Monday, April 4, 2011

The Physicality of the Past

Morgan Hubbard

Digital media have made the historian's job easier, no question. Documents once sequestered in archives are now available instantly to the researcher with a laptop and some savvy. The W. E. B. Du Bois collection at the University of Massachusetts Amherst is a great example. The entirety of the collection is being digitized; when the project is complete, every document in the collection will be available, free and searchable, online.

True, the vast majority of historical sources aren't yet available digitally, and probably never will be, because the cost of scanning and hosting is too great. But even then, technology has made inroads on insularity. Need to see some documents in an archive in Dublin but don't have the money to get there? Find some blogs, make some connections, beg a favor, and see if a colleague across the Atlantic won't take a day to find what you need and send you the scans. Promise this new colleague a like service when she requests material from archives near you. Do this a few times, and suddenly you're plugged into a network of researchers that mostly erases the geographical distance between you and the historical sources you need.

But there might be a cost to this process—as Robert A. Heinlein said, There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. Digital research removes certain sense perceptions from the researcher's tool kit. A screen can't communicate touch or feel, or the way light plays on a page, or the musty smell of long-unopened books. But, you assert, this is all secondary to what the documents say, which should be the researcher's foremost concern. This is true. But I argue that the physicality of sources is, if not crucial to our craft, at least important enough to merit consideration.

Take these pages from the July 1963 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The paper's yellowed, which is to be expected for a magazine printed cheaply on pulp paper (this fact in itself is an interesting commentary on the business of mass-market fiction magazines in America after WWII.) And see there, that splotch over Heinlein's first name? That's mustard. You can see more traces of mustard above and below. And on the facing page, right at the bottom, is a fleck of onion. Someone, somewhere, was eating a sandwich while reading this magazine.

The mustard and the onion don't change the meaning of this document. What they do is maybe more profound—they connect us to the material reality of the past, and to the people who experienced it. The mustard and the onion remind us that this collection of words was more than an expression of deep historical trends. This magazine was a set of stories, read by a real person for real reasons, which, hard though they may be to ascertain, are very much of interest to historians like me. The magazine's physical presence is a reminder that as historians we have an obligation not just to abstract notions like evenhandedness, but to the people of the past whose stories we're trying to tell.

TANSTAAFL photo courtesy of UMass Science Fiction Society
Magazine photo by Morgan Hubbard, 2010


dan allosso said...

I like the mustard. It speaks volumes about what this document WAS, in its original context. Not a valuable text, but something read over lunch (I'd like to think it was a loaded "dog" from a street vendor, that someone ate on a park bench while reading escapist fiction).

I wonder how much of this original context is lost, when we reverentially open the pages of really old documents like broadsides, newspapers, and cheap press productions? Do the American Antiquarian Society's stone columns and antique, Isaiah Thomas press re-contextualize some of their holdings? I love going there, don't get me wrong. But the mustard makes me wonder...

Lisa Clark Diller said...

Physicality gives us "context." And even though I love all the new digital resources, isn't 'context' one of the most important things historians bring to any subject? It makes sense that we'd love to see the context of our texts--the advertisements next to the article, the size of the document/book, the quality of material--and yes, the mustard. Thanks so much for putting into words why many of us are reluctant to give up entirely the interaction with the 'actual' texts that we're studying.

LD said...

I love this post. I think digital archives are great -- I use them all the time. Where would I be without fully searchable text? But I see an interesting parallel between digitizing of texts and digitizing of music -- in the process of "digital sampling," some information is necessarily left out.

And the difference between looking at a digital archive and looking at an archival document may be something like the difference between playing an MP3 and spinning an LP. In most situations, the MP3 provides a rich enough sound for most people's ears. But the accidental idiosyncrasies of an LP bring you one step closer to the performance in the recording studio.

Mark Ashurst-McGee said...

In my work on the Joseph Smith Papers at the LSD Church History Library, I have learned this lesson over and over again that there ain't nothin' like the real thing. To give just one example, many manuscripts and rare books have undergone conservation of one kind or another. Much early conservation changed the physical nature of things in ways that cannot be physically or imaginativly pealed back without access the a special angle-view a spine or the inside cover--often not scanned. Widespread conservation of copies of the popular first edition of the Book of Mormon (1830) has ruined the binding history of that work.