Archive Photography, Technology, and Afro-Atlantic History

CO 1069-96-7

The digital world provides historians with an array of tools and ways to make our time in the archive and our research process more fulfilling, thorough, and generally productive. But the changes we make need to happen from the bottom up–from conception to execution.

For example, Trevor Owens, assessing the Ithaka report on historian’s research practices released late last year questions whether library finding aids are as useful as they can be in a brave, new world of Google search:

If the goal of the finding aid is to help researchers find things and the way they do that is to search Google (which is really good at looking for particular things in HTML pages) then why is the HTML page a byproduct of the EAD XML finding aid and not the primary thing that the archivist authors?

In other words, Owens is asking librarians, libraries, and archives to think about how technology is changing the entire research process–not just how technology can make what we have done in the past easier. The truth is, what we have done in the past may not work as well as it did. Surprise of all surprises.

If I apply the same sort of thinking to the process I outlined in my last post, I’m doing something fundamentally different from others who experience their research in a so-called analog way–by sitting in an archive with boxes of documents and moving methodically through each one.  For those historians, data collection and data review happen simultaneously.

The process I described is only part of the process because it’s primarily a data collection process. It works because it uses the time I have in the archive–which is always limited–as efficiently as possible. But it also means I’ve pushed the work of translating, taking notes, or organizing those notes–the data review–to a different time of day or point in my research trip.

This, to me, is not a bad thing. I’d much rather have the documents I need wherever I go and process them in the early morning (or late night) hours of the day, when the archive is closed.  Rather than feel like there is something in the archive I missed because I didn’t have enough time to cover all of the boxes, and then have to go through the process of applying for funding, arranging time off, making travel arrangements, etc., etc., etc.

In fact, I’d wager that for anyone researching the Atlantic African diaspora, technology is a necessity, not a luxury or a privilege. Mobile, digital, accessible personal archives are crucial for those of us invested in the comparative study of people of African descent.

Black people moved and were moved.  My current project requires me to visit archives on three continents and I have documents I’ve photographed in France, Senegal, and in the United States. And I’m doing this work at a time when spending years and years in the archive is a near impossibility–tenure requirements forbid it, research funding prevents it.

There is also a painful effort to maintain archives that especially impacts those studying histories outside of the so-called West.  From Haiti to Timbuktu, cataclysmic events are destroying the documents we need even as I type this post. Beyond conflict zones and environmental disasters, the daily labor of protecting documents can still overwhelm resources.  I’ve done research as the documents themselves were crumbling in my hands. These problems aren’t unique to the global South. In Aix-en-Provence, I’ve opened many a notarial register to find worms have eaten their way through the material to the point of illegibility.  And there’s been a push in Louisiana to save the New Orleans colonial archives from destruction. Photocopying these materials is often impossible.

Then there’s the time period I work in–long before the printed word became the norm.  Even if the documents I am reviewing have sustained no obvious damage, they’re still written in the looping eighteenth-century scrawl.  While the ink is alarming resilient after centuries, the handwriting doesn’t get more legible over time.

But you know what does make that cipheric scribble just a little bit easier to read? Manipulating contrast through an image reader.  “Getting lucky” with Picasa.

This new research process is something that needs to continue to be discussed and theorized inside and outside of the academy.  And as far as within the academy, there may be something to this dual-process that department heads and institutions may need to keep in mind as new faculty navigate the terrain of research, teaching, and service. Doing “Atlantic world” research is quite sexy right now and technology makes it efficient. But in what way is our labor–from top to bottom, conception to execution–fundamentally different from colleagues doing work within other frameworks?

Image Credit: “CO 1069-96-7″ [Sierra Leone] courtesy of National Archives UK. The descriptions read: Cassava heaps; Gathering trash; Digging for cassava; Planting cassava; Fully grown cassava in house-yard.

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