Response to Tristram Hunt’s ‘Guardian’ Article

Morning! I’m not sure how the land lies on reproducing large chunks of a national newspaper on here, but I’m sure someone will tell me off pronto if I’m not allowed to. This morning Tristram Hunt has an article in the Guardian about ‘online history’ and how for him, nothing compares with time spent in the archive.  The article itself is subtitled as a comment on the new British Library-Google venture, but it’s more of a general opinion piece on the nature of research.  There are points on which I agree with him, but there are aspects of this article I take issue with.  If you care, this is why (warning: contains mild swears and apoplexy).

‘It was discovered in 1907, walled up in a cave on the Silk Road in Dunhuang, north-west China, where it had lain untouched for 900 years. The Diamond Sutra, dated “the 13th of the fourth moon of the ninth year of Xiatong” or 868AD, is a sacred text of the Buddhist faith and one of the hidden treasures of the British Library. Or not so hidden, as it can now be downloaded as a smartphone app.’

What part of this is bad?  Why should the BL have ‘hidden treasures’?  It’s the BRITISH LIBRARY, for the people.  Also, this is a document clearly too fragile to be handled by all the people who might like to look at it.  I don’t want to look at it, but the idea that it is now a smartphone app is rather pleasing.  History belongs to everybody.

‘The ubiquity of history has taken another huge step forward with the BL-Google tie-up putting some 250,000 books online. An astonishing range of texts from 1700 to 1870, covering the French Revolution, the Enlightenment, the early days of empire and the Industrial Revolution, will soon be accessible via Google Book Search. From a Mumbai coffee-shop or Australian air terminal, we will all be able to mull over such wonders as George-Louis Leclerc’s 1775 treatise, The Natural History of the Hippopotamus, or River Horse.’

History IS ubiquitous.  At least for me it is, and probably for Mr Hunt and anyone else who spends much of their time researching the past.  But it isn’t ubiquitous for the children in our schools, many of whom can’t see the point of dusty old books when they can spend time on shiny screens.  Anything that gets people looking at the past, and thinking about it just a little bit can only be A Very Good Thing.  Furthermore I’d far rather be sitting in a terminal with Leclerc than with the offerings from the airport bookshop.

The Google partnership signals an undoubted advance for scholarship. For the arrival of search engines has transformed our ability to sift and surf the past. What once would have required days trawling through an index, hunting down a footnote or finding a misfiled library book can now be done in an instant. Want to find a reference by Marx to Gladstone? Not a problem at www.marxists.org. Want to find the chattels left by Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire? The onlineDictionary of National Biography has the answer.’

Yes, it is an advance for scholarship, but more importantly, for readership.  And yes, those DAYS of trawling through indexes, giving yourself that special library headache, the one that makes your face vibrate.  Remember those?  So far, so positive.  Marxists, marvellous, but the ODNB is a subscription site, available only to paying members or through an institution/local library and Amanda Foreman’s entry on Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire contains no mention of her chattels, only her ‘debts of many thousands’ at the time of her death.  This belittles game-changing projects such as Old Bailey Online. And unless Google is now making cyborg librarians it’s still impossible to find a misfiled library book through Google.

This techno-enthusiasm should not come as too much of a surprise. For all their fusty reputation, historians are very keen on short cuts for interpreting the past. In the 1970s, the “econometricians” embraced IBM mainframes as a way of crunching data on development. In the 1980s, it was all about placing the Domesday Book on CD-ROMS. Now, no museum experience is complete without an accompanying app, while GPS has transformed battlefield studies. Historians have also fallen for the blog, a perfect vehicle for the lifeblood of gossip, envy, malice and “constructive criticism” that keeps history happening.’

The second sentence is a disturbing comment on fellow professionals.  Regardless of that, imagine the JOY of being able to enter endless, ant-like numbers pertaining to your economic history dissertation and get a meaningful visual rendering such as a chart or graph, allowing you to present it to someone who is not quite so familiar with the financial climate in the Hook of Holland 1740-1748.  Ah yes, the gossipy, envious, malicious history blogs.  Where are these blogs? History blogging isn’t Popbitch, it’s http://roy25booth.blogspot.com/ and http://mercuriuspoliticus.wordpress.com/
‘Yet when everything is down-loadable, the mystery of history can be lost. Why sit in an archive leafing through impenetrable prose when you can slurp frappucino while scrolling down Edmund Burke documents?’

Because that isn’t patronising AT ALL IS IT.  Excuse me for a moment whilst I lose myself in the vacuity of my own existence just enough to fit in with this image of someone who uses online documents.

‘But it is only with MS in hand that the real meaning of the text becomes apparent: its rhythms and cadences, the relationship of image to word, the passion of the argument or cold logic of the case. Then there is the serendipity, the scholar’s eternal hope that something will catch his eye. Perhaps another document will come up in the same batch, perhaps some marginalia or even the leaf of another text inserted as a bookmark. There is nothing more thrilling than untying the frayed string, opening the envelope and leafing through a first edition in the expectation of unexpected discoveries. None of that is possible on an iPad.’

Yes, original documents are tremendous.  I snivelled in the loo in Chichester after finding a (boring) letter from Shelley in a packet of correspondence about interior decoration belonging to a Derbyshire family.  Getting the hang of reading centuries-old handwriting through familiarity with epistolary convention and sentence construction is a satisfying accomplishment which takes time and dedication.  Original documents are a pleasure, a privilege and treasure.  They are also a fecking nuisance when you’ve traipsed all the way to Countytown and the very thing you wanted, had called up about and were told would be there is now being withheld because it is too fragile.  This also happens with secondary sources when the periodical you were sure you had to see about the export of dried food stuffs to Jamaica to bolster slave diets has gone off for rebinding and will be back in a month or so.  I will also thank my lucky stars if I never ever again see the joyless hole that is Colindale.  Yes, I did track down the commissioning of that Arts and Crafts casket in the end, but it nearly cost me my eyesight and my sanity.  Not to mention time and money.

‘In a lecture, Peter Hennessy recently described the historian’s craft as akin to the cryogenic trade – warming up the frozen history of the archive until it began to talk. Such a delicate procedure is usually best performed by hand.’

Prudent use of sources is key.  Old papers may quicken the blood, but it is harnessing the strongest team to the carriage that will get us where we need to go.  The idea that history is somehow demeaned by popular access is silly, like a child crabbing their arms around their times-tables.

There. I feel better.  And leave you with two examples of where digital has been used to mine the archives for the forces of good.

William Cowper’s poem of 1788, The Negro’s Complaint is often quoted regarding the abolitionist movement.  Rarely is the point made that it was in fact, created as part of a simplistic textbook intended to teach the evils of slavery on a basic level, probably to children, but this is instantly apparent by the BL’s putting it online. This is an important subject of interest to many thousands, few of whom will have the opportunity physical access to the original text.  Now they do, and can see it in context.Stanford’s mapping of the Republic of Letters. A thing of beauty.

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19 thoughts on “Response to Tristram Hunt’s ‘Guardian’ Article

  1. PsychoticLynx

    Really lovely piece and I agree with you completely. The crying over the Shelley letter touched a chord, I snivelled in the Dulwich Gallery when I saw an original Beardsley 😉

  2. Katrina Gulliver

    Well said. I hadn’t read his article til I saw your link (not being a fan of the Grauniad at the best of times).His attitude seems very exclusivist – and to be fair there are other historians who also seem horrified at the democratising force of access to sources that digitisation can provide.At the same time, though, I regularly encounter people who are surprised I need to go to libraries, or visit archives, at all. They thing “everything” is online, and that my job must be very easy indeed!

  3. blacksheep63

    i mostly agree with you Lucy. While not wishing to disparage Dr Hunt who presumably has quite a lot on his plate at the moment as an historian and MP, he does come across as a tad pompous. There are genuine concerns with digitasation (i aired some of these in my review of the oldbaileyonline) to do with access and how records are read and received. It can mean soem get much more attention than others and distort history, but that is a risk with ALL sources given the sometimes random or hapahazard nature of their survival. Overall, as the recent IHR digital histories of crime symposium showed, the digital age is opening up tremendous new opportunities for researchers. I think it was Dr Hunt that bemoaned the fact that the BL was full of UoL undergrads swatting for exams when he wanted to sit in rare books in peace and quite – a select library for the priveleged few. So huzzah for you, the BL and google!

  4. chuzzlit

    Agree with you entirely. Tristram Hunt is an elitist arse, who believes we should reintroduce charges for museums. Not something likely to increase the access or enjoyment of history.

  5. HVSresearch

    Definitely agree. Anything which encourages people to look at documents (in any form) as part of their life is fantastic. Some will do it superficially and in some the spark will ignite. It is everyone’s history.When people see the relevance they will fight to keep the access and in these times of decreasing funding this is important.

  6. Aeneas7c

    Good article. Wish I had written it. Tristram Hunt’s concern for the ‘mystery of history’ is unfounded. There is just so much history of all types, an infinite amount in fact, that there will always be new places to look and people to discover. IT and the internet has made more history far more accessible to the masses; that just has to be healthy.

  7. crayon

    Some good pointsBut this:”but the ODNB is a subscription site, available only to paying members or through an institution/local library”Don’t those last two words potentially cover everyone in the country? And they don’t even have to go to the library, just enter their membership number.

  8. Lucy Inglis

    Free access is only free if you don’t have to be a member of anything to see it, regardless of whether that membership costs money.

  9. SmallCasserole

    Well put!I wouldn’t have been able to do my little bit of meridian triangulation construction without the BNF’s digitization effort.

  10. mercpol

    I shall be able to put “Real history blog” at the top of my website with pride now! Thank you for the kind words.Hunt’s article, on the other hand, deserves this criticism. It reads like it was dashed off without thought. As you say it is entirely patronising of those who don’t fit Hunt’s idealised mould of a manuscript-reading historian with their head down in the archives. What about those who don’t work in archives? Who work with materials, with art, with bricks and mortar, with oral history? Hunt is also kidding himself if he really thinks that the archive is the only context in which we can somehow glean the “truth” within a source. We are already hundreds of steps removed from the men and women who leave traces of their existence in sources. We can’t replicate how they felt, thought or acted, because we ar not them. We can approximate it, though: and to do that takes skills such as empathy, analysis and detective work. It doesn’t really matter where you deploy those skills, whether it’s in a Starbucks using the cafe wi-fi to look at a source digitally or in the British Library reading room to look at the original. That switch in contexts makes little difference in how the source is received compared to other factors. The point about serendipity is rubbish too. You are at the mercy of how sources are organised, no matter whether they are real or digitised. There are unseen items lurking in county archives just as much as there are unseen items lurking in digital repositories: you just chance upon them in different ways. Half the posts on my blog originate from items I’ve chanced upon on Early English Books Online and elsewhere just by browsing.

  11. nttreasurehunt

    Hear, hear! I have just found through Google Books a letter by Joshua Reynolds with details about a young Chinese man in a painting at Knole. And I was put on the trail through questions and hints that several readers left on my blog – another way in which the internet is facilitating research. Of course we need the libraries and archives too (just as we need the original paintings) – but why say no to technology?

  12. rmathematicus

    I will also thank my lucky stars if I never ever again see the joyless hole that is ColindaleI once spent six hours a day two weeks long in Colindale turning over pages in 19th century weekly and bi-weekly newspapers looking for traces of the subject of my master’s thesis. That I came out of there sane is a miracle or maybe I didn’t. If the newspapers had been scanned and placed in the intertubes with a search engine I could have done the work in about thirty minutes with a keyword search.Yes, Tristram Hunt is right the intertubes are killing real historical research.

  13. Sarah Kauthen

    Thank you for writing this response – I am going to keep it in my pocket and hurl it at the heads of people who argue Hunt’s point to me in future. As an American history student from a backwater in a southern state, I find digitization has benefited me incredibly. And when I finally managed to secure a year’s study in London (and – more importantly – a reader card at the British Library), I found that a few of the super-scarce books (not digitized online) listed in the rare collections had been sadly “mislaid”… making me wish the digitization project had commenced years ago….

  14. historymatt

    I wouldn’t have put it so romantically, but TH’s main point that you miss something when you use a digital facsimile is fair enough. It is ironic that the rush to digitise everything under the sun (often not terribly well) has coincided with a realisation among scholars that sources have a material significance as well as a textual one. For example, I looked at dozens of military instruction manuals as low quality PDFs on Eighteenth Century Collections Online, but it was only when I handled an original and saw its size, binding, annotations, etc. that I got an insight into how it might actually have been used.I don’t see how this is elitist. It is free to get into an archive whereas ECCO costs thousands. And the most accessible museums emphasise the experiential aspect of engaging with past objects.I use online sources a lot – the British Museum’s digital collection of prints is a particular boon. But on the rare occasions that I get down to the BM (I don’t live in London by the way) the originals remind me of what I’m missing: TH’s point is even truer for visual sources than it is for books. Historians today should use both originals and digital repositories, and be conscious of the possibilities and limitations of both.

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