The secret’s out

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,, 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.



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