By Ben Rogers |

Interaction with primary sources is an essential element in each of our projects. Indeed, for most of us we would rather head straight into primary source work rather than dancing around the myriad of secondary literature. Successful examination of primary material is the foundation of any good project and the more of it that is done, the stronger our respective arguments will be. However, with the growing emphasis being placed on digitisation in the majority of archives, most of us will end up facing a computer screen rather than a document from our respective time periods. Does this work better, or are we missing out? Here are some musings from a student who is currently spending most of his time sitting in front of that said computer screen.

First and foremost, we need to recognise that digitisation is a form of preservation and that the maintenance of documents are essential for a nation’s history. The more documents that are digitised, the surer we are that our heritage is being maintained. It also leads the way to more published collections of documents, which all students can appreciate. Furthermore, the same amount of meticulous examination still has to be carried out on sources whether they be digital or physical.

However, all of this raises the idea of a growing distance; particularly distance from our respective time periods. When we look at physical documents it makes us feel close and connected to the actions and ideas that were in circulation at the time. We may also get a thrill from knowing that an important actor from our period owned a certain document, or seeing their actual handwriting on the page. Though this could be seen as a petty grievance, I have found that taking information of a computer screen does not fill me with nearly the same amount of happiness I get when taking it from a physical document. Despite this, information is information, no matter what way it is presented to you.

Microfilm Reader (Ben's Blog) (800x574)

One of the main practicalities that digitisation allows is availability. Once a document is digitised you know that you won’t have to wait for it be delivered, or that another researcher has taken it instead of you. Plus you don’t have to live in fear of a document request being delayed which always scuppers a good research plan. Also, with the advances in digitisation software most online documents are now well indexed, which makes any researcher’s job a lot easier.

Digital documents do make good sense for a project such as a PhD. Your optician will think it’s a good idea, since after hours of looking at a computer screen with your eyes becoming bloodshot, you will probably need glasses by the end of the project. You also have the opportunity to get more work done since archive computers have usually blocked the gateway to social media procrastination.

However with its benefits come more pitfalls. Since most of us will have to travel to find sources we face the problem of only having a short amount of face time with a digital document. While the printing of documents is an option, the fact they cost on average over fifty pence and upwards a sheet presents us with a rage inducing expense. It would seem logical to suggest time management, but we just never know how long it will take us to examine a certain document. This can be applied to both physical as well as digital sources. I can only speak from the knowledge that the majority of my documents (so far) are based in the United Kingdom.

Digitised documents are therefore just as fruitful as physical ones. However, if you find that they are not your taste, you can always apply to view the physical ones. Though bear in mind their availability may not be as certain as a digital copy.

(Image 1: Liz West Flickr account; Image 2: commons.wikimedia.org)