The Way We Write History Has Changed

A deep dive into an archive will never be the same.

Print Collector / Getty / Farknot Architect / Shutterstock / The Atlantic

History, as a discipline, comes out of the archive. The archive is not the library, but something else entirely. Libraries spread knowledge that’s been compressed into books and other media. Archives are where collections of papers are stored, usually within a library’s inner sanctum: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s papers, say, at the New York Public Library. Or Record Group 31 at the National Archives—a set of Federal Housing Administration documents from the 1930s to the ’70s. Usually, an archive contains materials from the people and institutions near it. So, the Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford contains everything from Atari’s business plans to HP co-founder William Hewlett’s correspondence.

While libraries have become central actors in the digitization of knowledge, archives have generally resisted this trend. They are still almost overwhelmingly paper. Traditionally, you’d go to a place like this and sit there, day after day, “turning every page,” as the master biographer Robert Caro put it. You might spend weeks, months, or, like Caro, years working through all the boxes, taking extensive notes and making some (relatively expensive) photocopies. Fewer and fewer people have the time, money, or patience to do that. (If they ever did.)

Enter the smartphone, and cheap digital photography. Instead of reading papers during an archival visit, historians can snap pictures of the documents and then look at them later. Ian Milligan, a historian at the University of Waterloo, noticed the trend among his colleagues and surveyed 250 historians, about half of them tenured or tenure-track, and half in other positions, about their work in the archives. The results quantified the new normal. While a subset of researchers (about 23 percent) took few (fewer than 200) photos, the plurality (about 40 percent) took more than 2,000 photographs for their “last substantive project.”

The driving force here is simple enough. Digital photos drive down the cost of archival research, allowing an individual to capture far more documents per hour. So an archival visit becomes a process of standing over documents, snapping pictures as quickly as possible. Some researchers organize their photos swiping on an iPhone, or with an open-source tool named Tropy; some, like Alex Wellerstein, a historian at Stevens Institute of Technology, have special digital-camera setups, and a standardized method. In my own work, I used Dropbox’s photo tools, which I used to output PDFs, which I dropped into Scrivener, my preferred writing software.

These practices might seem like a subtle shift—researchers are still going to collections and requesting boxes and reading papers—but the ways that information is collected and managed transmute what historians can learn from it. There has been, as Milligan put it, a “dramatic reshaping of historical practice.” Different histories will be written because the tools of the discipline are changing.

I’ve spent a lot of time in archives. They make me feel like a pilgrim of a very obscure religion, and the process shares the features of other sacred journeys. You put your things in a special locker, keeping only laptop, phone, pencil. You’re inspected for purity on the way into the sanctum and instructed in a series of obscure rights and responsibilities that attend to touching this very special paper. The rooms are beautiful. No one talks. Everyone is on a secret mission, just like you. Sometimes you’re handed white gloves. They don’t smell of old books—that’s the glue, a part of publishing—but sometimes, when you catch a whiff of perfume, lead, ink, chemicals, it seems as if a box exhales the very air of the past. On the way out, you must prove that you’ve stolen nothing from the boxes kept in the vaults. Paper more valuable than gold! (Inhales dust.)

But this sort of rarified “archive mysticism,” which, Wellerstein says, “literally goes back to Ranke”—Leopold von Ranke, the celebrated 19th-century historian—is more romantic than analytical. For historians who need grant funding and child care, or life support from their families and partners, the ideal “that to be a historian is to find the right archive and go inhale its dust” can be unachievable. Shorter trips mean cheaper trips, which, Milligan predicts, will make archival work more accessible.

In other words, different types of people will be able to do history. “I would expect this to lead to more top-notch, archivally based scholarly work from those outside of well-resourced institutions,” Milligan told me. “It also opens up a lot more ability to research for people who are caregivers, whether for children or parents, which will lead to more diverse authors.”

It may be, too, that widespread digitization of archival materials could allow people outside the professionalized, largely Western historical tradition to do history. Tim Hitchcock, a historian at the University of Sussex, put the argument in a transnational context: Digitization has “democratised historical research, creating a space for people to interrogate their own communities’ histories,” he wrote to me. Different people working with the same historical materials will probably change how history is written.

Even the same person, though, might write differently if his or her core process changes. Miriam Pawel, the author of several books based on archival material, purchased a huge screen for her latest, she told me, and could simultaneously pull up her Word doc and photos of documents. Counterintuitively, because it’s harder to work with documents on a screen than to flip through photocopied pages, she found herself taking more detailed notes on her first pass through documents than she had when she worked on paper. That translated into a more detailed outline for her massive biography of California Governors Pat and Jerry Brown, The Browns of California, and, she thinks, a book that better reflected the material in the archives.

There’s some precedent for how history has been changed by increasing digital accessibility. Wellerstein groups photo-taking in the archives under a broader set of changes that he terms “high volume” research methods. “The practices will change what kind of questions you’ll ask,” he says. Take a highly regarded book, Charles Rosenberg’s The Cholera Years. In it, Rosenberg tracks how three newspapers in New York covered cholera. “He spent years working on that,” Wellerstein says. “You can call up every source he used in that book in one afternoon using ProQuest,” one of several databases of newspapers.

That does not invalidate the book, which Wellerstein describes as “great,” but someone working on the same topic now would have the option to expand the field of inquiry. “You might look nationally, internationally, look over a vast amount of time, correlate cholera with something else,” he says. “Would you get better history? I don’t know. You’d get different history, though.”

If a single archive visit allows a historian to capture five, 10, 20 times as many documents, the expectations of the depth of archival work will almost certainly increase. Patrick McCray, a historian at UC Santa Barbara, quantified the increase in the documents he has captured over time by looking at the size of his files for several different books. “The file for my giant telescopes book (2004) is 9.7MB now,” he wrote to me. ”My Moonwatch book (2008) file size = 2 GB; Visioneers (2012) = 10 GB.” His most recent book is already up to 77 gigabytes.

Was there something to the long, paper-rich archive visit, though? As with so many things in the digital age, the downsides have often been less obvious than the conveniences, but they emerge eventually.

In a 2016 essay, the University of Pittsburgh historian Lara Putnam argued that archival visits used to require picking up local knowledge. But the rise of digital searching generally “decouples data from place.” You don’t have to know anything about a particular neighborhood, city, region, or nation to find relevant information to a project. “Peripheral vision was prohibitively expensive,” Putnam writes. Now you’re expected to know what might lie outside the frame of your argument. If you’re writing about Germany, why not take a database peak at Switzerland, or if you’re working on Brazil, why not search Angola (or Mexico)?

But you might lose another kind of peripheral vision—what’s going on locally at the archive you’re visiting. All the difficulty of getting to and staying near an archive might have had some purposes. “This experiential friction, the very thing that made international historical research in an analog world inefficient, tends to teach border-crossing researchers things they need to know, whether they know it or not,” Putnam observes. “When foreign researchers slog away in archives day after day next to in-country intellectuals, they can be forced to confront the value of locally produced expertise.”

Wellerstein points to a related problem he found himself fighting. When you digitize more, you can be tempted to believe that your record is complete, even though historians know that only certain things are captured in documentary evidence. “You can overestimate your knowledge when it looks like you have everything,” he says.

Like so many changes in day-to-day life brought on by smartphones, it’s hard to sort out the directionality or even the angle of change, because the devices we use intersect with other layers of our societies. This being history, then, it’s important to note the other contexts for this era of historical inquiry: a decline in Cold War funding of “area studies,” a deepening financial globalization, the precarity of most graduate students (and some professors), a widening of the historical profession to include historically excluded groups, a reevaluation of the post-colonial position of research universities in Western countries, and many other things.

But the literal job of doing history has changed. It works through screens now; that much is for sure. Now we’ll have to look to the historians to document what that means.