Archival Follies, History and Historians

Guess the Ref

Or, Am I Doing Digital History? Like Right Now? …. How about now?


Following a conversation with fellow grad student, also excited about the applications for new media, and after perusing an old issue of Perspectives, I came back to a knot of questions that’s bothered me since I started my graduate career (oh distant day!) How does one do digital history? Am I doing it right now? How is it different than analog history? And, not to forget that classic historian’s question: So what?

Things like this keep me up at night because I cut my teeth, intellectually, reading the manifestos of the Free Software movement (now in tamer, if more ubiquitous, form as the Open Source movement/industry). My heroes were phone phreaks, Richard Stallman, white hat hackers, and Melvil Dewey (not in that order). I was the kid bothering the Barnes & Noble clerks once a month to ask if the newest issue of 2600 had arrived yet (and no, the irony of asking for a copy at a chain store was not lost on me). I was thrilled by the idea that the ethos of yippiedom could be channeled to do cool, anti-authoritarian, productive things, like make operating systems with recursive acronyms. It fit with my other nerd-love, the library, and the potential for democratic education that it represents.

All a way of saying that my predilections are entirely in the utopian internet evangelist camp.

Alas, I’m no Bill Turkel, and I can only aspire to be like the kind folks at CHNM. My programming knowledge stops at simple loops and bash editing; I don’t build spiders to scrape the web for data, nor do I use GIS software to map out trade patterns. Heck, I don’t even comment on other blogs, really. So, by those measures, I’m not doing any of my history digitally.

But it occurred to me that in other ways, I am – at least passively. A lot of my sources are online, and searchable, in various public and private databases. I could not do what I do without digitization and OCR, and so, in effect, I’m a digital historian, though you wouldn’t know me as one from my footnotes.

It’s a small thing, to be sure, and it gets me no nerd cred, as I’m using tools that I didn’t design myself. But working almost entirely in digital materials makes my methods – of discovering relevant materials, and how I read them – entirely different than what it is with “analog” materials. I notice this when moving back and forth, anyway.

That difference hinges on search methodology. My google-fu, if I may say so myself, is the envy of my friends — and that’s an ability that translates pretty well to historical detective work.

Let me give you a few examples of what I mean, using our old friend John Quincy Adams as a primer for this kind of practice (and who is, indeed, himself more digital these days than anyone else).

Not too long ago in my research, I was trying to find any and all reactions to a speech John Quincy Adams gave in November 1841 about the Anglo-Chinese war (i.e. the First Opium War).(1)

I did the usual trolling about; read everything on JQA I could find by plowing through biographies and indices — because, as a Somewhat Famous Person, he has had many diligent biographers — as well as everything on the American response to the war itself, etc. I turned up a few leads, but nothing great. Basically, the literature said, Adams’s speech was interesting in itself, but largely sank without a trace. Which was odd, because Adams himself was deeply worried about the furor his lecture would arouse.(1a).

A few careful keyword searches on some newspaper and pamphlet databases later, though, I discovered that the literature was dead wrong. Adams’s lecture was not only widely reported on, it was widely republished — and it aroused a firestorm of criticism. Old Man Eloquent was mocked up and down the eastern seaboard in all the major dailies and weeklies, and his arguments were taken apart line by line by more than a few up-and-coming editors and politicians.

One of the guys that went after Adams like a hammer in search of Leonard Nimoy was a New York lawyer and loyal Democratic party man named John Worth Edmonds. A few weeks after Adams’s lecture, Edmonds gave a lecture at the local lyceum (Newburgh, NY), which was subsequently republished as a pamphlet, and then once again in Park Benjamin’s widely read NYC weekly, The New World. Edmond’s doesn’t have any archives of his own, but I was able to turn up the pamphlet version of Edmond’s lecture on Google Books.

Edmonds had clearly done his homework; he went after Adams on every point, refuting (quite effectively, imho) the premise of Adams’s lecture, arguing that opium was at the root of Britain’s war against China (well, technically it was money, but since opium=££ in this context, he cited both).

So far, so much history. But now that I knew that Adams get smacked for this speech, on his logic, and, more importantly, his facts, the question became how the heck folks like Edmonds — who, as far as I can tell, never left the mid-Atlantic — got so informed about the issue.

Because what Edmonds did not do was carefully cite his sources. Instead, he made allusions, dropped some vague hints, and quoted freely, without any footnotes.(3) For a historian in search of an understanding of how Americans acquired and processed information about the Opium War, this is a problem. So that’s when I turned, again, to teh Googles.

I went line by line, looking for things that might be quoted or rehashed material (i.e. things in quotes, citations of data, things written in a different style, etc). Then I plugged them into Google and my other databases. By the end of it all, I had a pretty complete list of dear old Edmond’s sources — and thus a pretty good idea of how it was a hack Democratic party lawyer could become educated enough about China to convincingly refute a former Secretary of State.

Or at least, what he read to get there.

At its essence, this is a following-the-footnotes strategy. Except, this work would have been (and was, if the existing literature’s missteps are any indication) almost impossible without the new digital resources available — significantly, Google Books, but also other databases. At the very least, I would have had to spend months (if not years) reading through all the commentary in America and England on China, and waiting for bells to ring (in my head, I mean).

Now, to be clear, this is not cutting edge stuff. These tools and methods are both, by current standards, old and unsophisticated. Nonetheless, I think that this would make a great homework assignment — a kind of “Make Your Own Hyperlinks” practice. First, it would show students how it is that historians go about reconstructing the universe of texts and intellectual currents that go into their analyses; and second, it would reveal that universe of texts itself to students, giving them an experience of the swirl and flow of the past (not so different from our own moment, actually, but that’s another ax to grind later).

Finally, it would push students to polish their search skills, which are, generally, quite poor (just because they were “born digital” doesn’t mean they know how things work; were you born knowing how to drive your car? I was not). It wouldn’t require too much in the way of fancy databases, either, if the material was chosen carefully enough. Political hatchet jobs like Edmonds’s are perfect for this kind of thing. The one downside is that it would reinforce the unfortunate idea that papers can be written entirely from one’s terminal, and that professional history writing isn’t all that different from Wikipedia.

But, since in this case, that’s true — so perhaps that’s a feature, not a bug.

0.) Okay maybe just the “envy” of my “friends”.

1.) I won’t keep you in suspense: JQA was super-pro-bellum.

1a.) He expected the lecture would “bring down a storm upon my head” because it ran “directly contrary to the strong current of popular opinion in this country.” November 20, 1841 and November 22, 1841, Quincy Adams Diary 41, p. 522 in Diaries of John Quincy Adams.

2.) Seriously, have you heard how he butchers that song? Say what you will about Shatner’s vocal stylings, at least there’s irony there.

3.) I know, I know.

Image cite: Vonslatt, ““Steampunk Desktop,” Flickr, CC License

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