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?