Mixed seductions: Combining global history with digital research

Tag cloud of Putnam's article created with WordItOutHaving a daily increasing number of digital resources within your reach can be both a blessing and a bane. It is seducing to think you can find everything in digitized sources. Lara Putnam (University of Pittsburgh) challenges historians in her article ‘The Transnational and the Text-Searchable: Digitized Sources and the Shadows They Cast’, American Historical Review 121/2 (2016) 377-402, to reflect about their research practice and research methods. She warns us to distinguish carefully between getting data and searching results in a digital world, and gaining real insight into historical developments. How realistic is her image of historians sitting behind the computer screen wallowing in online sources at one side, and historians immersing themselves in actual historical sources? Putnam’s article invites us to rethink the essential qualities of being a historian. At my blog you can find contributions dealing with many countries, and the transnational turn is often combined with the use of texts available in digital formats. The practices Putnam wants to signal are present here at my own blog, and thus it is not only understandable but a must to look carefully at this article.

Logo World History Association

Global history might at first seem a subject way out of your normal territory or territories. However, I could count on the congress calendar for legal history at my blog for 2016 at least four conferences which aim at dealing with world history, starting in Heidelberg (June 20-22, 2016): Law, Empire and Global Intellectual History, Cartagena de Indias (Colombia) (August 23-25, 2016): Law in a Global Context / El derecho en el contexto de la globalización, Berne (September 7-10, 2016): The World of Prisons. The History of Confinement in Global Perspective, Late Eighteenth to Early Twentieth Century, and Helsinki (October 3-5, 2016): Law between Global and Colonial: Techniques of Empire. The 25th World History Association Conference was held quite close to my country, in Ghent (July 2-5, 2016).

Blessings and curses

When you download the free accessible PDF-version of Putnam’s article it seems at first something went wrong. You look at a wordle showing terms around the word progress using the content of G.G. Iggers’ 1965 study The Idea of Progress. It prepares to some extent the way to an article in which Putnam wants us to rethink the way we do history today as scholars. I felt invited to process Putnam’s text with another tag cloud generator. Let’s first summarize the main line of her article. With the transnational turn, the growing possibility to transcend national borders, a second major change, the digital turn, follows closely. We can swiftly procure and access digitized sources from other continents, and we might even forget we are strictly speaking dealing with foreign territories for which our training has not quite prepared us. Historians do not yet use commonly digital techniques, but they do hunt texts using a host of websites, search machines and portals. This almost unreflected use is rather in contrast with the continuing reflection of those scholars developing and pioneering digital tools and methods. To a far greater extent than we tend to see the way we can search the internet has reshaped the practice of working in the field of international history. The digital landscape has no borders, and this might tempt one to forget about real borders and the impact of topography and local conditions for you research.

In a large second section of her article Putnam looks at a number of cases from her personal research experience in Latin America. Already the sheer preparation of a voyage to find something literally outside your province could be immense. The rule-of-thumb sequence of your own institution’ library/libraries, the nearest large university, the nearest former capital of some empire (Rome, London, Washington), and (large) archives and libraries near or in the region you wanted to study is still recognizable, but today it tends to fade away. Studying a country which was at some point part of an empire often means that cultural institutions have been organized along national lines, or worse, such institutions embody nationalism. In the nineties Putnam faced this situation in Costa Rica.

Among the interesting points Putnam makes is how in some fields of Early Modern history, in particular international history and diplomatic history, it still is possible to view matters in many countries thanks to specific sources, for example diplomatic correspondence and reports. However, here, too, the information you use tends to focus on centers and powers. Peripheral regions and movements were difficult to view, because it was very expensive to look sideward and to find out about regional resources, let alone visit these regions for a research period.

The rapid growth of digitization has made it possible to look at much more materials than before. Knowing about a particular publication was sometimes already a feat, but now you can almost instantaneously view inside a book, be it thank to the preview function of The Inevitable Web Firm or in an ever-growing number of digital collections. Putnam remembers how she used microfilm reels of the Limón Searchlight, a newspaper published in the twenties in Costa Rica. Now you can consult two other Costa Rican newspapers at home, and find out much about people who she had encountered only in a rather cryptic notice in this newspaper. In fact digitization helped her to establish the presence of networks that had been almost invisible before. Even leafing through the Limón Searchlight has become different now, because you know about the way a digital search can open new vistas.

However, the benefits of digital research can have also negative effects. The way you can immerse yourself in the particular sources within your physical reach is radically different from using digital resources which connect records to each other in just a few minutes. You might boast about the sheer number of digital collections and the number of countries you deal with in a publication, but somehow you blend out the tradition of slowly but undeniable becoming intimately familiar with a subject and your resources. Apart from the specific items you might want to track down in a newspaper you would get from it a panorama of what seemed important to people, what surrounded them and gave a place and a time its singular color and flavor. Here Putnam challenges historians to realize how much their practice has changed by the digital turn. It is high time to reflect on the impact of digitization for all aspects of historical research.

At this point I would like to stress the fact any summary can hardly do justice to the thoughtful argument put forward by Putnam. If you only use her article to track down in her footnotes relevant publications about transnational history, digital tools and research methods you would definitely learn a lot, but there is more than a gold mine of references. Putnam urges scholars to distinguish carefully between world history, global history and transnational history. The latter proposes to not just transcend political borders, but any kind of border, and look at subjects, themes and problems at multiple levels and angles.

The most telling danger of relying too exclusively on digital research might be that you can access materials from any point on earth without placing yourself in the very environment you want to study. You will miss the help of local historians and other scholars in a particular region, you will be less aware of their focus, traditions and bias. The translating function of the same multifaceted and omnipresent Web Firm will give you only a rough indication of their language and writing styles. The predominance of Anglo-American digital resources might have weakened, but there is a tendency to follow the lead of American and British scholars and institutions, not to mention the gap between those able to use digital resources to which institutions within your vicinity subscribe, and those unable to get access to them. Instead of an insider’s unique perspective you might unduly distance yourself, and thus lose grip and understanding which nothing can replace.

Matters to debate

The main thrust of Putnam’s article is certainly recognizable. I fully agree with her about the necessity to reflect about the influence of the digital turn which slowly but decisively changes the methods and practice of historical research. You might wonder why a European historian would want to learn something from this article focusing on North and Latin America. It is the very distance that helps me to discern patterns better than when looking at examples from research for European history. At the same time some of the differences can be telling.

While reading Putnam I remembered a book which I had to read as a student with a very particular title, Apparaat voor de studie van de geschiedenis, originally written by Jan Romein, and in later editions edited by J. Haak and J.G.F. Hasekamp. This “Apparatus for the Study of History” gave you indeed what its seemingly odd title promised to offer, a kind of crossover between a library guide, a reading list and a set of basic country and subject bibliographies, including references to works for the historical auxiliary sciences. Surely a similar book exists for American history. German scholars have the Baumgart, a guide for doing research in German history, but here, too, the scope is sometimes amazingly wide [Winfried Baumgart, B’ücherverzeichnis zur deutschen Geschichte. Hilfsmittel, Handbücher, Quellen]The Apparaat did not only contain titles of works in Dutch, but also in English, German and French, and only when strictly necessary in other foreign languages. Spanish works are present at a number of points.

I wonder which languages would figure in the American counterpart of the Apparaat and the Baumgart, because I remembered someone else, too, from my student days, a young American historian working for his Ph.D. thesis at Utrecht with marvellous command of the Dutch language. He told me how lucky he had been to visit a high school which offered a wide range of languages to its students, something not commonly encountered. I could not help asking myself while reading the paragraphs about Costa Rica and the Caribbean whether it would be a natural matter to have sufficient command of Spanish to include resources in Spanish already in a preparatory phase. I am sure there were and are country guides in print for any Caribbean country, but Putnam is right in stressing the fact that guidance often has the national level as its focus.

Yet another basic fact of your training comes to mind, having access to printed works in open stacks or having to rely much more on the catalogs of your institution(s). At Utrecht we had at the history institute not only open stacks but also a special room with rare books. This cabinet served also as a official deposit site for archival records on loan from archival institutions elsewhere. Legal historians, too, can take many books from the shelves of the open stacks at the new premises of the law library inside the city location of Utrecht University Library. At the old location at the Janskerkhof there were even two rooms with rariora for Roman law and Old Dutch Law, and also materials from other European countries. I am convinced this background does influence you more than you might be aware.

As for locating books in my country the Royal Library in The Hague is home to the Nederlandse Centrale Catalogus (NCC), the Dutch central catalogue for the holdings of university libraries, and there is a second central catalogue for a number of regional libraries. In my opinion the online version of the NCC should be available in open access. If I had to start looking for materials concerning the Caribbean I would think about visiting and using the resources of the Royal Netherlands Institute for South Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV) in Leiden, the Royal Tropical Institute and the International Institute for Social History in Amsterdam. You could envisage the main cities in the west of my country as a single agglomeration with The Hague, Leiden, Amsterdam and Utrecht all really close to each other. Thus the problem with the 2009 online Guía del investigador americanista en Ámsterdam by Moira Cristiá is not only its brevity and focus on the IISH, but the utter failure to understand how close other Dutch cities with relevant research institutions are.

In Putnam’s list of nearby capitals of former empires Paris and Berlin are conspicuously absent, but you might also question the absence of Madrid, Simancas or Sevilla, all of which figure in other issues of the online Guía del investigador americanista, a service of the multilingual online journal Nuevo Mundo/NuevosMundos. Putnam mentions of course the LANIC (Latin American Network Information Center) in Texas. She mentions in her article only once bibliographies. I leave it to you to think about a punch line to discern between those who use bibliographies and those who do not… The National Union Catalog (NUC), in modern eyes perhaps the forerunner in print of WorldCat, nowadays also available and searchable online thanks to the Hathi Trust Digital Library consortium, does not figure at all. The Hathi Trust has digitized Thomas Leonard’s A guide to Central American collections in the United States (Westport, Conn., 1994), and you might want look there for more. I suppose Putnam left the NUC and the Library of Congress out precisely because it is so natural to start with them. The online version of the Handbook of Latin American Studies and the Hispanic Reading Room are only two starting points at the Library of Congress.

Banner Censo-Guía

However, libraries are probably not so much the problem, but finding out about relevant archives. Each country has not only very different archives, but their coverage is also not uniform. A number of countries have major municipal archives, in other countries these are rare. In some countries university libraries have large archival collections, and in yet another country you find a network of regional archives. It can be hard to find archives outside the governmental system of archival institutions, for example ecclesiastical archives. The famous online portal Repositories of Primary Resources (University of Idaho), once a familiar landmark on the web, is now only accessible in an archived version at the Internet Archive, and you will agree with Putnam about its incomplete coverage and bias. Sometimes you are lucky your chosen country figured in the eighty volumes of the country guides created by the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress. The Dutch website Archiefnet can be viewed also in English, but alas this overview of archives worldwide is no longer updated, and here, too, the attention outside Europe is for national archives. For many years the Nederlands Archievenblad, the journal of the Dutch Society of Archvists, ran a series with articles about archives abroad. Since many years the Unesco Archives Portal is no longer active. At LANIC you can be disappointed at first by seeing in the country archives guide for Costa Rica only the Archivo Nacional de Costa Rica, but this national archive has created an online Censo Guía de Archivos. LANIC provides you with links to four online directories for archives in the Ibero-American World. The Spanish Censo-Guía de Archivos de España e Iberoamérica will tell you about the great variety of archives and archival collections.

Banner Maps in the Crowd

For Putnam the way the presence of digitized materials can lead you astray is the true heart of the matter. You might be tempted to equate the absence of digital collections with the absence of any relevant archival institution with collections interesting for your research. How can the digital turn and the transnational turn combine into a way of doing research that comes closer to the aims of both movements and developments? Among developments enabling to create a positive influence for the transnational turn Putnam mentions the importance of projects for georeferencing maps. Such maps help in a very concrete way to free yourself from the national perspective, even if such maps were often created by governmental agencies. This example speaks to me a bit more forceful at the very moment Leiden University Library is close to finishing a crowdsourcing project to georeference some 7,000 maps from the collections of the KITLV, Maps in the Crowd. The old search interface is still there, and the accompanying blog can tell you more about this project. The British Library is also working along similar roads to georeference its maps, to give just one other example.

While writing this post I could not help noticing the role of Pittsburgh in global history and digital initiatives. The Carnegie Mellon University has created the Universal Digital Library, with some 26,000 books concerning law and in particular large collections concerning India and China. The East Asia Library of the University of Pittsburgh has digitized a substantial number of rare books in Chinese. The history department has made transnational history into a major focus; regional fields are certainly present, too, surprisingly they cover whole continents!

Cover of GPLH 7: El Jurista en el Nuevo Mundo

All this should remind you at the end of a rather long contribution that the armchair and computer screen historian with his and her armada of digital resource is in a way just as limited as the traditional historian. Digital progress is not only progress, but brings also losses. It is urgent to consider again our methods and practices for legal history, too. The publication series Global Perspectives on Legal History (GPLH) of the Max-Planck-Institut für europäische Rechtsgeschichte in Frankfurt am Main reached in its second year already its seventh volume. You can consult online or download the volumes or buy the printed version. These volumes contain telling examples of research facing the challenges of transnational legal history, in particular for Latin America. The latest issue of the journal Legal History / Rechtsgeschichte [Rg 24 (2016)], another publication from Frankfurt am Main, contains a series of short reports solicited by Christiane Birr on current practices of legal historians who have entered the world of digital humanities. Putnam invites us cordially to rethink our methods and practices, and to consider carefully the traditional strengths and core values of the historian’s trade. Even alerting to some minor and major points with her article should not stop you from doing just that!

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