The Historian’s Craft in the Information Age

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The Wikileaks scandal in the news recently has led me to contemplate the implications for future historical research. Our ability to access these digitized cables from as far back as 1966 is certainly significant; WikiLeaks is doing all it can to maximize access, offering users the ability to download archived versions of the leaks so that even if the site is legally (or illegally) shut down, cables can be stored on computers around the world. 

As cliche as it may sound, information has fundamentally changed. The way we store and access information is completely different, as is the information itself.

How will this affect future historians? What will be made available? Text message records? Email? Personal hard drive copies? In many cases, this information is being stored by private companies – how will access be facilitated? Will prominent authors bequeath their email archives? Will text messages be quoted in academic journals? What will become of President Obama’s BlackBerry records?

History sometimes benefits from a lack of information. The Return of Martin Guerre, by Natalie Zemon Davis, is a classic example; it recounts the story of Martin Guerre, who disappeared from a French village in the 16th century, leaving behind his wife Bertrande. Eight years later a man appeared in the village claiming to be Martin Guerre and began living with his wife. After a trial pushed forward not by Guerre’s wife, but his uncle, the man was tried but acquitted after Bertrande supported him. In a second trial Bertrande changed her story, the imposter was sentenced to death, and at a subsequent appeal the true Martin Guerre reappeared.

The debate in this instance centres on the role of Bertrande. Zemon Davis claims that she was complicit in the charade, merely making use of a man more willing to be her husband than Martin, while others debate that she had been legitimately fooled. There is, however, no way to know. Unless someone finds a lost diary, or something of the sort, Bertrande’s inner monologue is lost to us. If this story took place in an age of cell phones, we might have only needed to requisition Bertrande’s text message conversations with her ‘husband’. 

These messages, of course, would not necessarily be conclusive, but their presence as a source for future historians presents a potential problem. People can communicate much more quickly and frequently now. Erasmus‘s collected letters, one of the best sources for the study of early sixteenth century European Renaissance humanism, contain 2081 letters in fourteen English volumes   Over the past year or two, I have received over 3600 emails (not counting those I deleted) and sent 2750. 

Of course, Erasmus didn’t bother to send letters about trivial things like I do with email, but how would a historian researching the lives of our tech-savvy contemporaries attempt to consolidate hundreds of thousands of lifetime email messages? Who knows what the archived emails of heads of state, prominent authors, or politicians will reveal? How will historians deal with such masses of information? Certainly searching on the computer is much easier than sifting through stacks of paper, but when so much of what we write to each other is informal and colloquial, will one boolean search really reveal our archived personalities? What will our history look like?

Zachary Parrott recently completed an MA in Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies at Trent University, after doing a BA in History and French at Western. His Master’s research looked at Canadian cultural identity in music and radio.

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