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.
- More writering – Shortfire Press
- In Memory of Percy Bysshe Shelley 4th August 1792-8th July 1822