The Way We Write History Has ChangedHistorians in the News
tags: history, technology, archives
ALEXIS C. MADRIGAL is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology.
History, as a discipline, comes out of the archive. The archive is not the library, but something else entirely. Libraries spread knowledge that’s been compressed into books and other media. Archives are where collections of papers are stored, usually within a library’s inner sanctum: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s papers, say, at the New York Public Library. Or Record Group 31 at the National Archives—a set of Federal Housing Administration documents from the 1930s to the ’70s. Usually, an archive contains materials from the people and institutions near it. So, the Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford contains everything from Atari’s business plans to HP co-founder William Hewlett’s correspondence.
While libraries have become central actors in the digitization of knowledge, archives have generally resisted this trend. They are still almost overwhelmingly paper. Traditionally, you’d go to a place like this and sit there, day after day, “turning every page,” as the master biographer Robert Caro put it. You might spend weeks, months, or, like Caro, years working through all the boxes, taking extensive notes and making some (relatively expensive) photocopies. Fewer and fewer people have the time, money, or patience to do that. (If they ever did.)
Enter the smartphone, and cheap digital photography. Instead of reading papers during an archival visit, historians can snap pictures of the documents and then look at them later. Ian Milligan, a historian at the University of Waterloo, noticed the trend among his colleagues and surveyed 250 historians, about half of them tenured or tenure-track, and half in other positions, about their work in the archives. The results quantified the new normal. While a subset of researchers (about 23 percent) took few (fewer than 200) photos, the plurality (about 40 percent) took more than 2,000 photographs for their “last substantive project.”
The driving force here is simple enough. Digital photos drive down the cost of archival research, allowing an individual to capture far more documents per hour. So an archival visit becomes a process of standing over documents, snapping pictures as quickly as possible. Some researchers organize their photos swiping on an iPhone, or with an open-source tool named Tropy; some, like Alex Wellerstein, a historian at Stevens Institute of Technology, have special digital-camera setups, and a standardized method. In my own work, I used Dropbox’s photo tools, which I used to output PDFs, which I dropped into Scrivener, my preferred writing software.
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