By Catherine Bateson |

It is a truth universally acknowledged that summertime brings strawberries, sunshine (for a day in Scotland) and the exodus of PhD students who have research areas which involve visits to archives away from their home institutions and countries. As a nineteenth century American historian, I count myself among those lucky enough to have to visit foreign climes for primary source materials.

I research the Irish experience of the American Civil War through songs produced on both sides of the Atlantic. The majority of sources I use are in America not Ireland, so archives trips involve heading stateside. Yes, there are long flights, jet lag and American archive bureaucracy to negotiate, but my fellow transnational historians we are kidding ourselves if we pretend our academic path is a hardship. In fact, the ever-increasing digitisation of history is beginning to impact whether we need to go abroad for research purposes at all, particularly in relation to American studies.

Ben has discussed the merits of digitisation versus physical archives but it is an issue of particular pertinence to scholars who look beyond the British Isles. What does the future hold for those of us who research the history of foreign countries and take transnational approaches to our studies? This question has been burning in my mind since I first formed vague PhD proposal thoughts. When I began looking for primary sources to support my thesis, I came across numerous digitised archives central to my topic. In fact, the majority of my song sources are online. There are three interrelated reasons explaining this:

  1. They look good. Song sheets from the 1860s were often decorated with illustrated borders, sometimes colours, and because they were printed, are gentle on the eye compared to barely legible 19th century handwriting.
  2. They are different. During the American Civil War’s 150th anniversary, numerous US archives, university libraries and private historical sites flooded the internet with digitized non-traditional materials because they are different from hundreds of thousands of wartime letters and diaries.
  3. They are American. Or more accurately, they’re held in American institutions where digitisation of historical primary sources occurs on an enormous scale compared to Europe, thanks mostly to philanthropic donations that ease this costly process. Their availability online is aided by pre-1900 US copyright law accessibility.

This raises an issue: do we as historians in the twenty-first century need to leave our computer screens and desks (or beds)? Not long after starting my PhD, I debated the issue of materiality with a colleague specifically on whether seeing and touching primary sources contributed to the overall research project. While I trace the production and dissemination of a particular type of print culture, physical copies, literal or digital, are enough. I need to see the words on song sheets; their tactile side would be solely for the thrill all researchers feel when we touch old primary materials.

Digitisation’s effect on transnational history nearly had a detrimental impact on my research trip to New York earlier this summer. Seeking out un-digitised song sheets makes a change from scrolling through online databases of 19th music (the largest archive I look at holds 29,000 songs). Thus the Mick Moloney Collection of Irish-American Music and Popular Culture at New York University was top of my ‘archives to visit’ list. While NYU’s library had taken the useful step of listing the titles of every folder and box in the archive, I would need to do some physical research to find Civil War songs, including ones which the catalogue informed me I had not seen before. I had a legitimate excuse to go to New York which didn’t involve shopping and sightseeing (though that happened too).

cb2The vertigo-inducing inside of New York University’s main library.

Flights booked, plans made to visit other libraries on my American archive adventure…and then NYU emailed saying that six boxes I needed to see, containing over a hundred folders of songs, would not be available. The collection was undergoing digitisation. Initially I was annoyed because the out-of-action sources comprised the bulk of materials I wanted to research. I also thought this was a brilliant turn of events. The collection’s digitisation meant more accessible primary sources which I would still eventually see. Ultimately, by the time I arrived in New York the library had finished digitising faster than planned. So the sources were back available in the stacks and I got study them one thundery day in mid-July, under the watchful gaze of the Empire State Building.

cb3The view from New York University’s main library, with the Empire State Building in the centre. How the students get work done while looking at this is beyond me.

My experience made me re-evaluate digitisation’s position within the study of foreign countries and transnational history. I have two conclusions. First, to anyone thinking about engaging in transnational and international research: do so!! One criticism of transnational history is that it’s expensive and at times impractical because resources are far afield. Yet archives are more accessible online than you think, especially ones relating to American history. It never ceases to amaze me what a quick internet search can throw up. Second, by the time we reach Emeritus stage I predict the majority of humanities primary sources will be digitised. They will be available for all, not just academics, opening up public access and providing a whole range of new ideas and subjects to inspire study. It’s already happening after all: my own PhD research sprang from when I helped the British Library produce an online gallery exhibit of digitised materials relating to Britain and American during the Civil War. In my own small way, I not only contributed to the digitisation of transnational history but have exploited it to my own doctoral interests.

Obviously not everything is currently digitised and the majority of sources I ended up with in America were physical hard copies that may or may not appear online any time soon. Nevertheless, digitisation helps answer a question one friend put to me: ‘are there any new sources out there to research?’ The answer of course is yes, and ones that are over 3000 miles away are increasingly easy to discover.

Catherine Bateson is a PhD History student about to start her second year at the University of Edinburgh. She researches Irish American songs written and produced during the American Civil War, analysing the sentiments they express and how they form part of a transnational Irish cultural diaspora. Her musings on American history can be found on Twitter @catbateson.

All images © Catherine Bateson

Share Button