Whatever new fads and fashions there are in the study of history (and believe it or not there are many happening all the time) one thing has remained in place since the revolutionary work of Leopold Von Ranke and the German school of history in the late nineteenth century: the use of primary sources dating from the period we are studying.
These might be official government documents, personal correspondence and diaries, images, recorded interviews or (as has been the fashion recently) objects. These things are our link to the past, helping us make sense of what people thought and felt. They allow us to inhabit the past, the same spaces as our historical subjects inhabited (in a literal sense when we touch the same documents they created). They are what makes history interesting and exciting.
As a historian I see no other method of enquiry – yes people are writing less (or zero) letters and ‘we’ll all be searching the web and using metadata in the future.’ But one way or another we will have to make direct contact with our past through some kind of evidence, otherwise it will be lost to us, which could have grave consequences.
George Orwell warned of the dangers of losing contact with the past in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. The main protagonist, Winston Smith, works on historical records for the ruling party in this dystopian future, altering the past in accordance with Party policy, at the same time trying to remember his own past, lost in a pre-fabricated illusion un-anchored in time and space.
Historians must explore the past and they must be open about what they find, however awkward this may be for others – this is as true of social, economic and cultural history as it is of political and diplomatic history.
John Hurt as Winston Smith in the film 1984 (1984)
Primary sources, then, must continue to be our historical material. But changes have been afoot for the past ten years or so in the methods by which we collect these documents. Advances in digital camera technology and a relaxation(ish) of attitudes to photography in archives have allowed historians (and anyone else who cares to bother) to digitally copy and ‘remove’ huge amounts of historical evidence from the archives.
This process of ‘DIY Digitisation’ has been revolutionary for some, and for others at least a significant change in academic practice. Not all historians now work in archives on their documents, some choose to make flying visits, fill their memory cards, and work on the documents at home. Many archives now bear more resemblance to photography studios than quiet spaces for historical enquiry.
Copyright rules and rules of privacy and ethics still remain central to what historians do in archives and with their documents, quite rightly so. But the fact remains that historians ‘own’ these documents in practical, if not legal terms. They have them ‘saved’ on their computers, available to them at any time (when they aren’t teaching, ‘doing some admin’, sitting in meetings…). In a world becoming more ‘digital’ on a day-to-day basis these documents are becoming more real to us – I know this having used this method for the past ten years and having been on that journey myself.
The documents can be consulted and re-consulted at the whim of the researcher, not at the behest of an archivist, and this is a game-changer. It isn’t just about ‘convenience’, it’s about access. Historians of material culture may argue their preference is to see, touch and feel their objects and many do. But many also rely on images of their objects and capture these for similar reasons – so that they can revisit them.
Charges applied to digital photography in archives (not all but many) are an indication of the contestations going on around the ‘ownership’ of these documents, the purposes of archives in physical buildings and the primacy of archive-researcher in the whole process as recent examinations of the issues have shown Learning to let go: Ownership, rights, fees and permissions of readers’ photographs. Given the mass exodus of documents from archives it seems to be a contest that historians are well equipped for.
Perhaps this is a good thing – history should be ours, it is our history and all history, whether secret communications between Churchill and Roosevelt or the correspondence of families in the eighteenth century, is in the public interest. Interesting things are often revealed when documents emerge from the shadows. Just yesterday we learnt that the Queen has invested (offshore) in some companies with questionable portfolios and ethical practices thanks to the leaked ‘Paradise Papers’ Paradise Papers leak reveals Duchy of Lancaster put money into retailer criticised for exploiting poor families. Oh, and Bono bought a Lithuanian supermarket in-between saving the world from poverty U2 frontman was investor in firm based in island nation where foreign investors pay 5% tax on profits, Paradise Papers show
Clearly these matters have more immediate political resonance than the culinary habits of a seventeenth century clergyman, but it all adds up to something bigger than the parts and it is all ours (or should be). I believe that digitisation can potentially have a democratising and liberating impact on our understanding of the past. We are still subject to the rules of archives on access, lots of documents remain unavailable. Some of this material is drip-fed to us by others in the form of online databases, but any of us can now ‘own’ historical documents (again if not legally then in an everyday sense of access) by copying them ourselves and potentially in quite large volumes.
We should beware, of course, that this does not interfere with our professional practice as historians. Reading sources ‘at leisure’ has the potential to loosen and de-formalise the process of document analysis. In his classic examination of the discipline, What is History (1961) E. H. Carr warned against ‘common-sense history’:
‘History consists of a corpus of ascertained facts. The facts are available to the historian in documents, inscriptions and so on, like fish on the fishmonger’s slab. The historian collects them, takes them home, and cooks and serves them in whatever style appeals to him.’
This reminds us that digitisation has not ‘changed everything’ and the fundamental rules and dangers of the game apply. But the way we ‘take them home’ has changed and is, I believe, changing what we can get from the documents and expanding our field of vision as historians. Orwell’s future was dystopian and clearly there are lots of concerns around the digitisation of our lives. But we can take ownership of some of it and the study of history seems like a good place to start.
Mark Rothery, Senior Lecturer in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century History