A Time for Research Distancing

      11 Comments on A Time for Research Distancing

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.[1]

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:

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.”


[1] 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.

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11 thoughts on “A Time for Research Distancing

  1. Carla Joubert

    Thank-you for this, Alan and Bill. A few smaller online repositories that may be of use to grad students researching the prairie provinces: On all the provinces, but mostly AB: http://peel.library.ualberta.ca/index.html; SK newspapers: http://sabnewspapers.usask.ca/browse/city; and the University of Manitoba has a healthy digital collection: https://digitalcollections.lib.umanitoba.ca/islandora/object/uofm%3Aarchives – and digitized newspaper collection: https://digitalcollections.lib.umanitoba.ca/islandora/object/uofm%3Amanitobia_newspapers

  2. Lisa Dillon

    Another strategy: consider a quantitative history approach! (see also social science history / historical demography / economic history / historical geography / historical sociology / historical anthropology).

    There is a wealth of historic census and parish register cross-sectional and longitudinal data for Canada / Quebec as well as for other countries. These data are ****FREE***** !!!!!! And they are freely available over the Internet and can be downloaded directly or sent to you from project directors. You can do it all from your couch.

    Examples include

    1. #PRDH: 1666, 1667 & 1681 Censuses of the Quebec colony; 1716 & 1744 Censuses of Quebec City; 1831 100% census of Quebec; 1852 20% sample of Ontario & Quebec; 1881 100% Censuses of Canada. See http://www.prdh.umontreal.ca/census/en/main.aspx.

    2. #PRDH: Longitudinal data of the St. Lawrence Valley population of Quebec 1621-1799 (plus deaths after 1800): RPQA database. Contact Lisa Dillon directly at ly.dillon@umontreal.ca. See also the genealogical website prdh-igd.com. The PRDH and IGD will offer graduate students and professors free access to their genealogical browser

    3. IMPQ: Quebec census and parish register data from 1621 to the 20th century available via the IMPQ project at https://impq.uqtr.ca/fmi/webd/IMPQ_PORTAIL. This website features a historian-friendly browser for those researching particular communities or individuals.

    4. Sample census data for 1911 & 1921 Canada available via the CCRI project: https://ccri.library.ualberta.ca/enindex.html

    4. CFP: A sample of the 1901 Census of Canada is available via the Canadian Families Project: http://web.uvic.ca/hrd/cfp/

    5. North Atlantic Population Project: More Canadian census data is available via the NAPP project at https://www.nappdata.org/napp/

    6. International : Interested in comparing international populations (or certain international population sub-groups, such as African Canadians and African Americans): download harmonized international historical census data from the NAPP website. https://www.nappdata.org/napp/

    7. International: Feeling more ambitious? Interested in more European data or Chinese or Australian historical population data? Check out the Intermediate Data Structure website: https://ehps-net.eu/databases. Also check out the MOSAIC European census project: https://censusmosaic.demog.berkeley.edu/

    8. International: More interested in the recent past (20th century, even 21st century)? In African or Latin American countries? Check out the IPUMS International website for harmonized international (mainly contemporary) population data: https://international.ipums.org/international/

    Remember, these data sources are all *******FREE******* !!!!! What a bargain!!!

    Now don’t say: “I can’t take on quantitative history, I’m no good at numbers.” To which I say “Bollocks! Did you do Grade 5 math? Because I know what my daughter has been learning in Grade 5 (until her school shut down) and she has already learned all the skills necessary for good descriptive statistics : addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, percentages, and averages. Can you split a bar bill between 5 friends (or did you, before social distancing)? Yes, you can and yes, you can do quantitative history!

    And don’t say “I don’t want to do quantitative history because I am interested in subtle nuances of social behaviour and numbers are too black and white.” This just means you have never tried quantitative history. Read Sherry Olson’s historical demography of infant mortality in 19th-century Montreal and you will see quantitative history is ALL about the nuances (complex causality; correlating factors; multi-level influences).

    What do you do with these data? You need to use them in a statistical software package. Often these data files are too big for Excel. One that I use with my undergraduates and master’s students is SPSS (Statistical Package for Social Scientists). It is has drop-down menus, lots of built-in help and you can Google or Youtube just about anything you need to know about SPSS. Either your university offers it for free download (the Université de Montréal does) or you can get a trial copy for free at:


    Note that “IBM has extended the duration of new and existing free trials of SPSS Statistics Subscription until June 15, 2020.”

    SPSS is an IBM product and it is sold by a small number of sites. Check for a Student package.


    I saw on the Hearne Software site that the Statistics Standard Grad Pack for 12 months costs $79 — much less than the cost of a trip to the archives.

    I encourage everyone to join the avante-garde and take the plunge into quantitative history. After all, quantification in history is back on the rise (see Steve Ruggles’ presidential address to the Social Science History Association in Chicago last November, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gGz6stHiAx8).

    Lisa Dillon
    Director, Programme de recherche en démographie historique (PRDH)
    Département de démographie, Université de Montréal
    (Ph.D. in history, UMinnesota & MA in History, University of Ottawa)

  3. Isabel Campbell

    Great article which I’ve shared with my work colleagues as we all struggle to carry on during this crisis. I also note the oral history association has held a workshop on distance interviewing. So let’s keep sharing. I would like to add the Canadian Foreign intelligence history database project to this list. And the Directorate of History and Heritage also offers some downloadable documents and books. Thanks also for the tips on back-ups. Very helpful.

  4. Robyn Schwarz

    I just wanted to add the importance of supervisors reading this, too. Alan and Bill have offered some excellent tips/practical strategies for people in Masters programs. My first thought when all of this happened was for MA students who often only have a few months to get a project done in order to graduate on time. Archives are not the only way to do history (and for the record, I love archives). Find something you can do in the time you have left and that will be more than enough. You can do it.

    However, graduate students need our supervisors to “walk alongside” them. If you can’t do the skills you are expecting your students to do, you should be trying to learn. At the very least, familiarize yourself in the way you would a book you didn’t read cover to cover. Simply providing feedback on writing is lazy supervision. If a book or source or newspaper or record group is central to your student’s argument, you better know what they are talking about. Send them books/sources you think are interesting and tell them why. Do some research with them. If you have tenure, you should be putting your own work on hold to support your students however you can, whatever that looks like for them.

    Historians are notoriously individualistic; we generally suck at collaborative research/writing. There is no reason that your student should have to do any of this alone. Treat this summer as a way for you to also learn how to do this kind of history. Take time to learn these systems together and figure out what works for you both. I am optimistic that this unprecedented situation we find ourselves in will ultimately bring about some of the changes many of us have been asking for. Anyone who proctors for extra money is loosing a substantial piece of their yearly income this month. There is no reason that we can’t re-imagine what the graduate-supervisor relationship looks like in a way that builds a better world for us all.

  5. William J Turkel

    Those are excellent points, Robyn. When I was a graduate student, I was fortunate to have advisors who were willing to co-publish things with me, and now I try to pay it forward. Tenured faculty members should be looking for opportunities to co-author with their graduate students and other new scholars now, especially since work that was going to be presented at conferences can be strengthened to submit to journals. Everybody wins.

  6. Robyn Schwarz

    Absolutely agree Bill! I think that should be obvious, but historians as a group seem to be so bad at co-publishing. We are one of the last fields desperately hanging on to the idea of the solo (often male) genius. Which is so problematic because no one does work in a vacuum. Historians especially should know better given the work we do. *Insert me grumbling here about recent tweets that seems to suggest Shakespeare wrote King Lear all on his own during the Black Death. Who is missing from that story? The people who probably did the domestic labour to take care of him during that time*

    Providing someone with less publication experience than me with these kinds of opportunities was one of the first things I did with my reproductive rights work once I had established myself as an expert. I co-authored a piece that came out last June with an undergraduate student on Choice on Campus in Canada. We are getting ready to publish an updated version on a bigger platform soon (it was supposed to be done last month but Covid-19 happened) and I’ve brought on another student who has been instrumental in the work we’ve done at Western in the last year. It’s a lot more work for me to co-publish, but it is a central part of my feminism to do this. I have the experience of writing a lot; it’s my role then to pass the torch and not make my collaborators feel stupid that they don’t know what publishing something actually looks like.

    I hope anyone reading this who is further along in their career thinks of something they are currently working on and how they might support someone without a publication record joining that piece as a co-author.

    Lastly, I want to shout out Dr. Raymond Blake from URegina, who was incredibly patient working with me as my editor to help me get my first peer reviewed publication in 2018. From 2014 to then, he went through multiple drafts of what was my Masters Research Project to get it to a place where it was publishable. He could have easily removed my piece from the edited collection it is now a part of, but he instead did the work of providing me additional writing support. My Masters supervisor was less than great at providing feedback, and Dr. Blake filled that gap. That’s what “walking alongside” a student looks like.

  7. William J Turkel

    One more thing: in talking to some students and their advisors, I have found that there is still an assumption that the research and writing phases will be separate: first you collect the sources, then you write up your project. That makes sense when travelling to physical archives, but in a digital project it is typically not the case. For most projects you won’t find a ready-to-use digital archival collection that has everything you need. Instead you do a bit of research every day, gradually adding sources to a growing collection. As you read and work through those sources you have many questions. In the process of searching for answers to those, you collect more sources.

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