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.”
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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.”
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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.