Editors’ Choice: Archive Photography, Technology, and Afro-Atlantic History

The digital world provides historians with an array of tools and ways to make our time in the archive and our research process more fulfilling, thorough, and generally productive. But the changes we make need to happen from the bottom up–from conception to execution.

For example, Trevor Owens, assessing the Ithaka report on historian’s research practices released late last year questions whether library finding aids are as useful as they can be in a brave, new world of Google search:

If the goal of the finding aid is to help researchers find things and the way they do that is to search Google (which is really good at looking for particular things in HTML pages) then why is the HTML page a byproduct of the EAD XML finding aid and not the primary thing that the archivist authors?

In other words, Owens is asking librarians, libraries, and archives to think about how technology is changing the entire research process–not just how technology can make what we have done in the past easier. The truth is, what we have done in the past may not work as well as it did. Surprise of all surprises.

If I apply the same sort of thinking to the process I outlined in my last post, I’m doing something fundamentally different from others who experience their research in a so-called analog way–by sitting in an archive with boxes of documents and moving methodically through each one.  For those historians, data collection and data review happen simultaneously.

The process I described is only part of the process because it’s primarily a data collection process. It works because it uses the time I have in the archive–which is always limited–as efficiently as possible. But it also means I’ve pushed the work of translating, taking notes, or organizing those notes–the data review–to a different time of day or point in my research trip.

This new research process is something that needs to continue to be discussed and theorized inside and outside of the academy.  And as far as within the academy, there may be something to this dual-process that department heads and institutions may need to keep in mind as new faculty navigate the terrain of research, teaching, and service. Doing “Atlantic world” research is quite sexy right now and technology makes it efficient. But in what way is our labor–from top to bottom, conception to execution–fundamentally different from colleagues doing work within other frameworks?

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This content was selected for Digital Humanities Now by Editor-in-Chief based on nominations by Editors-at-Large