Dealing with Distance from the Archives through Digitization: A special guest blog by Craig Gallagher
This blog post has been written by guest blogger Craig Gallagher, PhD Candidate in History at Boston College and Consultant Editor for the Adam Matthew resource Colonial America. Module 1: Early Settlement, Expansion and Rivalries was published in 2015.
To access and make use of manuscript documents in the archives, historians have to deploy a variety of skills they have acquired in their training. Chief among these are the ability to navigate manuscript catalogues that are often labyrinthine, decipher the frequently challenging handwriting of historical figures, and read these materials critically in the political, social, and even curatorial context in which they were produced and catalogued. This work can be time-consuming and often fruitless, but can also yield crucial insights that make possible towering works of historical scholarship. But before the historian can put these skills to work and unearth their evidence in the reading room, they have to solve the problem common to all scholars who rely on archival material: the logistical challenge of getting to the archive in the first place.
This challenge is financial, infrastructural, and social, since archival trips inevitably cost money to pay for expensive passage and board (especially if the archive is overseas), and can separate the scholar from their family and community for extensive periods. It can be particularly acute for graduate students, who usually lack the financial resources available to university faculty, and although the challenge can be alleviated by the many research fellowships and dissertation grants offered by archives themselves, or by external organizations like the American Historical Association or Mellon Foundation, winning those is far from a guarantee. Yet it is often those same graduate students who have to make multiple trips to the archives in the short period of time their Ph.D. program allows to seek out the original materials they need to write their dissertations and secure their degrees.
Given that obligation, and speaking from personal experience, graduate students are the scholars most likely to welcome the recent trend towards digitization of major primary source collections. Projects like the Colonial America collection â€“ which will see Adam Matthew digitize the entire CO5 collection from the National Archives, which concerns Great Britainâ€™s administration and relationship with its American colonies â€“ reduce the logistical burden for interested researchers significantly. What is lost by missing out on a chance to decamp to London for a month is recovered many times over by the opportunity to conduct research amidst a busy semester of teaching (rather than exclusively after it), to put less strain on family and community life through extended absences, and above all, to not be constrained by financial limitations on how much material you can feasibly access. These benefits accrue to young faculty at teaching-intensive universities, and even to professors at elite research universities as well.
Image from Colonial America Module 1 entitled: 'A map of the countrey of the Five Nations belonging to the province of New York and of the lakes near which the nations of far Indians live within part of Canada & River St. Lawrence'. Image Â© The National Archives London; UK. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.
To see this document in the collection, click the image.
Digitizationâ€™s primary benefit to the historical profession is one of preservation, in that it ensures the many valuable records that tell us our history are secured in both in their physical and digital forms for future researchers. But it also reduces the financial, logistical, and social burden on scholars who otherwise do not have recourse to personal or institutional resources with which to visit far-flung repositories to conduct their research. In this way, collections like Colonial America not only allow Early American historians to continue the research that has underpinned the burgeoning field of Atlantic History, but also will make possible even more engagement with that vast space, and its many varied and as-yet-unanswered historical questions, all the more likely in future.