Thursday, August 16, 2007

Why Historians Should Visit the Archives

I wanted to do a separate post on this because it's a big and interesting topic. Well, at least, it is for me. Some of my responses will probably get a bit vague.

It starts in reference to the online library of French Revolutionary cartoons and images that I linked to earlier. Holly's comments come from the comments section (appropriately enough).

Holly: OK. I have to ask. And I know it's going to sound confrontational, and maybe it is a little bit, but... don't worry about that. Focus on the question.
Is this one of those things that people should have to go to Paris to see? Because making stuff electronically available isn't such a great idea?

(Rufus: The short answer is No. But I see where you're going with this.)

Holly: While I can agree that seeing stuff first hand, in the original (or believed-to-be-original) format is the preferable experience, I'm not sure it's necessary. But more than that, I believe that is prohibitive to people who can not muster the resources to make a trip to Paris, or London, or Berlin, or Yucatan, or wherever an original of a thing lives. If it comes down to the ability to travel, to experience something like that, it seems kind of... discriminatory?

(Rufus: It's interesting- one of those articles that every non-American historian ends up reading is an essay about this by an American-dwelling French historian. He basically argued that those of us who study French history from across the pond will never be equal to French historians from France simply because we can't spend our weekends, evenings, and free time in the archives for years. Many of the great French historians were also keepers of the archives. We don't have that advantage.)

Holly: There are people who can't afford to go, people who can't deal with going, people who will not be exposed to those things at all, if they don't go. Unless it's rendered digital and distributed one way or another. Are those people inherently unworthy, simply because international travel is beyond their means? Sure, the VAST majority of people on the planet won't look at historical archives, in any format, for any reason, even if you had the magna carta laminated and put it under their breakfast cereal. But the people who would look... deserve to see. I think--since we unequivocally have the means to provide more or less universal access.

(Rufus: I do think there's a professional bias to what I'm saying. Non-professionals can't get funding. I'll address that in a minute.

The thing to remember is that this is probably a moot question anyway. The archives house boxes and boxes of documents that nearly nobody wants to read. Not the Magna Carta. We're talking more like ship manifests from 1830 (what I'm using) and things like relatively insignificant people's letters to each other, memos, doodles, and scraps of paper. Most of this stuff isn't online because there are like 100 people in the world who have any interest in seeing it. And in order to even know what it is you have to do a lot of research. I'm going to be spending the next four months in Toronto reading what other people have written about the archives that I'm visiting, some of which I haven't even located! The other thing is that a lot of these documents can't be scanned anyway because they're so old. So it's not a pressing issue.

But, to be honest, spending months in the archives is as central to historiography as living with obscure tribes is to anthropology. The flip side of how unfair it is to non-professionals is that many professionals got into the profession to travel to the archives. Certainly, few of them are in it for the teaching. If everything ever written was online, we would have no excuse to apply for funding- nobody in their right mind would fund visiting archives that are accessible online. I wouldn't be able to get funding from anyone to go to the archives, and historiography would be transformed into spending years reading documents at home online. To be blunt, I'd do something else with my life.)

Holly: I don't believe the plan is to create a digital archive and then destroy the originals. (Although I would support that, in the case of fine art, but that's a different issue.) UNM actually did have a situation where the Southwest Studies special collection, which contains a spectacular assortment of (among other things) conquistadoria and native-culture documents, has been laboriously and meticulously digitally archived over 6 years or so... and they weren't quite done, but nearly, when someone awesome set fire to the humanities library, and while the fire didn't damage the collection, the sprinkler system did. Irreplaceable things, which can at least be viewed digitally. It's difficult (for me, anyway) to argue against that.

And, for whatever it is worth, I don't believe you ARE arguing against *that*. Is it something about how, once everything is available in digital format, the chances of them letting pilgrims (like you) in to worship the bricks that history is made of, goes down substantially?

(Rufus: It's mostly a matter of funding. I basically got into French history to get funding to travel to France. A scenario in which all the documents were online would make it much harder to get funding and require me to stay at home. I'd find some other profession. I don't think life should be lived online. The world is too interesting.

This is the first issue. I'm very skeptical of the idea of "access". It sounds egalitarian, but it eventually requires us to talk about things like libraries as if they are unnecessarily inhibiting since we have to drive to them. Unless you're paralyzed (in which case, I imagine it's possible to have books delivered- actually, I was doing this for an older scholar last year) or otherwise physically inhibited, I think the real barrier is laziness. Since I teach kids who see visiting a library as a sort of medieval torture, I think that's what we're rewarding- a vision of the world in which knowledge should be delivered to you instead of discovered by you.

This is the second issue- the epistemological shift between generations. There's something deeply depressing about a world in which there's nothing left to uncover- just bits of heterogeneous information to 'access'. The great poet Hakim Bey once said that the year in which the planet was entirely mapped was a tragic year because there was nowhere left undiscovered on the planet. On one hand, this is all very romantic and vague to talk about. However, I suspect that the psychological differences between people who grew up having to explore the world, and those who had immediate access to everything they could ever wonder about, are fairly significant. What is the effect of stripping the aura from everything in the physical world, and not just art, through mechanical reproduction? I'm, luckily, endlessly fascinated by the world. I like having been forced to go to graduate school, study for the last four years, and apply for funding to go see the archives. It's worth it.

The third issue is even more vague- in fact, I'm not even sure that I can verbalize it.* But when you wander through a library or archives in the physical world, there's an element of... I don't know the word. Chance? Contingency? Randomness? I can bump into something that I never would have led myself to rationally. To give an example, I used to love wandering around record stores and occasionally buying a record that I knew nothing about because the cover looked neat. I've discovered several great bands that way. I can't think of any way to do that online. This is most of what goes on in the archives, and I think the sort of focused searches of the online world inhibit it somehow. Actually, many historical studies grow out of people finding something that fascinates them in the archives while working on a different dissertation topic and coming back to it later. Academics need to defend our right to wander, and err, and "waste time".

To give another example, our department threw out all of their old journals last year because they're all online now. The difference between J-Stor and the physical journal is that I can find articles on Madame Roland by running a search string online and read only about Madame Roland. In the physical world, I have to pour through the journals myself and run the risk of reading a completely fascinating article on the Inquisition in southern France that illuminates my own research in ways that I couldn't have predicted or planned. I guess I should mention that the journals they abandoned are now mostly in my house. :)

Which brings us to an even vaguer question- isn't digital archiving really a way of entombing books? I don't meet many people who actually read books online. It's uncomfortable and the Internet generation isn't big readers anyway. In fact, I'd say that book reading is largely vestigial in this culture. I think the online archives are basically a mausoleum so that we can feel comfortable if it comes to destroying all of the books that go unread. Which, honestly, I assume it will come to. In other words, I think this is a way of not reading books without admitting that we don't read books. I'm cynical, but again I feel that memorializing is what we do when a tradition has passed away.

The vaguest topic is ontological- the question of being. Will the immediate, at-hand access to the world, which we will eventually have, alter being-in-the-world itself? Will we come to see the world as such as fully instrumentalized? Will we lose any sense of Being; that continuous, heterogeneous, unfolding of Self in time? It's really airy fairy, but we cannot exist in any other way than in the world. Therefore, if the world changes from being a large, hidden, heterogeneous, ever-changing flow (a river that we can never step in twice) to being an at-hand, homogeneous, immediately accessible, flattened, sameness.... doesn't the nature of existence change as well?)

* And there is a better word for this that I'll enter when I can remember it!


Holly said...

Scribes used to copy out manuscripts by hand, either for duplication, or because they were old and crappy and falling apart. In either case, that could only ever be an acknowledgment of use and worth.

I have always regarded the urge to create archives--of any kind, including digitally--as a similar endeavor. Perhaps I am not cynical enough, but it seems to be incredibly devious to create entire institutions around the idea of meticulously conserving documents at great expense for the express purpose of moving them out of the realm of utility. It's just so hard for me to buy into that notion.

There's probably more, but my train of thought has totally abandoned me here.

Rufus said...

I know the feeling- I watched David Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE last night!

My wording was probably misleading there. I didn't mean they would create archives for that express purpose. I'm sure that the people who make these digital archives have the noblest of intentions.

However, that's not a guarantee of future success. Henry Ford didn't intend to make a machine that would heat the atmosphere through carbon monoxide, or to make future generations fatter, or even to replace the hansom cab. The men who created television didn't do so with the intention to drive down literacy rates. With the Internet, there's a reluctance by those of us who are "soaking in it" to question its effects.

But, if putting music online has killed off a number of record stores (including Tower amazingly enough), and Amazon has killed off small bookstores, and putting journals online has meant that universities throw out their journals...

What I see happening is this- the archives go online and so they stop getting visitors. Eventually, they're going to have to lay off the large staff that these places have, and move the stuff into storage. In fact, the libraries that I study at have begun doing just that with their regular books.

I think that the benefit of archiving is that anybody can read this stuff. On one hand, it could lead to a renaissance in reading- the non-reading generation could start reading books and documents again. I think that's the idea behind the Google books project. "People will start reading books again if we make it more like surfing the net!"

Conversely, they might just continute not reading and people like me who enjoy traveling to the archives and feeling the paper and wasting our time might just leave the profession.

The other thing with the Google books project is that it's perverse to expect people to keep publishing books in order to give them out for free.

At any rate, I'm getting off topic too. But I should clarify that I believe the people who are making these archives have the best of intentions and are simply more optimistic than I am about widening the range of readers. This should be commended.