If you're at all involved in small historical organizations, however peripherally, you know that talking about digitization can sometimes be a dangerous subject. People think that by "giving our stuff away for free," internet denizens will steal it, publish books, and profit. Alas, nothing could be farther from the truth (seriously - the research, and the metadata, backs it up). But there's another important angle here that isn't often discussed.
It's one I realized the other day when I was writing a research proposal for a fellowship. Until now my research has been confined to photographs of an archival scrapbook (that I took myself) and whatever digital scraps I can find. From journal articles you can now (kind of) read for free on JSTOR (there's a 3 article per 14 day limit) to Google Books to archive.org and all the digitized archival material in between (from university archives, library archives, and digital repositories the nation over).
But wait, why can't I just spend all my free time in an archive, poring over records, you ask?
1. I'm not in a PhD program nor am I a college professor, so I don't have research funding. Although even my friends in PhD programs don't necessarily get research stipends.
2. Because I'm not in a PhD program, and I'm not a professor, nor am I retired, that means I have a "real" job. Which means taking time off to visit archives, which are often only open limited daytime hours on weekdays, is not really an option.
Even though I'm currently applying for a research stipend, if I get it I will not be able to take advantage of the full 6 weeks they offer to study at the archive. Because I just can't take 6 straight weeks off from work. I'm not even sure I can take 2 weeks off from work. But the fellowship is designed for college professors with summers off. SIGH. I'm hoping they'll allow me to guerrilla-photograph most of it and study from home. We'll see. If I get it.
And that made me realize - digitization is really effing important. Not just for historical organizations to share their collections with the public (which is the whole point of having collections in the first place), but for researchers too poor and/or too busy to visit the archives in person.
Small historical institutions have proven, time and again, to have collections that are nationally significant, rare, and/or which illuminate previously unstudied bits of history. And that makes them incredibly important. Because the future of historical study is not going to be the 1950s style of history where you write sweeping, 1,000 page histories of the Roman Empire anymore. The future of historical study is finding these small stories and fitting them, and their significance, into the larger context.
Which is what I'm trying to do. But it would be a whole lot easier if everything was digitized.
So the next time you hear someone complain about digitization, tell that person they are fueling the fevered research of time- and cash-impoverished researchers everywhere.
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Sarah Wassberg Johnson has an MA in Public History from the University at Albany and studies early 20th century food history.
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