Hi! I’m the newest addition to Fun With History. I am a early modern Europeanist with a research focus on print culture in the British Isles, and a minor field in World History. On this American History blog I’m “one of those things that’s not like the other”, although in the period of my own research the American colonies were still part of the Commonwealth.
One of the topics I will focus on is the relationship between history, research, scholarship, and the Digital Humanities or the web at large. The basis of all historical research, especially on the PhD level and beyond, is the scholar’s time spent in the archives with (hopefully) original sources. In the last five years, digitization projects and the spread of the idea of the “digital humanities” has revolutionized the way historical research is conducted. In my case, the sources I work with are old, fragile, and generally housed in the UK. Even when I was in London doing dissertation work at the British Library, the archivists had me working with facsimiles and microfilmed copies a lot of the time out of concern for the fragility of the original documents. In recent years, archives, universities, libraries, and educational publishers such as GALE have moved away from microfilm and towards digital collections. Digitization allows for better copies of originals, can easily duplicate color, and provide access (sometimes free, sometimes via subscription) anywhere in the world. No more waiting for microfilm and getting dizzy while zipping through reels. And as any consumer of digital media knows, the ability to conduct a full-text search is invaluable for research.
The problem has been one of access. Digitization and maintenance of digital archives cost money and not all institutions, much less individuals, can afford it. Fortunately, this is changing. Starting today, Eighteenth Century Collections Online has partnered up with TCP to create 18th Century Connect. For those who don’t know, ECCO is one of Gale’s database that includes searchable digitized original documents. Want to read an original copy of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels? You can find almost every copy that was printed available here. It’s like GoogleBooks for historians. They’ve teamed up to release “The roughly 2,000 texts released by Gale Cengage Learning and the Text Creation Partnership (see the News tab) are available for full-text searching here. ” This means that you can do full-text searches of these original sources! Not only do they have texts,they also have prints (browse the “marriage” tag for examples).
Once you create an account, you can collect items (save them in a folder), add a private annotation (note-taking for each source, great for research), or open a public discussion. The purpose of the project is to be both a research tool and an interactive, on-going, scholar discussion regarding sources. Best of all, it’s already Zotero-compatible (don’t know Zotero? You will in a post or two).
This and other publicly-accessible databases continue to revolutionize the historical field. They make research less expensive and more accessible. Because you can do your preliminary work in your pjs, on your couch, it allows for shorter more target archive trips – a necessity in the current budget crisis. They will never replace the dusty box experience – for example. with my work what you see on the back side of the document and the feel of the paper tells me as valuable information as the words on the page – but they can 1) help streamline research and 2) allow you to re-access sources once you’ve returned home.
The second impact of projects like this and others I will highlight in the coming months is that they provide students – elementary through the PhD- the opportunity to explore primary source material they would otherwise never get their hands on. Can’t get to DC but have internet? You can access impressions from the Library of Congress. As an instructor – set your students free and see what they find on their own. Or use the database as an introduction to using archives and doing historical research. Or create primary source assignments via 18thConnect.org instead of asking them to buy hard copies of the same books. For the book historians among us, ask students to do a project comparing the different editions – and take that print-is-fixed narrative and blow it right out the window.
For now, have fun, find me in the discussions and stay tuned for more introductions to some really incredible historical sources and databases that are at your fingertips (and where PJs are an acceptable dress code).