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Wednesday, 1 September 2010

How Technology Changed Research

When I go to archives I carry many technological devices to aid me in my work (camera, laptop, leads, chargers and, of course, earphones). And I am not the only one. Increasingly, I am conscious of the fact that the National Archives is starting to look like a branch of Curry’s, or, if you do some mental blocking, an Apple Store (Genius bar excluded). The reason is that technology dominates historical research now. I wouldn’t even think of going to the archive without any of my devices and on the rare occasions when I forget one of them I am genuinely frustrated. I feel that I am unable to function as effectively without my whole raft of equipment. I suppose it is like when everyone got mobile phones. When we didn’t have them, we didn’t need them. But now everyone has one, we can’t live without them.

I think that now I am full ensconced in the technological age of research, that I ultimately forget the point from which I have come. In 2003 I was using the methods of research that had been used for hundreds of years. In conversation with Terry Gourvish, Britain’s leading railway historian, he described the process of writing an article in 1973 that was on ‘A British Business Elite: The Chief Executive Managers of the Railway industry 1850-1822.’ For this biographical survey of Britain’s railway CEOs, he had to travel from Norwich to London many times to gather the information. This, naturally, took time. His ultimate opinion was that the article wasn’t as detailed as he would have liked, and because of this it was open criticism years later. I have to confess, that I am one of those historians who currently disagrees with the piece. On expressing my disagreements, Terry quickly conceded that my more detailed, technologically aided, research may indeed contradict his, and he put this fact down to the era when he was working. There simply wasn’t the capacity, given his job, his location, and the data gathering constraints of the 1970s, to be as efficient and effective as I can be now.

I didn’t, however, make the technological jump from paper, pencil and photocopying, to laptop, camera and earphones, at once. My methods changed gradually. When I started doing research at the National Archives in 2003 on my undergraduate dissertation (‘Big Wing Theory’ in the Battle of Britain), I was quite satisfied sitting there with a pencil and pad in hand, copying down everything I found. However, recently finding my notes from that work certainly reminded me of the torture of a pencil wearing through to what I felt was the bones of my fingers. By the end of it, I was turning each page in dread of finding a document that was vital, but which was long. I did photocopy some things, but because of my limited budget I could only use the service selectively. As such, I was utterly sick of the sight of documents by the end of the dissertation. This didn’t, however, hinder me from undergoing the same laborious process when doing my postgraduate dissertation in 2005 (Pre-World War One British military aviation).

You see, technology wasn’t something that I thought of at the time as being necessary. Indeed, the majority of historians, especially in 2003, simply didn’t use it. The biggest indicator of this was that those who did use cameras and laptops at the archives were cast to the rear part of the reading room, segregated by a glass screen from us ‘hard-working’ historians who still toiled with the old methods. We struggled to get our necessary work completed before closing time; they cheated. Of course, I have embellished for dramatic effect, but sometimes it did feel to me like a ‘them and us’ situation.

It was only with my PhD in 2006 that I started to use technology. It seemed logical that I should now that laptops and digital cameras were cheaper, and I could see the benefits. With this in mind I went out and purchased the WORST LAPTOP EVER. Heavy, slow and noisy, it made me the centre of attention in the ‘silent’ reading room. But, it did the job I needed it to do until a year and a half later when I upgraded to a better model. This was superseded by a netbook in 2009, which I still use to this day. Small, compact (and strangely faster than my first laptop), it is really great. Obviously, the advantage of having a laptop is that rather than writing things out, I now create immediately accessible digital. As such, I avoid my own handwriting, which tends to leave me staring at a letter or entire word while to work out what the hell it is. It also means that I can tabulate statistical information quicker. Overall, I think that my work rate improved, but this wasn’t really a leap ahead in performance.

Two years later I added the digital camera, and this really was a massive step up. Whereas before I could copy data from a I00 page document in about 2 hours, now I could do it in 20 minutes. Hurrah, I am an archival speed-demon. Ok, my first camera was dreadful, and the number of documents that came out blurred is hard to count, but now I have a beauty that does everything excellently.

I feel now that my own shift in research techniques is not unique. Currently, the National Archives is dominated by historians who use technology to aid and speed their work. Indeed, when the main reading room was remodelled, the Archives did away with the physical barrier that divided the two groups of historians. Everyone is now mingled in. My only complaint, and I don’t know if this is a complaint to be aimed at the camera manufacturers or the historians, is that I wish that there wasn’t such a loud clicking sound when cameras take photos. But hey, I’m just being a grouch.

The last technology that has changed the way that individuals do research, aside from those that have been mentioned, is the internet and the digitisation of records. In the past if a historian wanted to look up a newspaper article from the distant past, he’d have to make the long trip to Colindale to the Newspaper Library. But now these are almost all available online. But newspapers aren’t the only things available. With my University of York log-in a plethora of resources are at my fingertips. While my PhD has been in progress, I have been blessed with a number of tools that have come available for researchers, such as 19th Century Newspaper and Journal collections, and the House of Commons Parliamentary Papers. There were also a number of other resources that were already available, such the Dictionary of National Biography, Who Was Who and Ancestry. Lastly, there is the multitude of other websites that provide me with information. The internet is now therefore an integral part of my work, speeding it up no end and allowing me to bypass the archive.

The point of this article has been to show how research, once a lonesome, slow and laborious process, has now been transformed into a quicker and simpler exercise through the application of technology. What can be produced is no longer subject to the restrictions of the past, such as time and location. This, therefore, hails a new era of historical research that should be recognised. We are now entering into a period in which the work that is produced as an end product of research, both in an academic and popular sense, should be more accurate and should be less impregnable to criticism. In addition, more material will be researched because of the speed of its collection, allowing more work to be produced. Hopefully, this will further and refine our knowledge of history by leaps and bounds. Of course, there is the potential for historians to become complacent, churning out article after article simply because it is possible. But if academic rigor is upheld and standards are maintained, I see no reason why this should occur. Therefore, because of technology I look forward to what the future will bring.


  1. I'm a 4th year history student who has just begun to archive....having never archived without things such as a digital camera and a laptop I can't really imagine doing it with them.

    I found this article interesting, it may apply...

    If interested, I've touched on the subject, in a very shallow and amateur manner of course, in my own blog... (the second link)

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