I don’t know what I was thinking, really. I had $5000 burning in my pocket, waiting to be spent on French war archive documents. For some reason I was assuming that French archives wanted to take my money. Yeah, right.
If you’ve ever ordered archival copies before (my experience is limited to English, French, Dutch and American institutions), you know that it usually takes at least a few weeks for a response, and probably one to three months for the whole process, depending on the size of your order, holidays, etc. The catch for me this year was that in order to receive reimbursement, the funds had to be spent before the end of June – fiscal year budget and all that. If you order too late, you end up footing the bill yourself – a dangerous game to be sure. The French archive’s website was down (hacked) for a month or more and I was busy with conferences and due dates, so I didn’t make the online order until mid-April. Needless to say, I’m not ordering the dozen-plus microfilm reels that I’d hoped.
Two lessons for me, and anyone else who needs a reminder:
- If you have a time-sensitive grant, start the process really, really, really early. Even if you’re really, really busy with other things.
- Realize that some “modern” archives aren’t quite that modern. This could mean: a) they may not have modern facilities that allow them to process large orders, even if they’ve done so in the past; or b) they may not have the staff to fulfill such orders in a short period of time, and if it can’t be done quickly it isn’t worth doing at all. (Side question: Don’t they have those machines that will automatically scan microfilm as image files?) Other possibilities are more ‘meta’, but not beyond belief: c) they may not want to diminish their patrimoine by allowing lots of documents (even copies) out of their possession; d) they may not have a capitalist desire to make money, especially if it requires more work for the staff; e) such requests might require personal contacts; f) they may not have the consumerist mindset of customer service being job one; or g) they may have other reasons for discouraging long-distance ordering.
Which reason best explains why I can’t order the microfilm? That’s another lesson: don’t assume you can find out. The letter I received (a snail mail communication written two weeks after my request and which took another week+ to deliver, responding to my online order that included my email address) simply informed me that because of the “large number” of documents requested, the archives “could not respond favorably to my request.” No hint of how many would be acceptable, whether another format would be acceptable, or really any attempt to continue the discussion at all. With the clock ticking, I decided that at this rate, negotiating through the bureaucracy wasn’t worth it – c’est pas la peine.
Fortunately all is not lost. Turns out the British Library is more than happy to take this American’s cash on short notice. They don’t have a problem processing large orders. Hell, they’ll even let you know via email within a week or two how much it will cost, and ask you to verify the amount before they continue. My past orders have confirmed that an order of this size is also large for the BL, but they seem able to manage it as a part of their normal workflow. Then they deliver the documents within a month or so.
Serendipitously, the organizational change this kink in my plans requires may actually work out better for my book in the long run. First, it will allow me to order English archival documents on the Iberian theater during the Spanish Succession – unpublished accounts of lost British battles such as Almansa and Brihuega will strengthen my contrast to Marlborough’s battlefield successes in the other theaters. Further, instead of focusing solely on the French case in the last chapter as I had planned, I’ll instead discuss the French and Dutch as two, complimentary, examples of those ‘battle-avoiding’ Continentals. That also solves one of my remaining uncertainties about how to incorporate the Dutch into my book. Lemons and lemonade.
So for the umpteenth time, I learn the valuable historian’s lesson that archival holdings and access will dictate the shape of a work. But I’d like to think there’s a lesson here for the French to learn as well, one framed by their recent debate over whether more French universities should teach in English in order to buttress global interest in France and its culture (BBC story here). The Bibliothèque nationale’s Gallica was spurred by this same concern over declining French linguistic and cultural relevance, although it has still been overshadowed by the more recent American capitalist approach taken by Google Books. Perhaps French archives will eventually learn that facilitating easier access to their archival holdings in the digital age will encourage more foreigners to write on French history. Maybe said foreign historians will even write on French history in English, the global language of scholarship. Worse things could happen.
New article in latest issue of French History. Mostly on social interactions and cultural networks between towns in the Low Countries, but might be of interest to narrowly-defined military historians as well.
ProfHacker article on a current PhD student (a fellow Buckeye even) reinventing the wheel of qualitative note-taking. Frequent skulkers (hey, I think I just found a name for all you blurkers!) are already familiar with my efforts 15 years earlier.
The specific note-taking requirements will obviously vary by discipline, project and methodology, so being able to create your own database provides the optimum flexibility. But most note-taking tasks are relatively generic, which means a modifiable template (with custom definable fields) could help many. George Mason’s Center for History and New Media really needs to resurrect and improve their old Scribe database – or merge it with Zotero. Or some enterprising digital humanist. Or somebody. Hell, offer me money and I’d consider releasing my Access database into the wild. As long as I don’t have to provide any support!
Even though many historians are still stuck in the note-card age (as the recent study of historical research suggests), digitized historical sources are the future (till the zombie apocalypse at least), so historians will need a system for organizing all these texts, photos of archival documents…
Won’t somebody think of the children?
And here I thought us historians were flying under the radar. When the New York Times has an article on the digital revolution in History (New Research Tools Kick Up Dust in Archives – may be behind paywall), then you know it’s mainstream.
So you can go check out the full report here. As for me, I need to get back to my multitasking: scanning paper copies of archival documents on my new iMac, photographing some irregularly sized photocopies of documents with a tripod-affixed digital camera (that will then be combined into PDFs), while my old PC is running OCR on some early modern books.
But until I have time to finish up my post of what exactly EMEMHians do in this digital world, I’ll post here the text of a talk I gave at my school to open up its undergraduate student research conference this past 13 April.
As a recipient of the CSU Trustees Research Award, I was asked to give a brief address. Reading through the abstracts of today’s interesting student presentations made me reflect on how much, and how little, undergraduate research has changed since I was a student, some <mumble mumble> years ago. So I’ll talk about my personal, historical reflection on what academic humanities research looks like in 2013, where it’s been, and where it may be going.
The most obvious change is the change from paper and ink to bits and bytes: a shift from the slower analog era to an accelerated age of ubiquitous computing. The topic has received voluminous commentary, but I thought I’d provide a personal history of how this historian has profited from the change.
In ye olden times, the collection and dissemination of scholarly knowledge was surprisingly haphazard, and required manual labor in the literal sense of the word [hold up hand], compared to the modern DIGIT-al [wave finders] era.
Even as recently as 20 years ago, the Internet barely existed. Instead, you found book titles held by your library in rows and rows of massive card catalogs – one 3”x 5” card per book (actually more like 3 cards per book, one for the author catalog, one for the title catalog, and one for the subject/keyword catalog). One book at a time.
In this environment, published guides gave you a glimpse of what other libraries might hold. Occasional published bibliographies could alert students to specific research areas, but they rarely told you where exactly to find the books. To do that, you then needed to take your citation to yet another guide, the National Union Catalog – 500,000 pages of photocopies of all those catalog cards from major libraries. Perhaps a library near you had a copy – road trip. But the local constraints of your research horizon – what you could physically get your hands on – severely limited what you could write about. So strong were the regional boundaries of analog scholarship that one of my most prized possessions as an Ohio State grad student was John Lynn’s A Guide to Sources in Early Modern European Military History in Midwestern Research Libraries [hold up my battered copy].
If there were no copies of a work nearby, you took this citation to your interlibrary loan office, the analog scholar’s best friend. But for historians, many works were too rare to be loaned. In my case, I ended up traveling to a dozen different rare book collections – different states, even different countries, but the same expensive travel requirements. All for the opportunity to take notes (never photocopies!) on rare volumes that you might see for a few hours at most.
If you wanted to know how often a particular work was cited and where, there was a separate multi-volume citation index. All of these guides (NUC, Citation index, Historical Abstracts…) had to be kept up to date, with new volumes issued every year. In other words, you spent a lot of time in the library just trying to keep up-to-date. The library was far more than simply a quiet place to study.
So what’s changed? To what extent is your research today the same as it was for students 20 years ago?
In one respect, collecting information on an academic subject today isn’t that different from when I was an undergrad. You still need to identify the key works in your field and track down copies.
But now you can do much of it from your computer, and your results will appear in milliseconds rather than minutes or hours, or days and weeks. Thus you can accomplished much more, or, let’s be honest, do the same amount in less time. An increasing amount of our research reconnaissance has been automated, whether through Amazon recommendations, Google alerts, or on blogs and websites. Online resources such as Project Gutenberg, Google Books, Archive.org, Gallica, the Digital Library of America and others offer free access to millions of books, many centuries old. The age of information scarcity has been transformed into an era of information overload.
I’d argue, however, that scholarly analysis for most humanist scholars hasn’t actually changed nearly as much in the same timeframe.
Compare the process of historical analysis then and now. Once you found the appropriate sources, you needed to take notes. Photocopiers were an expensive option (still are), film cameras even more so. Laptops didn’t exist either, unless you consider the 20-lb Osborne computer. Thus you took notes longhand, usually in notebooks or on notecards [3”x5” hold up].
Then it came time to write the paper. So you had your notecards and your books checked out from the library, gathered all around you. By the time I was in college we’d stopped chiseling on stone tablets, but this was still at the very beginning of the PC era – few students had their own computers, but typewriters were already passé, making marathon sessions at the computer lab a necessity. You read through your notes, collecting and sifting evidence by hand, spreading your note cards out around you to look for patterns, eventually typing up a draft. If you were a good student, you finished your paper early to print it out, make revisions, and then print off a final draft. [Hint, hint.]
So how does that compare with the way most humanities students work today? Not that different I’d suggest. We certainly have far greater access to more documents. Yet these digital documents are still processed and analyzed in the same fashion familiar to humanists of previous centuries.
And yet, it could be so much more, for history, and the humanities more generally, is on the cusp of its own digital revolution – sometimes referred to as the “digital humanities.” First the written word must be digitized, a painstaking process to be sure, but one facilitated by Optical Character Recognition software. Once all these sources, all these notes, all these thoughts, are converted in digital form the real fun can begin.
Digital tools haven’t eliminated the need to read, but they provide new ways to read. The digital revolution isn’t just our ability to quickly acquire and store 25 million pages of text on a portable iPad [hold up iPad]. It’s our ability to search them in an instant, to query them in an infinite variety of ways, to compare texts against each other, to trace terms and tropes across texts, to extract semantic meaning from mere words.
We still need to read carefully, of course, but increasingly we can supplement the close reading of a single text with the distant reading of 10,000s digitized works – no one, after all, has the time to read 10,000 books. Digital tools offer humanities scholars the ability to almost catch up with the computational capabilities dominant in the sciences. The same algorithmic and statistical rules can be applied to digitized text, and even visual images, almost as easily as numbers. We can mine Google Books to study the frequency of specific words across several centuries (Google Ngram Viewer). We can measure the frequency and context of millions of words with textual analysis software as easily as we can visualize a genome, query Geographical Information Systems to plot spatial patterns, or use facial-recognition software to identify individuals in photographs. Once the humanist’s sources are digitized, a new world of possibilities come into view. We are just starting this process.
But, as a historian, it’s my professional obligation to not fall too easily into the utopianism common among technological futurists. There are challenges.
As an early modern historian I’m painfully aware of the gulf between digitized sources and born-digital sources. I may have 15,000 documents on my hard drive, but most of them are only images of handwritten text. Digitizing analog documents remains a significant bottleneck between what-could-be and what-is.
Further, these digital opportunities can still benefit from skills familiar to the most hidebound analog scholar. An age of information abundance still requires the ability to pursue efficient search strategies, to know the difference between a search that finds you something, and a search that finds exactly what you’re looking for. And knowing what you should be looking for is, even today, beyond the capabilities of IT. We need, for example, the analog knowledge to know that a generic keyword search on full-text is often far less helpful than a Library of Congress subject heading query or a search through an index. Ask your professors if you don’t know what I’m talking about.
But perhaps the greatest challenge for the modern age of information overload isn’t how to cope with all this data, but to ensure that the age of abundance itself survives. Printed books are still the best bet for the coming zombie apocalypse, but backing up your files also helps. Digital technology can also foster reliance on a single platform, including an increasing reliance on closed commercial systems. Any one who has read e-books is quite familiar with the incompatibilities of iBooks, Kindle books, PDFs, and so on. Even in the academic realm, we face an uncertain digital future. Promises of a digital revolution increasingly come with high subscription prices – ask librarians about the costs of academic journals these days. Google Books and its ilk have revolutionized my field of early modern history, but it’s of less use to those who rely on still-in-copyright works published after 1923. Recently Georgia State University was sued by several academic published over their digital closed reserves system. Digital technology allows companies to stifle and limit and monitor the dissemination of knowledge as much as liberate and inform.
Problems and challenges await; it’s up to all of us to realize the digital future’s potential.
Thank you for your time, good luck with your presentations, and I hope everyone enjoys the conference.
Looked through the new Oxford UP catalog, and found the following books of note:
The quest for saltpeter caused widespread ‘vexation’ in Tudor and Stuart England, as crown agents dug in homes and barns and even churches. Governments hungry for it purchased supplies from overseas merchants, transferred skills from foreign experts, and extended patronage to ingenious schemers, while the hated ‘saltpetermen’ intruded on private ground.
Eventually, huge saltpeter imports from India relieved this social pressure, and by the eighteenth century positioned Britain as a global imperial power; the governments of revolutionary America and ancien regime France, on the other hand, were forced to find alternative sources of this treasured substance. In the end, it was only with the development of chemical explosives in the late Victorian period that dependency on saltpeter finally declined.
Saltpeter, the Mother of Gunpowder tells this fascinating story for the first time. Lively and entertaining in its own right, it is also a tale with far-reaching implications. As David Cressy’s engaging narrative makes clear, the story of saltpeter is vital not only in explaining the inter-connected military, scientific, and political ‘revolutions’ of the seventeenth century; it also played a key role in the formation of the centralized British nation state – and that state’s subsequent dominance of the waves in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Rather short notice (deadline 30 May), but for those interested:
Early modern warfare was conducted by a dynamic breed of military men. Many were educated nobles who regularly crossed back and forth between the battlefield and the court. Their military service provided them with skills that they leveraged into other spheres of life. It also connected them to multiple centers of power and allowed them to build influential transregional networks in which they served as agents of cultural, political, and social exchange. Largely the focus of military studies, these men were engaged in a wide range of activities and interests, and some became important figures in the European-wide Republic of Letters. Embracing an interdisciplinary approach, this session seeks to reevaluate the figure of the mercenary commander by exploring the multi-faceted lives and contributions of these soldiers beyond the battlefield. Areas of investigation include, but are not limited to: cross-cultural influences, intellectual pursuits, courtly ambitions, diplomacy, regional and transregional exchange, and patronage of the arts.
I’m sure Erik wants to know where the agricultural economy of knowledge is in there.