Time Shifting and Historical Research

About ten thousand years ago, we were introduced to the phrase “time shifting” by a decade-long lawsuit over the right to use VCRs to tape TV shows for later viewing. Today’s DVR has of course made this process far easier and probably more widespread, but the idea remains the same: rather than watch something right now, with no snack breaks, we instead put it off until some later time. Other than the occasionally self-serving gripe about having “a lot of TiVo to catch up on,” time shifting is a settled and dead issue, a non-story. Or it would be, if it were not for the troubling case of historical research.

In a recent post I fretted about how shifting research practices might affect the significance and allure of historical fields. Here I want to examine those shifting practices in a bit more detail. The benefits of compressing a research agenda or of greatly expanding the amount of materials that can be gathered (or both) has encouraged a wholesale transformation in the way that researchers now use archives. The point of visiting the archives hasn’t changed — people still go there to gather evidence — but before the widespread use of digital photography the collection of evidence was limited by what could be read, and then summarized in notes or transcribed. All of this activity necessarily had to occur on-site, during the limited hours and days of operation, further constrained of course by strikes, holidays, and hangovers.

With digital photography, a far greater number of documents can now be processed in a much shorter period. This isn’t really news to anyone who has visited an archive in the last five years. And here, Robert Darnton’s recent defense of the analog rings especially hollow.1 In dispelling “5 Myths About the ‘Information Age’”, Darton claims,

All information is now available online.” The absurdity of this claim is obvious to anyone who has ever done research in archives. Only a tiny fraction of archival material has ever been read, much less digitized.

This is certainly an accurate statement, so long as we only look backward. What Darton is ignoring of course is that essentially all archival material consulted today is being digitized, whether in the form of transcription or photography. What’s missing is the ability to access and mine these innumerable rich individual silos of data. Zotero is one step toward realizing this vast meta-archive, but however outrageously ambitious such a project might seem, it is trivial when compared to the massive amount of labor that has already been deployed to digitize at the individual, cottage-industry level.

What’s especially interesting, I think, is how this new practice might qualitatively affect research. In particular, I wonder how the creation and population of individual research queues, time-shifted for later consultation, will influence how scholars approach the gathering and analysis of evidence. Take, for example, the remarkable transformation in the area of pre-1923 printed materials. Whenever I encounter any reference to any printed source, the first thing that I now do is to consult Google Books or Gallica to see whether there is a digitized edition available. If I find a digital version — and most times I do — I add a copy to my Zotero library to be read later (and if it’s small format, octavo or duodecimo, usually on my Kindle).

This workflow has dramatically reduced the amount of time that I spend on-site in research libraries like the Bibliothèque nationale de France, which is increasingly becoming just another nice quiet place to do work, a purpose much like that served by my neighborhood branch library when I was in grade school, only with RFID cards and a smoking lounge. But it has also hugely increased the amount of time that I now spend reading and “doing research” at home, at night, and on weekends. Moreover, it’s incredibly easy to amass a massive queue of digitized documents and feel like one has “performed research” even though a good percentage (most?) of those materials might prove useless. So in a sense, we’re not just talking about time shifting an amount of research equivalent to say, 1998 levels, but rather that we’re simultaneously escalating the evidentiary basis for any research project.

Mike O’Malley and I have written about the changing landscape of historical research in the face of abundant evidence.2 We agree that finding, as part of the research process, will inevitably decline as a valued skill as associated costs continue to fall. In contrast, synthesis and contextualization, always valuable, will become even more important differentiating qualities. Yet I wonder whether time shifting, and the risks it necessarily introduces, won’t so overburden researchers that they fail to advance to the stage of the research cycle where they can begin to perform meaningful analysis. How is time shifting affecting your research?

  1. Robert Darnton, “5 Myths About the ‘Information Age’,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 17, 2011, sec. The Chronicle Review, http://chronicle.com/article/5-Myths-About-the-Information/127105/. []
  2. Michael O’Malley, “Evidence and Scarcity,” The Aporetic, October 2, 2010, http://theaporetic.com/?p=176 and Sean Takats, “Evidence and Abundance,” The Quintessence of Ham, October 18, 2010, http://quintessenceofham.org/2010/10/18/evidence-and-abundance/. []
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  • I have given this considerable thought while researching for my thesis last year. I was the first researcher on my topic to have access to digitised newspapers. In fact the issues of the newspapers I needed to consult were being digitised and released to view each week during the first five months of my project. I felt a sense of embarrassment at the number of times I could find evidence which previous historians had missed and the credit I received for amassing far more evidence with less effort than historians before me. How much evidence is enough now? I agree with Mike O’Malley’s concerns about this.

    Data management seems to be increasingly important in the era of abundant personal collection of digital evidence. Evidence collected is useless unless it is reviewed properly at home soon after collection and filed in a manner where it can be accessed again easily — nothing new there. But reading and analysis are now of two types, one uses the human eye, the other machine review. Historians are all well-practiced in the former, but it is in the latter where historians need to develop new skills. I don’t see how historians can advance the depth of their analysis without some form of engagement with emerging software tools.

    I didn’t have a problem advancing to the analysis stage of my work. Researchers have always had to set objectives for collection of evidence and stick to them, I see no difference in the digital era except of course far more evidence can be collected in the same amount of time. I find that time shifting has increased the depth and extent of my reading of primary sources. It is such a relief to be able to read without the pressure of the looming closing time of the archive! I believe that the hours that I have allocated to collection of evidence and review has remained the same, but I have effectively cut back on the hours I have sat in the archive itself and re-allocated that time to the review of my larger collection of material.

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  • Mike O’Malley

    I’ve been drafting a post about this! The other day I prepared two big classes on two unrelated subjects in US history, and every single thing I wanted to use to illustrate my points was online–everything, from images to movies to documents, to factual data to songs. I set up two sets of about 30 slides, and did it in a day. Ten years ago, accumulating/digging up that material would have been the work of a career.

    So what I add is basically the curatorial function–selecting, framing, and adding labels

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  • Yvonne: Thanks for sharing your experience using digitized materials. Your comment makes me realize that I’m not advocating strict adherence to the traditional timetable of a fixed number of months of research. It may be the case that the old model was completely inefficient and no longer makes any sense. I don’t think anyone really has any solid idea what the right balance might turn out to be, but anything that advances students through candidacy faster would be good news indeed.

    Mike: The role that you describe for yourself is one that I feel like I and a lot of our colleagues are already pretty comfortable playing in the classroom. The trickier question is whether we’re equally at ease when it comes to describing our research practices.

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