The practice of historical research has changed significantly in the space of the past few decades. When I began doing research on United Nations peacekeeping for my PhD, primary research required visiting archives, reading original documents and taking notes by hand, usually in pencil. Reflecting on that now that I have done a book on the topic, I would start the process differently now
A great deal of my original research involves reading the physical typescript of the UN unit history is in the Irish military archives. While there were multiple copies in various places of the individual documents, the copies which I had access to and from which I took notes in pencil had been hand typed. There was a sense of immediacy about handling materials which have been created and copied by the original participants. A great many historians find this contact with original materials to be an emotional experience.
I do not know where those original handwritten notes are but I do have copies of handwritten notes taken in the United Nations archive in New York when I visited there. They are legible to me at least but not necessary to others!
Given the time and cost involved in visiting remote archives, part of the historian’s skills involved taking great care not only in transcribing quotations but also in accurately recording the source from the archival files. Distinguishing in ones notes the difference between full quotations and transcriptions was important. Failings in both of these areas have produced more than a few controversies in historical scholarship.
Several things emerged over the course of the years while I was working on this field. Firstly advances in computing technology lead to the availability of a number of affordable portable computers which could be conveniently used for taking notes in archives.
Archives became receptive to accommodating the use of these devices over time. The first real portable computer which I had was the Sinclair Z88 with a tiny four line screen and a rubbery keyboard.
It hooked up to a regular PC and allowed me to move notes taken in the archives into a full word processor. It saved a great deal of time transcribing notes from handwritten into digital and in removing that operation it removed at least one possible point at which errors could be introduced in the process. I do not know where my Z 88 is now but it’s probably in a box somewhere safe having been superseded by newer technologies. I do still have the files of notes which were originally taken on that robbery keyboard and it is still possible to open those files in a modern text editor.
Actually taking notes in archives became largely redundant with the advent of digital photography. Once archives were willing to accept the use of digital cameras, researchers could quickly capture images of a great number of documents in a short space of time and bring them home to review at leisure. The savings in time, money and accuracy were fantastic. While early digital cameras were expensive and not always easy to use we have now reached the stage where smart phones will not only take page images of documents that are quality which is perfectly fine for research but if the documents are in a reasonably modern typeface there are now apps which will converted to text with a high degree of accuracy.
Additionally of course improvements in digital imaging both in terms of quality and cost, and the effort required have made it possible for archives all round the world to place an enormous amount of material online. For someone doing research on the topic in contemporary history the problem now is no longer access to material, but having an excess of material to choose from. For some time periods and the topics of course the most important interior is still not yet available online and needs to be examined in the traditional way in the archives. Balancing this abundance of material is the risk that research will be based on what is easily available rather than what is most important.
The availability of a great deal of primary source material for research online has made possible a significant change in learning and teaching across many disciplines. It is now possible to provide undergraduates with access to rich collections of primary material and therefore to deliver research based learning from the very first semester of college. When I first started teaching, undergraduate writing mainly consisted of reviewing and synthesising ideas in the established text books which had already been predigested by scholars in the field. It is now possible and very common in the best learning and teaching to expose undergraduates to the practicalities of ‘hands on’ research, and to the skills necessary to analyse and interpret complex range of source material to produce a coherent and compelling interpretation.
These changes have shifted the nature of labour in the process of research. When I began my PhD a significant amount of time had to be invested in visiting archives to take notes in long hand and organise them into some sort of analysis before embarking on the writing process.
In many respects the amount of reading of primary and secondary sources required for a major research projects has not been reduced by technology. However the way in which we can read the material has been fundamentally altered for those who make use of the technology in a thoughtful way. Close reading of research material is still important but it is now possible to annotate, highlight, comment on, visualise, organise and analyse the material in a richer way, earlier in the research process
Benefiting from this requires approaching the material in a different way. While many scholars and humanities still conduct research by shaking out a pile of material to see what emerges, which is formally known as grounded theory although many humanities scholars still reject being labeled with theoretical research paradigms. Thoughtful use of digital tools for research allows the scholar to step away from the desk at the end of the day not just with pages and pages of hopefully accurately transcribed notes but with those notes already systematically marked up with the emerging analysis of the content.
The end product of this research journey is now out as an ebook on Amazon. Since I teach Digital Humanities, and encourage my students to present work in a variety of different formats, there was a certain logic to stepping through the process of preparing and publishing the text myself, and I plan to share reflections on part of that process in more blog posts.
Meanwhile, do buy the book.