Monday, November 01, 2004


History and technology

Jason has an interesting post on historians and technology, taken from a talk he recently gave at the Digital Library Federation's 2004 Fall Forum. For some responses to the post, see here and here (scroll down).

It's worth thinking about the relationship that historians have with their machines. We tend to take them for granted, even though only a generation ago writing a dissertation necessarily meant wading through a dense wilderness of index cards, correction fluid, and typewriter tape. (Or at least, so I hear.) Now, most of us do our writing on the computer. I've done typing work for a brilliant professor emeritus who still writes all of his books and articles long-hand on college-ruled notebook paper. Having forsworn the use of computers, he occasionally asked me questions about the difference between a "disk" and a "file," or reminded me to go back and re-number the pages of a revised typescript. But he is the exception, rather than the rule. Not only do many historians do their writing on the computer now, an increasing number collect and organize their research using a computer as well.

As Jason points out, this does not mean Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie was exactly right when he said, in 1979, "Tomorrow's historian will have to be able to program a computer in order to survive." One reason he was wrong, according to Jason, is that he did not foresee the now common distinction between content providers and programmers. But Ladurie was also off the mark for two other reasons.

First, he took for granted that the primary impact of computers would be on historians' methods, rather than on their style. Styles themselves have been changed by the word processor, which make it possible to focus on the process of writing. Constant revisions, long footnotes, and multiple drafts are now easier to make. In fact, it is harder now to distinguish "drafts" from one another, since every one draft likely contains within it the traces of hundreds of drafts. This, at least, is my own experience.

Secondly, and more importantly, Ladurie's prediction was based on his roots in the Annales school, which placed a premium on quantitative analysis. There was a time when historians believed, like Ladurie, that historians would have to program computers because they would have to become proficient counters and statisticians. Many a cultural and intellectual historian quaked in his boots in that day, I can tell you. But lo, and behold, there was a cultural turn, and beyond. The subsequent historiographical interest in "texts" made Ladurie's projection seem premature.

That's not to say that the digital revolution has not affected historical methods for cultural and intellectual historians like myself. In many ways, I think the increasing availability of primary sources online still might revolutionize the kinds of historical questions we can ask, even if we are primarily interested in asking questions about texts. It is significant that American historians, whether professionals or not, now have access to a wide variety of full-image or full-text sources through gateways like the American Memory project at the Library of Congress, the Making of America collection at Michigan, and the extensive digital holdings at Cornell University, not to mention subscription-based services like ProQuest. If typewriters are now virtually extinct, microfilm machines are becoming endangered, thanks to the migration of important microfilm collections like the American Periodical Series and Early American Imprints into cyberspace.

The appearance of such collections online goes hand in hand with recent calls to "internationalize" the American history profession. They make it possible for historians to do research in "distant" archives without having to travel there themselves. A friend of mine who now teaches in Canada is working on an exciting project about early national Philadelphia, which literally would not be possible for him if sources were not online. If Akira Iriye is right that one explanation for exceptionalism in American history is the long hegemony of "uni-archival" research, then the Internet can help change that. (See his essay in this volume, which I've also commented on here.) One of the abolitionists I study, Maria Weston Chapman, aptly noted in 1848 that "'Our country right or wrong' is very apt to be the war-cry of those who have seen no country but their own." Likewise, the cris de coeur of historians are likely to change once they are able to see archives other than those in their own countries. (I don't want to be taken for a technological determinist here, however. It's telling that all of the online collections I've listed above relate to my own field and are based in my own country, and I'm much less familiar with international collections. The presence of international archives online does not guarantee nation-centered historians will seek them out.)

But there is a larger significance to these online collections. Many of them make possible "full-text" searches of obscure printed ephemera, periodicals, and books. That means you can run Boolean searches on texts in ways that were simply never possible to historians before computers. Let me give you one example. In doing research for my dissertation, I have had reason to think about how abolitionists and other nineteenth-century Americans thought about the effects of transportation technology on their perception of the world. The ascendancy of reliable transatlantic steamships in the middle of the nineteenth century led many to speculate figuratively about the shrinking size of the earth. While paging through many paeans to the steamship's speed, I began to notice that many commentators used the same trope over and over again: they said that steam had "annihilated" space and time.

Google allowed me to quickly discover that this was an allusion to a poem by Alexander Pope. That's already one virtue of online searching; sooner or later, by reading more and more texts, I would have discovered the Pope allusion. But the very nature of an allusion is that writers do not directly attribute the source, which means that this might have taken some time. Plus, had I not discovered early on that there was an Ur-text for all these "annihilation" metaphors, I would not have known to notice them. In order to discover this allusion, in other words, I would have had to possess already the arcane knowledge of Pope's quote. And even if I had been vaguely aware of the quote, ordinary reference works would have made it difficult to confirm the source. I would have had to know to look up "Pope, Alexander" in a quotation dictionary, for instance.

I was mildly curious about the prevalence of this illusion, in part because many globalization theorists use the same kind of language -- the "annihilation" of "time-space distanciation" -- to describe how transportation technology in the late twentieth century has "globalized" the world. Perhaps an air of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century romanticism and poesy remains in such pronouncements. At any rate, I was able to indulge my curiosity about this phrase by doing several Boolean searches in online collections like the ones I listed above. I could search for the word "annihilation" (or even variants, by searching for "annihilat*") NEAR words like "space" and "time." I could search for the exact phrase "annihilate space and time." And I could further refine my search by throwing in terms like "steam." These kinds of searches turned up a wealth of examples of the allusion being used in regard to steamships and related technological shifts like the telegraph. What's more, they turned up hits in otherwise obscure periodicals -- for which there are sometimes only a few issues extant -- that I never would have sought out on my own. This is one way in which online sources actually makes it possible to come up with research strategies that were not possible in the past.

But I will stop short of making a projection similar to Ladurie's. I don't think that tomorrow's historian will have to know Boolean in order to survive. In fact, I think a dose of quantitative history may be needed now in order to keep us honest about our methods and our sources. There is a sense in which online searching can be misleading for the historian, just as online searching in Google can be misleading for the everyday seeker of information. When your search term yields hundreds or thousands of hits, it is tempting to take that as prima facie evidence that your subject is significant or that your terms are representative. It helps to remember that Google only covers a small fraction of the total Internet, because so much of the Web is "invisible" to search engine spiders. Likewise, online databases of historical sources are just the tip of the archival iceberg, and one should always take a large number of hits in a database with a grain of salt. For instance, after happily using Cornell's Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Collection for some months, I started to notice gaping holes in its coverage. When I emailed a librarian to ask how much of the print collection was online, the answer was that only about 1 percent of the library's holdings had been scanned, even though that figure does not appear prominently on the website. Take that as a word to the wise.

Collective Improvisation:
Even in the three years I've been doing my PhD the amount of material that's come online has been incredible. I really envy the people studying in ten year's time. I bet they'll look back on our time as archaic. I wonder how it will change our research when everything is online. I was talking to someone a while back who predicted that the sort of research we were both engaged in (hard fact collecting) would be made redundant by it.

Posted by Blogger chlgeorge on 11/13/2004 11:07:00 AM : Permalink  

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