Gloves Off, Touching History

manipulating evidence (in a good way) to touch history.

While the buzz in digital history is currently emanating from “data-mining”—amassing large amounts of evidence in searchable digital form in order to develop algorithms that might detect new patterns and interpretations about the past—my work this quarter with students on a digital history of the folk music revival using the Berkeley Folk Festival Archives in Northwestern’s Special Collections Library has made me consider a different side of the emerging field of digital history: not data-mining, but rather data manipulation.

Wait, we don’t manipulate data! That sounds like a bad thing at first, but what I mean is that the digitization of archival materials not only allows greater access to historical artifacts, but also, potentially, enables new ways of examining the materials in those collections. Whereas once librarians had to guard materials in order to safeguard them from decay, in digital form we can investigate artifacts in all sorts of ways.

Worker holding a plutonium button.

We can rip them up, reassemble them, twist and turn them around and inside out or outside in; we can play the tape backwards, splice it up, conjoin it to other sounds; we can zoom in and out, set things in virtual motion, or make them still for a closer look; we can annotate in new ways, we can bring competing interpretations together around archival evidence with an immediacy that can be revelatory; we can place artifacts in relation to all sorts of other materials and information.

When it comes to historical archives, the irony of the virtual is that it actually makes materials more tangible. It allows us to take the gloves off and really touch history. Of course, we have a long way to go in developing the right tools and creating the right conditions for more robust online learning environments that allow for the virtual examination of historical artifacts. We still need to figure out what tools work well for what materials, and how institutions can enable innovation of new tools by users themselves. We still need to work through legal and ethical issues of copyright as they pertain to special collections materials. And we need to figure out how digital repositories will continue to interact with their ancestors, those crucial material repositories; which is another way of saying we need to better understand how the real world and the virtual world intertwine in ways that make the pursuit of knowledge and the strengthening of historical competencies and, most of all, historical inquiry, expand.

As we nudge the materials of the past forward into the virtual realm of the future, let’s smudge that future up more with the past, shall we? After all, now we can really leave our fingerprints behind on these thingless things.

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