Monday, April 14, 2008

The coming archival revolution

For centuries, historians have depended upon archives that store one-of-a-kind materials, often handwritten letters and diaries, to give them unique glimpses of the past. Because these materials often existed in single copies that were housed in repositories accessible only to those who had the time and means to travel to them, this tended to restrict many aspects of the most advanced research to those with the means to spend hours, days, or even months engaged in the task of reading dusty old papers and taking notes in far-off archives.

Now the leading repository for the history of the U.S. South, and one of the most important ones for the study of slavery in the Americas is proposing to launch a scanning project that may eventually put most of its 16 million items on line. The Southern Historical Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill has in fact already started this process by scanning one significant collection (the papers of Populist politician and later notorious anti-Semite Tom Watson), but they have even bigger plans. And they brought together about twenty historians at the end of last weekend to discuss and gather feedback on their immensely exciting proposal of opening up virtually the holdings of the SHC to the web. Here's the link for the announcement of the workshop, though it doesn't really begin to get at the most exciting dimnesions of the discussion: http://www.lib.unc.edu/mss/archivalmassdigitization/index.html

Even more than expanding access, this project could--if it allows readers and researchers to talk back to the material (and each other) by incorporating a host of Web 2.0 features like tagging, enabling connections between users, allowing the posting of transcripts, etc.--radically change the "how," the nature of the way that we do history. It would also change the "who" part of doing history as well. More on this later, but I'd love to hear the reactions of any readers to this project.

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