by Dan Cohen
Happy New Year, and welcome to 2020! My constant reminder of the passage of time is a small lake near where we live, which transforms itself delightfully month by month, season by season.
Several months ago, it was the canonical image of autumn; now, it is a crisp winter scene.
Like several bodies of water in the Boston area, the lake was given a new name in the late nineteenth century to more attractively brand the ice that was commercially harvested from its frozen top in the winter. (For the curious, it went from faith to mammon: Baptism Pond to Crystal Lake.) That ice was put on railroad cars and boats and sent to remote, hotter locations, covered and preserved in the natural insulation of sawdust. Massachusetts ice thus ended up in refreshing tropical drinks. (You can listen to this story on an episode of 99% Invisible.)
So I send a chilled and tasty beverage to all of the global subscribers to Humane Ingenuity. May you have a good 2020, and may the 2020s bring us happier days.
The Best of Both Worlds
Last week on social media I linked to an important survey by Ian Milligan that turned out to be interesting bit of professional anthropology, and that for the purposes of this newsletter reveals how new technology can enter our lives, change it fairly rapidly without reflection, and then polarize us into antagonistic camps.
Ian surveyed historians in Canada about their research practices in archives and special collections, and discovered that what historians mostly now do is stand over documents taking photographs with their phone. Many, many photographs. The 250 historians he surveyed snapped a quarter-million photographs in their recent archival trips. Almost everyone in his survey has adopted this new rapid-shoot practice, and 40% took over 2,000 photos while doing their research.
What has happened over the last decade is a massive and under-discussed shift: historians now spend less time in the reading rooms of archives and special collections reading; the time they spend there is mostly dedicated to the quick personal digitization of materials that they will examine when they return home.
I noted this without any spin, but of course on social media I was accused of being nostalgic or worse. I also received many messages starkly in favor of the new practice and some starkly against it — with little sentiment in between. Similarly, I heard about many archives where this practice is not allowed (and the hate directed at those institutions), and some others where it is encouraged, and many others where it is tolerated.
For what it’s worth, I actually think that the new practice is neither better or worse than the old practice, but it is vastly different. My main concern is that we haven’t fully thought through what the change means, or the effect it has on the actors involved — it simply, and perhaps unsurprisingly, just happened with the proliferation of phone cameras, in the same way that we have experienced other rapid technological changes without much consideration. (Thus the common lament of so many end-of-the-2010s pieces about smartphones and digital media and technology upending social conventions in unexpected ways.)
So historians-as-amateur-digitizers is a case study of new technology changing our practices without much forethought about what it might mean — in this case for historical research — or what externalities it might entail. And more importantly, we haven’t thought much about how to mitigate the negative aspects of this practice, or accelerate the benefits it provides.
We should pause to consider:
Intellectually, how does the new practice change the history that is written (or no longer written), the topics selected and pursued (or no longer selected and pursued), and our relationship to the documentary evidence and its use to support our theories? What happens when instead of reading a small set of documents, taking notes, thinking about what you’ve found, and then interactively requesting other, related documents over a longer period of time, you first gather all of the documents you think you need and then process them en masse later?
Labor-wise and financially, for the researcher, it means less time away from home, and a lower total cost for travel. That can be a net positive; it might also lead to decreased funding for travel, a downward spiral, as funding agencies get wind of what’s really done at cultural heritage sites. The practice might very well democratize the practice of history, a net good. For archivists, the practice means more retrievals of boxes and folders in a much shorter period of time, and probably some concerns about the careful handling of primary source materials. Despite some protests I heard online, I do think it is reshaping the interactions between researchers and archival staff, and how each views the other, and probably not in a net-positive way.
I could go on; these points and many others were identified and described well by those looking at Ian’s survey. In short, the work that needs to be done is not just to fully recognize and account for a major shift in historical research practice; it is to figure out how to optimize what’s going on so that history is both democratic and thoughtful, and so that it maintains a healthy and productive relationship between researchers and archivists. In general, we need to do a better job getting ahead of these technology-based shifts, rather than criticizing them or lauding them after the shifts have occurred.
Without being nostalgic, I think the social and personal aspects of longer interactions in archives, between archival staff and researchers and between fellow researchers, can be helpful. And without being futuristic, I think the new photo-and-leave practice has some helpful effects on researcher work-life balance and the ability of those without big research grants to do full-fledged analyses.
But back to the driving theme of this newsletter: What can we do to promote both the advantageous social aspects of the old methods and the advantageous digital aspects of the new methods? Asking that question leads to other useful questions: How can we encourage other types of researcher communities that inevitably surround certain special collections? How can we foster better communications between historians and archivists? How can we improve amateur photos without disrupting the environment of the reading room? How can we share scans more widely, rather than having them reside in personal photo collections? And as someone who oversees a library and archive, are there new services we should provide?
Tools to Make Research Better
The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media has tried to address these issues since the 1990s, and RRCHNM and the RRCHNM diaspora continue to explore what can be done to create our own tools and methods that keep in mind traditional strengths while using novel techniques. Tropy, the open source tool for storing and curating research photographs, spearheaded by Sean Takats, is one critical piece of this potential future infrastructure. Omeka, led by Sharon Leon, for displaying those collections online, is another.
And adding another piece to the puzzle, last week Tom Scheinfeldt and his colleagues at the University of Connecticut’s Greenhouse Studios launched Sourcery, an app to enable any researcher to request the remote photographing of archival materials. (Sourcery is a great name.) Maybe the pieces are starting to come together.
(Full disclosure: Tom, Sharon, Sean, and I all worked together at RRCHNM, and manage a not-for-profit entity that coordinates these projects. But I link to these projects because you should know about them and they are good, not because I’m biased. Ok, I might be slightly biased, but it is my newsletter.)
On the first What’s New podcast of 2020, I talk to Jessica Silbey about her forthcoming book, Against Progress: Intellectual Property and Fundamental Values in the Internet Age. Jessica powerfully challenges the idea that copyright is still working “to promote the progress of science and useful arts,” as the famous phrase from the U.S. Constitution puts it. Instead, she thinks that the coming decade requires a reassessment of IP law that looks at the broader social impact of copyright. Her notion of “fairer use” — not “fair use,” but a wider concept that takes into account multiple stakeholders, and that will allow for new kinds of artistic and scientific advancement — is worth listening to. Please do tune in.