perkinsy Says:

    I am late reading this post because I have just finished my honours thesis. In the acknowledgements I expressed my gratitude to the National Library of Australia (NLA) for their digitisation project. My topic has been addressed by a few PhD and Masters students in the past, but they were searching on microfilm. The key word search seems to work very well on the NLA site and I found heaps of relevant articles that gave wonderful insight on the issue. Most of these articles had been missed by prior researchers because they were published outside the times the issue was debated in parliament – the index to the parliamentary debates being used in the past as a guide to which issues of newspapers to review. The result was I was able to do much deeper analysis of the issue simply because the time taken in searching for relevant articles was far less and the search was much more comprehensive.

    However, I agree that it can make researchers lazy. Generally only one newspaper per city has been digitised so far and this is generally a conservative newspaper. I still had to spend hours in front of the microfilm reading labour-leaning newspapers and regional newspapers.

    With any technology laziness can creep in but I don’t think it will be too much of a problem judging from these posts. Most people would be aware of the issues and if they are not I am sure that others will very quickly point out the defects in the research.

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