July 24, 2015

Finest Hour 166, Winter 2015

Page 39

By Richard Toye

This article is adapted from a presentation at the 30th International Churchill Conference in Washington, D.C., in November 2013.

I first visited the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge as a new Ph.D. student, in 1996. Although they have since been remodelled and expanded, the reading rooms did not look strikingly different then from the way they appear today. That is deceptive, because over the last nineteen years historical research has undergone a technological revolution.

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The recent digitization of the Churchill Papers, which puts the Archives Centre at the leading edge of this transformation of scholarship, is merely the latest in a series of inter-connected changes in academic practice. These have made research considerably easier, but they also raise interesting questions about how the new ways historians work might have an impact on their actual findings.

In the days before the ubiquity of the World-Wide Web—during which I did my undergraduate and Master’s degrees—the process of archival research seemed straightforward enough. You looked up the address and phone number of the archive in question in a book; you called them on the phone or wrote a letter to make an appointment; and the first thing you did when you got there was to take down a catalogue from the shelf and to pore over it looking for relevant items. You had with you a pencil and a notebook; eventually I moved on to an extremely primitive portable computer with rubber keys. An archive was not just a place to gather information, it was a place of hard choices: Should I copy down the exact quotation, or just paraphrase? Should I go crazy and just have the whole damn document photocopied? As a relatively impecunious student, the copying question was often a very tough call.

How things have changed. Today, you can generally look up the catalogue on the net beforehand and send in a list of requests in advance: no anxiety about whether or not the collection you’re going to see actually has significant material. Most archives (including the Churchill ones) now permit digital photography. It is often quicker to take a picture than it is to decide whether or not it’s worth taking. Snap away, and worry about what’s relevant when you get back to the office.

What’s more, there are now many resources you can access without leaving the office in the first place. Some are freely available on the web. These include a wide range of digital newspapers (try a Google News Archive search) and digitized newsreels, notably from the Movietone and Pathé companies. Others are only available from behind a pay-wall. Some of these you can sign up to as an individual; others (including, at the time of writing, the Churchill Papers) require an institutional subscription. One of these, the archive of the sociological research organisation, Mass-Observation, was particularly useful to me during the writing of my most recent book, The Roar of the Lion. I was fortunate that the university I work at had chosen to commit the resources to subscribe.

Are there any downsides to this revolution? I would highlight two potential ones. First, there is the loss of ‘the thrill of the original’. I shall never forget my first time in an archive, as an undergraduate. I could hardly believe that I was able to handle actual letters written by the economist John Maynard Keynes. Moreover, documents need to be understood as physical objects, not merely as collections of black marks on a page or screen, and digital images are not helpful from this perspective.

But in fact, there are strong reasons, from the point of view of preservation, why the handling of paper should be minimised. It has been some years since researchers have been able to look at the Churchill Papers in the original as a matter of course; quite rightly, we have been restricted to microfilm edition, and from this point of view digitisation represents no additional loss.

The second possible downside is that the new technology might make us lazy. Why bother to seek out new sources when you can access so many without leaving your desk? But this, I believe, is a red herring. Digital sources free historians to use their time more effectively. Work online when necessary; use precious archival time more efficiently to dig into the obscure and outlying collections that no one has yet thought to computerise and perhaps never will.

Of course, the existence of digitised records can never do away with the need for historians to exercise their judgement. The practice of history is the art of bringing facts into relationship with one another: the discovery of even the most sensational archival document means nothing unless it is put into meaningful context. But computers now offer indispensable advantages in our quest to carry out this art successfully.

Professor Toye teaches at the University of Exeter. He is the author of The Roar of the Lion: The Untold Story of Churchill’s World War II Speeches (2013) and Churchill’s Empire: The World That Made Him and the World He Made (2010).

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