Mark’s recent post – and the related questions that come up at EMOB, Tim Hitchcock’s blog, and elsewhere – got me thinking a bit more ‘about the relative merits of (cheap, easy and efficient) access to digitised primary sources on one hand, and to (often expensive, labour intensive and time-consuming) hands-on access to original materials on the other’.
This is something that I’m conflicted about too. On the one hand, I have an emotional and aesthetic preference for the dusty originals. On the other, I often find at least as much useful material in the clean, searchable digitised sources.
At a practical level, I’m inclined to throw in my lot with the digitisers. Wonderful resources like EBBO, ECCO, TCP, EBBA, BHO, OBO and LL opened up new worlds to me (especially when I was a student in Canada) and to many other scholars. Without them, much of my work would be impossible or, at the very least, about ten times slower.
Nonetheless, I believe that there is another consideration that is rarely mentioned in discussions like these: there is an undeniable tendency for digitisation to reinforce existing biases in source use. Before digitisation began, people tended to use printed works more than manuscripts and to use southern English (especially metropolitan) archives more than distant archives. This makes perfect sense: if you are based at Oxford or Cambridge or flying into London from North America, why wouldn’t you focus on the sources accessible there. Digitisation has made this bias even stronger. Print has been digitised before mss and southern/metropolitan archives have digitised more than less central ones. (See, e.g., the sites mentioned above and also TNA and the ERO.)
What this means is that one often finds historians extrapolating from the same types of evidence, with the same innate biases, rather than drawing on anything even approximating a ‘random sample’. Indeed, I often find myself doing this, so I don’t blame anyone else for doing the same.
In contrast, I’ve been privileged to have had the opportunity (i.e. time, funding) over the last few years to be able to regularly trek to a range of different county record offices and to simply dive into their material for a particular period to see what I find. As a result, I feel like I’ve gained a genuinely stronger sense of what was going on than I would have had I been constrained by the limits of digitised material as it exists now or even as it continues to expand in the near future. I can see now that some previous historians may have mischaracterised events and periods purely because they were unable to explore a range of local material.
Obviously this isn’t something everyone, or even most historians, is able to do, so I unhesitatingly endorse all the good work that is going into digitising ever-more material and making it accessible to a much wider audience of researchers. Still, we must guard against the temptation to think that the great masses of sources that have been digitised somehow represent a more balanced source base merely because they are now so numerous. Biases remain and they may even be growing stronger.
PS: As Gavin Robinson is showing with his series blogging a soldier’s letters from the English Civil War, even when a manuscript source has previously been transcribed and printed (and will be eventually digitised), it’s often worth revisiting the original. Earlier editors sometimes made hilarious errors or took liberties with the text that can completely change the meaning.