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The Virtual Archive Rat

A moment ago I offered a link to Kevin Levin’s presentation at today’s Society of Civil War Historians luncheon. Here’s my own presentation in full.

“The Virtual Archive Rat: Exploiting the Online Availability of Traditional Sources”
The Civil War in a New Age: Blogs, Technology and the Internet
Society of Civil War Historians Luncheon
New Orleans, La., October 11, 2008

The Internet has assisted all research–not just Civil War research–in a variety of ways. I cataloged a few in a preview of this talk, published in the SCWH newsletter but also available on Kevin Levin’s blog. Through WorldCat, historians can instantly search the holdings of libraries around the globe. Academic journals are online, as are older secondary works now in the public domain, and one can read or at least sample current secondary works via Google Books and similar tools. The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies have long been available online, as are the Congressional Globe, dozens of Civil War era newspapers and magazines, hundreds of letters and diaries, and a rapidly growing number of published memoirs, reminiscences, and regimental histories. There are also numerous databases; e.g., the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors system maintained by the National Park Service, which makes available the compiled service records housed in the National Archives. And there are focused digital archives like the Valley of the Shadow project at the University of Virginia.

Most of these sources are keyword searchable, which can fundamentally alter the research strategies available to a historian. While working on The Hard Hand of War, I spent hundreds of hours poring through bound volumes of the Official Records in search of references to “pillaging,” “foraging,” etc. I could now find every passage that used those words within seconds, and through Boolean searches could identify patterns that might otherwise elude me. All in all, I could duplicate the research for the entire book in less than half the time it required less than twenty years ago, and I could have examined many more sources in more innovative ways.

Librarians have recognized that transition from paper to digital storage is one of the best strategies available for handling the huge, ever burgeoning amount of information production. This has reduced the number of books and articles retained in traditional form, but the Internet has also democratized research by making the requisite sources more available to those without easy access to major research libraries. The combination of server and computer speed, coupled with the prodigious storage capacity of hard drives and thumb drives, means that entire libraries of books and articles can be downloaded for use independently of the Internet.

I’m not going to pine for the world we are losing. As I wrote in the conclusion of the preview: “The Gutenberg Age is over. The Digital Age is here. Civil War historians had better get used to it–and learn to love it.” However, as with most things a touch of caution if not Cassandra is in order. A University of Chicago sociologist recently surveyed 34 million articles with citations from 1945 to 2005. According to a summary of his findings, “For every year of back issues that a particular journal posted online, Evans found on average 14% fewer distinct citations to that journal…. In other words, as more issues of a journal were posted online, fewer distinct articles from that journal were cited, although there were not necessarily fewer total references to that journal.” But other information scientists have found the opposite trend-that scientists and legal researchers, at least, are going back further and reading more broadly in their fields. [Science, 18 July 2008]

Still, it is not unreasonable to suppose that Civil War researchers may focus on digitally available sources to the detriment of sources that are not available online. And it is probable that keyword searchability may drive research questions and methods along lines congenial to keyword searchability, just as the difficulty of that method once discouraged more scholarship the quantified the use of certain keywords (for instance, Michael Barton’s Goodmen:  The Character of Civil War Soldiers.) Finally, the speed with which research can be conducted online may propel a shift from the traditional, archive-intensive research monograph toward interpretive synthesis. In other fields this might be problematic. In our own, it just might be a good thing, particularly if it generates more comparative and longitudinal work.

Comments (1) to “The Virtual Archive Rat”

  1. A few years ago, I contacted a half-dozen academics and submitted questionairres for the purpose of writing an article on internet resources and their impact on research and teaching. The questions were very general in order to not constrict the responses. While what I received from the respondents was great, it was so across the board, so disjointed and unrelated to one another that I could not for the life of me figure out a way to convert their responses to a concise and cogent 2,000 words. That may say more about my journalistic capabilities than about the responses, but it was apparent to me that the academy (for lack of a better term) had not addressed this issue in any organized way, so it’s good to see they’re getting around to it.

    The digital age, as you say, is upon us, and in fact has been for quite a long while. Things have changed in a way similar to the early- to mid-19th century, when archives were being opened up to the public, and “gentlemen scholars” with lots of money and time started to produce important and groundbreaking works. Now, the barriers of travel-time and wealth have been greatly reduced, and the next big find may just be made by a retired pipe-fitter with a computer and time on his hands. While they’re not perfect and never will be (what is?), digital resources, and the possibilities they create, must be considered and taken advantage of by any thorough, competent researcher, be he historian or hobbyist. But don’t throw away those archivists names and phone numbers you’ve squirreled away over the years.

    We live in wonderful times.