The Age of Anecdotage

During the last month I have been clearing out my office at work, the detritus of a working life.  I have lived and worked and occasionally slept in that office for the best part of a decade, and when I moved into it, I brought with me notes and books from previous offices (some were still taped in the boxes when I finally threw them out this week).

Tidying out an office is a bit like an archaeological dig, as you work your way down to bedrock through the strata of occupation.  A tin of sardines from my low-carb diet in, I think, 2003, the water bowl under the bookcase from when I used to bring my puppy in with me at the weekends (2004), the kitchen timer from my early experiments with the Pomodoro technique.

But the really interesting story is about how technology has transformed the processes of reading, writing and research since I began work in – gasp – 1970.  I have finally jettisoned most of the research notes from my PhD and books, and seeing these notes brought back the whole process of research as it once existed.

I can remember sitting at a microfilm reader in a darkened room with a portable typewriter balanced on my lap, reading the Sydney Morning Herald, jotting down brief summaries.  I was one of the fortunate, then almost entirely female minority, in the academic world who could touch type, a skill then taught only to the ‘commercial stream’ at school who left before matriculation to work in an office.  This unusual skill meant I avoided the worst of the headaches that were a normal part of the microfilm experience, caused by constantly shifting one’s gaze from the screen to the page and back again.  Very occasionally, because it was expensive, I would print out a page, which then had to dry before I cut it into columns, stuck it to a sheet of paper, and filed it.

Nowadays, of course, a researcher searches the appropriate database, and saves the data in searchable pdf files, perhaps linked to Endnote or a similar research management software package.  Card files exist only in virtual form; so does carbon paper (cc:); ‘scrolling’ through a document; ‘folders’ (which used to be manila) and ‘clip and paste’ (which I did with scissors and sticky tape).

Microfilm itself was an innovation of profound importance for someone like me, working in the 1970s.  Until the Second World War, the only way a historian could do research was to visit the necessary archives.  Travel was slow and expensive, and the Public Record Office in London was a 5 weeks’ sea voyage away, beyond the reach of most scholars of Australian colonial history, except for the blessed few who had tenure, and the luxury of a year’s sabbatical leave.  (These were, almost without exception, ageing males with non-working wives who could pack up and go too.)

Other scholars relied on several collections of published materials, the Historical Records of New South Wales (1901 onwards), and the Historical Records of Australia (1925 onwards), an initiative that ended with the depression, by which stages the HRA had reached the 1840s.  These collections, thoroughly indexed and annotated, and beautifully published, are still a wonderful, sadly underutilized resource, but they are based on government sources and reflect the biases of their time.  Here you have ‘the view from the government house verandah’.

After World War II, a consortium of libraries began a new initiative, the Australian Joint Copying Project, to microfilm material in the UK relating to Australia.  More government sources were copied, but the great innovation was finding and copying of papers in private hands.  For many years the former Mitchell librarian, Phyllis Mander-Jones was attached to Australia House, supervising this task.  In 1988, the Australian Historical Records Register began as a bicentenary project, to find and copy materials in private hands within Australia.

Manuscripts in private hands are vulnerable.  People die and their heirs don’t care.  Storage isn’t adequate, particularly when people are on the move.  Just this week, I heard that the papers of the Chermside Historical Society, a local society in a nearby suburb, were destroyed in the recent Brisbane floods.  So digitisation is a wonderful thing, making material accessible, searchable and safe from physical damage.

But I wonder what has been lost in this process.  In the late 1970s, when I sat in my dark broom cupboard in front of a microfilm reader, I don’t doubt that I missed a lot as I scrolled through the newspapers that a word search would find.  But I picked up a lot, too.  I was constantly distracted by other things – shipping reports, advertisements for servants or missing stock, theatre reviews.  I learned when the latest Dickens novel was serialised, and read the truly awful poetry of Henry Parkes.

You can still browse, but it’s no longer a requirement, as it was when I had to use my own eyes to search for the necessary character string (then known as a word).

There is another issue, too.  Not everything is digitised yet – nor perhaps ever will be.  Given the choice, researchers will read the most accessible sources.   But what about the other newspapers and manuscripts?  When the Brisbane Courier and the Boomerang were only available in hard copy, you chose the paper that best suited your topic, or read both.  Now, the Courier is searchable, but the Boomerang is not – and a vast store of material is ignored as a result.

Image courtesy of the incredibly addictive Wordle

Many Australian newspapers have been digitised and are available through the National Library of Australia

New Zealand newspapers are digitised at Papers Past

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4 responses to “The Age of Anecdotage

  1. You are so right about the way that digitisation will skew research towards the sources available online and away from those that aren’t. We need some critical studies of the implications of this for colonial Australian history, if not the field more generally. And by the way, I am very grateful to have benefitted from your office clean-out recently!

    • Hi Melissa – yes, it’s a worry. I’m also encountering recent research that takes the form of searching databases for a particular item – ‘coffee’ or ‘Afghan traders’ or whatever – collating a heap of results of varying importance, and writing it up. A lot of commodity histories are in danger of going that way, too much information and not enough evaluation.
      (There are a lot more books lining the corridors of Forgan Smith if you want any more – and the same goes for anyone else reading this locally)

  2. Judy powell

    All so true. I particularly regret the end of wandering down aisles in the library being distracted by books to either side of the one you were supposed to be finding. Isn’t it interesting how the new technology relies on the terms of the old – cut and paste, folders etc. I guess this is always the case – it gives people like bill Bryson lots of copy!

  3. Pingback: Law and History | Historians are Past Caring

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