Promises and Perils of Online Archives

The popular biographer Walter Issacson recently penned an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal in which he muses on “what could be lost as Einstein’s papers go online.” The essay was sparked by the recent digital publication of the first thirteen volumes of Einstein’s papers by a consortium of institutions that includes Princeton, Caltech, and Hebrew University. Issacson uses this development to explore the nature of online archives more broadly, weighing the potential benefits and consequences of opening primary source documents to what he describes as “the wisdom of the crowd.” There is a tension underlying these thoughts, and as the essay title suggests, Issacson seems fairly preoccupied with what could be lost as the archives go online:

My initial joy about the project was tempered, however, by a pinch of sadness. I realized that most future Einstein researchers would no longer have to make the journey to the cozy house on the edge of the Caltech campus where the scholars of the Einstein Papers Project were eager to embrace their rare visitors and ply them with guidance, insights and tea. They wouldn’t likely spend delightful days there—as I did for my biography of Einstein—with the science historian Diana Kormos-Buchwald and her colleagues as they debated such issues as how to explain what Einstein meant when he referred to quanta as “spatial” or his fellow Jews as Stammesgenossen (tribal comrades).

The next generation of scholars will also lose the tingling inspiration of seeing original documents. I remember how much closer I felt to Benjamin Franklin —suddenly, he seemed like a real person—when, at his archives in Yale’s Sterling Library, I first touched a letter that he had written, marveling that this piece of paper had actually once been in his hands. I even made a pilgrimage to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which Einstein helped to found and where most of his original documents reside, so that I could draw inspiration. What sublime experiences will researchers miss if they simply view the documents online? What will be lost if the archives, with their passionate staffs, morph into unvisited repositories?

Issacson, however, does express some excitement about the power of computing to help us ask new questions about these documents:

My brooding soon gave way to marveling about the benefits that will come when millions of curious people, with new technologies in hand, get to dive into the papers of historical figures. While I was doing research years ago for my biography of Franklin, the Packard Humanities Institute in Los Altos, Calif., was at work on a digital collection of his papers. After a lot of begging, I wheedled a beta version of the CD-ROMs. They let me search all of Franklin’s papers for specific concepts . . . with the new digital version of Einstein, I have been looking at the 237 times he talked about Palestine—and imagining what a smart researcher could do by tracing the evolution of the 6,720 times he used the phrase “light quanta.”

With online archives, research can be crowdsourced. Students from Bangalore to Baton Rouge can drill down into Einstein’s papers and ferret out gems and connections that professional researchers may have missed. That will reinforce a basic truth about the digital age: By empowering everyone to get information unfiltered, it diminishes the role of gatekeepers and intermediaries. Scholars and experts will still play an important role in historical analysis, but their interpretations will be challenged and supplemented by the wisdom of crowds.

I share Issacson’s enthusiasm for the experience of traveling to and conducting research at archival institutions. I’ve conducted research at many different institutions, but I will always fondly remember my own experiences at the Indiana State Library when I lived in Indianapolis. Although I didn’t know it when I first moved to Indy, it turned out that my house was within walking distance to ISL. There were many Saturdays filled with early morning research, lovely lunchtime walks around downtown, and more research in the afternoon. The detective work of research is fun in and of itself, but the adventure of traveling to a new place and soaking in the character of the surrounding area makes the archival experience sublime.

All of this said, however, I don’t find myself as pessimistic as Issacson about this experiential loss with the move to online archives. Doing research online is, of course, also an experience. Digging into archival resources like Google Books, HathiTrust, The Internet Archive, and Chronicling America requires the same sort of detective work and interpretive skills that one uses at a brick-and-mortar institution. And it’s hard to describe the jubilation you feel upon discovering a crucial primary source that you would have never found or had access to at your local archival institution. Likewise, while the tactile experience of holding a real document in your hands is very, very special, the best web designers and archivists can make digital primary sources equally (if not more) accessible to researchers by providing clear scans, zoom in/out functionality, and text transcriptions that make these documents more approachable and understandable (especially for students in a k-12 setting who may be unable to visit an archive in person).

It’s also important to keep Issacson’s thoughts on digitization in context. All of the digital primary source collections he mentions are from noteworthy great white men in U.S. history: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Mark Twain, Thomas Edison, and Einstein. Historians and archivists pick and choose what history gets digitized, and it remains an open question as to what should be digitized for online publication and whether or not this effort to publish documents related to White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Males over ones connected to women and minorities merely duplicates the same dominant practices in the history book publishing industry since the nineteenth century. There are literally billions of primary source documents that could be digitized, but the lack of time, cost, and labor to digitize will prevent a sizable number of documents from going online in the foreseeable future. For every Smithsonian undertaking a “digitization strategic plan” there are probably hundreds of archival institutions that lack the ability to digitize anything in their collections. In sum, researchers understand that producing good scholarship means still going to the archives and digging through the actual sources – it can’t all be done online.

The real loss with online archives, as I see it, is the loss of interaction with all of the talented and helpful archivists who help researchers accomplish their goals. I suspect that most researchers don’t have tea with their archivists or bump into world-renowned historians of science at the archives like Issacson does, but almost all can recall an instance in which an archivist pointed them towards collection material they were unaware of, helped transcribe a document that seemed unreadable, or took the time to go into the back corner of a dark room to find requested documents. I can recall many such moments, and my own research over the years wouldn’t have been completed without the help of archivists. They are important people, and I think it’s safe to say that we’ll still need their services and expertise well into the future, whether online or offline.

Cheers

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