Alan MacEachern & William J. Turkel
Imagine being suddenly told that you cannot research online when writing history. No electronic journals, no ebooks, no Internet Archive, no Wikipedia, no search engines. You will instead be forced to rely exclusively on available print copies of books and journals, on microfilm, and, most important of all, on archives scattered across the country and around the world. Welcome to 1970.
This summer offers historians the very opposite predicament. We lack our accustomed access to most material sources, and physical archives are utterly unavailable. Beyond what we already had on hand, what we hurriedly pulled from the library before the lockdown, or what we’re able to buy on Amazon, all that we have to make sense of the past are the digital sources on the screens in front of us. Welcome to 2020.
And that’s fine, that’s enough. The historical material produced from 2020 research will not require an asterisk any more than the material of 1970 did. Historical research is never strictly about accessing everything we need, but about accessing what we can, and stopping when time, resources, and the availability of sources tells us to.
Faculty members may feel the shock if they are in the habit of summer trips to far-flung archives. Archival work is an important rite of passage in our discipline, and doctoral students may also need to adjust their research schedules, pushing off archival visits to 2021. But more than anyone it will be Master’s students who will have to adjust their research plans the most and the fastest. Fortunately, they might also benefit from having the fewest expectations of what historical research is and must be.
Research done this summer will be different, to be sure, in three key ways. First, sources will likely be different than what was expected. Those archives exist for a reason, and they contain historical information that in many cases don’t exist anywhere else. But the same is true of online sources: they also offer information that is otherwise inaccessible, and, of course, the vast majority of newer information is born digital and only exists as such.
Second, the changing nature of sources may well shift the nature of the chosen topic. Students will still be able to dig intensively into a presumably underexplored source: that is just as possible, for example, with an online diary as one in an archive. But this summer they will not help but be aware that, if they choose, they can work across a vast array of digital sources: choosing to compare many online diaries rather than dig deeply into one. Students will be just as capable of broad, synoptic research as of more focused, monographic study.
Third, and related to the previous two, the research process will change to one degree or another. We encourage students and scholars not to let this global crisis go to waste, but rather to take this opportunity to experiment with the possibilities of a fully digital research process.
Of these three changes, research process is the one to consider first, because it will set students off on the right path for all the work that follows.
Whether you are relatively new to digital research methods or already proficient, here are some workflow pointers:
- Make backups. One of the key advantages of digital sources and research materials is that they can be duplicated more-or-less for free. Make backups at least once a day and keep one on an external drive in your home, plus one in the cloud (e.g., Google Drive, Dropbox, etc.)
- Use advanced search. Search engines like Google have search operators that let you limit your search to particular sites, search for kinds of files, force results to include or exclude particular keywords, and hundreds of other options. Learning to use these makes it much easier to find needles in haystacks.
- Make local copies. If you find something once, you want to be able to find it again quickly. In fact, if you spend any time looking at something interesting online, you should make a local copy of it in case the original disappears. We like to use Evernote for random information management, but there are many options. Storing bookmarks in various browsers is a surefire way to lose track of important websites and sources. If you need to make a local copy of an entire website for offline use, one option is Webrecorder.
- Create a bibliographic database. If you don’t already have one, you need to start making one: software such as Zotero or Mendeley lets you retain reference information of every source you view.
- Create citable copies. If you plan to cite a webpage, you can make an archival copy of it in the Wayback Machine at the Internet Archive, using the “Save Page Now” box.
- Consider digitizing everything. When reading paper sources, for example, it is possible to set up a workflow so you can photograph a page with a smartphone or tablet, and have its text automatically converted into machine searchable form (via OCR, optical character recognition) and stored in software like Evernote or DEVONThink.
- Join communities. You can find researchers that share your interests on H-Net and Humanities Commons. Collaboration is easy with cloud-based tools like Google Documents and Dropbox.
- Rely on automation. For example, IFTTT (If This Then That) makes it very easy to automate apps and services: you can automatically archive Tweets with a particular hashtag to a Google Spreadsheet, or create an email digest when a news site is updated, or scrape data from Facebook. Automator is a good option for Mac users.
- Acquire more digital skills, test more digital tools. Now is a great time to learn how to do some things that can only be done with digital sources. Use OpenRefine to clean messy data, Voyant Tools to visualize text, QGIS or GRASS to make maps, SPARQL to query hundreds of millions of linked open data entities. The Programming Historian website has 81 English-language and 7 French-language “novice-friendly, peer-reviewed tutorials that help humanists learn a wide range of digital tools, techniques, and workflows to facilitate research and teaching.”
- Spend money differently. Redirect some of the hundreds or even thousands of dollars you planned for a research trip towards purchasing software or access to digital resources. Even an expensive software package, one that may make you an order of magnitude more effective, usually costs less than a single airplane trip. Similar considerations apply to things like ergonomic seating and lighting for the home office, multiple monitors, a sheet-feeding scanner, etc.
Having taken some steps to consider and begin to develop a digital research process, you can wade into the sea of historical sources online. There is a great range of gated digital resources being made open-access during the COVID-19 crisis — and there are undoubtedly more since we wrote this post. Worth noting:
- The Internet Archive has created a National Emergency Library, suspending waitlists for the 1.4 million books in its lending library program (a small subset of its total holdings).
- Digital libraries such as JSTOR, Project Muse, and Proquest have expanded access to ebooks and other resources.
- Major textbook publishers are making textbooks, ebooks, and other courseware freely available.
- Many Canadian university libraries, such as our own Western University, have created guides listing all the material newly available to their patrons during the crisis.
As for the digital sources that are already and always available to historians, where to start? (And how to stop?) Here are some of the sites we find ourselves turning to when researching and teaching:
- Internet Archive. Consider it not only for its billions of pages, but its archived audio, video, etc — including web pages, by way of its indispensable Wayback Machine. Canadianists should search its collection of CIHM (Canadian Institute for Historical Microreproductions) material microfilmed in the 1970s-80s, now digitized. Also of note is the TV News which lets you search closed captioning of 2 million news broadcasts from 2009 to yesterday, and view clips.
- Canadiana Online, for pre-1920s published material, and Héritage, for scans of microfilmed archival collections from Library and Archives Canada.
- Canadian Parliamentary Historical Resources, compiling everything said in Parliament until 1994.
- Prof. Donica Belisle’s list of digitized Canadian newspapers is very helpful, pointing to online collections all across the country. For historic American newspapers, Chronicling America, for Australian ones Trove, etc. And though not easily searchable, Google Newspaper Archive is invaluable for historians.
- There is a list of more than 250 digital libraries and archives, mostly American, here. The Digital Public Library of America stands out. For European resources, Europeana is phenomenal. There is an African Online Digital Library under development. For other countries, regions or topics, a good strategy is to search university libraries and other heritage institutions for subject guides. Here, for example, are guides for Chinese electronic sources from Berkeley and Toronto.
- Digital Archives Database Project is valuable for Métis, Hudson’s Bay Company, Church missionary, and related historical records.
- A few other notable collections and resources: HathiTrust digital library, Biodiversity Heritage Library, David Rumsey Map Collection, Carleton Library’s list of Digital Image Databases, Flickr Commons, Google’s Ngram Viewer, WorldCat, and Creative Commons CCSearch for reusable content.
We would stress to graduate students in particular: a reliance on such digital resources allows for both deeper and broader research, so your research topic and question may well change. For example, you might go to Maclean’s Archive looking for a specific article for your thesis on turn-of-the-21st-century Canadians’ knowledge of global warming, and realize that you could instead use this one major weekly magazine to explore how Canadians’ understanding of climate evolved over the past century. (Hmm, not a bad project, that.)
COVID-19 has overturned the lives of students and scholars of history this spring, just as it has billions of other people around the world. But it has in no way stopped our ability to do historical research.
William J. Turkel and Alan MacEachern teach in the Department of History at Western University. Turkel has 40 years experience as a programmer; his recent monograph, Spark from the Deep, was based on all-digital research. MacEachern’s research, like that of many historians, is increasingly online; he argues in his forthcoming The Miramichi Fire that, thanks to digital sources and tools, “in the 21st century, historians are essentially starting over, reinventing every historical topic that has ever been of interest, even as we dream up new ones.”
 You will also know that others will have equal access to your digital sources, making your work verifiable and “reproducible.” We are writing here as if historical researchers will continue working alone, but we hope that co-authorship, never as popular among historians as among other scholars, may take on a new life this year, as people realize they can share archival sources they have already collected and can write things together online. (We wrote this post in a Google document, editing at the same time.) Think of it as a “stone-soup” approach to research.