“Making Meaning out of Chaos” | Historical Research in the Digital Age

Featured Image courtesy of calsoni.com

In the introduction to Digital History, Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig describe historians’ reactions of hesitancy, resistance, and even hostility toward digital history. Gertrude Himmelfarb, for instance, bemoaned the dawn of an age when “every source appearing on the screen has the same weight and credibility as every other.” Some of these concerns are well placed, but two decades after Himmelfarb declared herself a neo-luddite, the pervasiveness of the web has rendered resistance to it futile. This week’s exploration of digital archives has made that abundantly clear. The digital age has fundamentally altered the ways that archivists work and approach their field, necessarily affecting historians who depend upon archives to conduct research. It is incumbent upon historians to understand those changes and ensure, in the words of archivist Kate Theimer, “that we’re all working together as effectively as possible to support the historical enterprise.”

I’m hoping to add to this conversation here, and partly for my own sake. This summer, I’m embarking on my first Graduate Research Seminar. I have just recently begun navigating the wealth of primary and secondary sources related to my topic, which explores issues of gender in the early 20th century eugenics movement. I will inevitably make use of a range of digital and analog resources, and it has become abundantly clear to me that to do so effectively I must consider the nature of digital collections and, to quote Theimer, “who is creating them, for what purpose, and using what methods.” These questions are not just for archivists, but for historians like myself whose research hangs on such considerations.

It first struck me that I am guilty of not understanding the true nature of archives, and the difference between the materials at the National Archives, for instance, and those on the web. An archive, it turns out, has nothing to do with selection or curation, but, according to Trevor Owens, is a “collection of items and records that exist as a whole.” This term has been co-opted by digital humanists who apply it liberally to a variety of digital collections on the web, ranging from crowd-sourced collections like the September 11th Digital Archive to the born-digital archive of Salman Rushdie.

This distinction is important not only because it leads to a fuller understanding of the work that archivists do, but also because it illuminates the differences between archival and online collections to which researchers must be attuned. For my project, I am planning to use the papers of Margaret Sanger, a key figure in the birth control movement espoused eugenic views. New York University has undertaken a massive effort to collect over 7,000 of Sanger’s papers dispersed in over 400 archives and private collections. Project staff has since “selected close to 1,000 documents for inclusion.” The effort follows precise transcription, encoding, and attribution protocols, but it is clear to me now that this collection differs from traditional archives in important ways. I need to consider the motivations and goals of the staff, their criteria for selection, as well as what documents may not have been digitized if I am going to make use of these documents. Historians must understand the nature of the online sources they are dealing with to use a digital collection in an effective and responsible way.

MargaretSanger copy

Digital collections: consume responsibly.

It has also become clear that there are challenges and advantages to the ways historians can search and manipulate digital collections. Digital tools such as text mining and hyperlinking have made possible a very rich and immersive research experience. As Jefferson Bailey notes in “Disrespect des Fonds,” digital materials have enabled “realization of a more expansive notion of context and interrelation.” Yet this ability also means that the onus is on researchers to sort through the ever-expanding universe of available documents. It is no longer plausible, at least in my opinion, for a researcher to limit the scope of her search to a physical collection, to confine herself to the accoutrements of the analog age (thanks to Bailey for that vivid description). We must find ways to search better, to use the tools available to us to cut through the overwhelming excess that we confront on the web. We must, in the wise words of Jacquelyn Ardam and Jeremy Schmidt, find ways to “cut through redundancy, to make meaning out of chaos.”

This is only the beginning of what could be a very long list of lessons that historians could and should glean from the debates surrounding digital archives. The work of archivists is clearly in flux, calling into question the notions of appraisal, selection, arrangement, and description that has previously guided the field. In “Close Reading, Distant Reading,” Meg Phillips posed a provocative question to archivists: “do you think archival appraisal needs to change, and if so, how?” It is perhaps up to archivists to answer, but historians must pay attention to how they respond.


2 thoughts on ““Making Meaning out of Chaos” | Historical Research in the Digital Age

  1. protok1t says:

    I think you point about needing “to consider the motivations and goals of the staff, their criteria for selection, as well as what documents may not have been digitized” is the crucial problem for the historian. You allude that what was digitized for the papers of Margaret Sanger, was less than 1/7 of the actual material. That process of selection and exclusion if purposeful one, influenced perhaps by extenuating factors of the archivist or the institution itself. How could they know what might be important for digitization in terms of your own research. By not taking an all or nothing approach to digitization, the archivists have essentially fractured the collection, putting online only what they deemed most relevant. The material, while undoubtedly important, has already been partially interpreted and synthesized for meaning, leaving less room for the scholar to get at original interpretation. Arguably worse for the academic historian, is that the files have lost their original context, and perhaps the particular ways in which document sets have certain meaning based on the “the principle of original order.”


    • giamje01 says:

      Thanks for your comment, I absolutely agree that with digital collections such as the Margaret Sanger papers there is an extra, problematic layer of interpretation between the document and the historian, one that, depending on the source, may not have a clearly or fully explained rationale. There is a trade off, however – digital collections make available primary sources that I could never otherwise explore in the few months I have to write this paper. So, I think it is crucial that we consider the nature of digital archives when conducting research, but certainly should still take advantage of them!


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