Doing the Digital Archive

Ten years ago, I remember chatting to some of my historian chums who were undertaking doctoral research involving archival material. They would refer to it as “doing an archive”: college would give them a small pot of cash, they would go somewhere for a couple of weeks and rout about an archive all hours of the day that they could, photocopying a huge stash of material, and getting boxes and boxes of facsimiles shipped back to read, analyse, and generally deal with later.

Five years or so ago, I remember researchers cackling with glee at the National Archives enlightened Digital Photography Policy: It became apparent that it was fine to take your own digital camera into TNA and create images of the documents that you needed. No scanners are allowed, for noise reasons. The reading rooms began to fill up with researchers undertaking their own mini-digitisation projects, effectively creating digital versions of material that TNA couldnt possibly digitise themself, due to issues of cost and time.

In the last couple of years, there have been some interesting developments in allowing individuals to share these resulting images, and knowledge, of archival material. Your Archives from TNA has been in beta for a while, providing a wiki based environment to allow users to submit their own material, or browse material posted by others, creating an expanding online resource. Footnote.com (a commercial, fee based website) combines original historical documents in a social networking environment, currently hosting 36.5 million images of historical documents online, submitted by the general public. Individual subscribers are encouraged to discuss, challenge, and share archival evidence.

A description of this shift towards large scale amateur digitisation, combined with social networking, was captured nicely in an article in last week’s Boston Globe: Everyone’s a Historian Now.

UNTIL RECENTLY, IF you were a historian and you wanted to write a fresh account of, say, the Battle of Leyte Gulf in World War II, research was a pretty straightforward business. You would pack your bags and head to the National Archives, and spend months looking for something new in the official combat reports.

Today, however, you might first do something very different: Get online and pull up any of the unofficial websites of the ships that participated in the battle – the USS Pennsylvania, for example, or the USS Washington. Lovingly maintained by former crew members and their descendants, these sites are sprawling, loosely organized repositories of photographs, personal recollections, transcribed log books, and miniature biographies of virtually every person who served on board the ship. Some of these sites even include contact information for surviving crew members and their relatives – perfect for tracking down new diaries, photographs, and letters.

Online gathering spots like these represent a potentially radical change to historical research, a craft that has changed little for decades, if not centuries. By aggregating the grass-roots knowledge and recollections of hundreds, even thousands of people, “crowdsourcing,” as it’s increasingly called, may transform a discipline that has long been defined and limited by the labors of a single historian toiling in the dusty archives.

The interesting question will be: how and when will academic historians start to routinely utilise these resources? The lone scholar in the ivory tower now needs good broadband.

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