(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘digital photography

“The writing of history reflects the interests, predilections, and even prejudices of a given generation”*…

 

archive

History, as a discipline, comes out of the archive. The archive is not the library, but something else entirely. Libraries spread knowledge that’s been compressed into books and other media. Archives are where collections of papers are stored, usually within a library’s inner sanctum: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s papers, say, at the New York Public Library. Or Record Group 31 at the National Archives—a set of Federal Housing Administration documents from the 1930s to the ’70s. Usually, an archive contains materials from the people and institutions near it. So, the Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford contains everything from Atari’s business plans to HP co-founder William Hewlett’s correspondence.

While libraries have become central actors in the digitization of knowledge, archives have generally resisted this trend. They are still almost overwhelmingly paper. Traditionally, you’d go to a place like this and sit there, day after day, “turning every page,” as the master biographer Robert Caro put it. You might spend weeks, months, or, like Caro, years working through all the boxes, taking extensive notes and making some (relatively expensive) photocopies. Fewer and fewer people have the time, money, or patience to do that. (If they ever did.)

Enter the smartphone, and cheap digital photography. Instead of reading papers during an archival visit, historians can snap pictures of the documents and then look at them later. Ian Milligan, a historian at the University of Waterloo, noticed the trend among his colleagues and surveyed 250 historians, about half of them tenured or tenure-track, and half in other positions, about their work in the archives. The results quantified the new normal. While a subset of researchers (about 23 percent) took few (fewer than 200) photos, the plurality (about 40 percent) took more than 2,000 photographs for their “last substantive project.”

The driving force here is simple enough. Digital photos drive down the cost of archival research, allowing an individual to capture far more documents per hour. So an archival visit becomes a process of standing over documents, snapping pictures as quickly as possible. Some researchers organize their photos swiping on an iPhone, or with an open-source tool named Tropy; some, like Alex Wellerstein, a historian at Stevens Institute of Technology, have special digital-camera setups, and a standardized method. In my own work, I used Dropbox’s photo tools, which I used to output PDFs, which I dropped into Scrivener, my preferred writing software.

These practices might seem like a subtle shift—researchers are still going to collections and requesting boxes and reading papers—but the ways that information is collected and managed transmute what historians can learn from it. There has been, as Milligan put it, a “dramatic reshaping of historical practice.” Different histories will be written because the tools of the discipline are changing…

Alexis Madrigal takes a deep dive into how archives– and the ways that we use them– are morphing: “The Way We Write History Has Changed.”

* John Hope Franklin

###

As we “turn every page,” we might recall that it was on this date in 1812 that Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry signed the redistricting legislation that led to his being accused of the first instance of “gerrymandering” in the U.S.

In 1812 the state adopted new constitutionally-mandated electoral district boundaries. The Republican-controlled legislature had created district boundaries designed to enhance their party’s control over state and national offices, leading to some oddly shaped legislative districts. Although Gerry was unhappy about the highly partisan districting (according to his son-in-law, he thought it “highly disagreeable”), he signed the legislation. The shape of one of the state senate districts in Essex County was compared to a salamander by a local Federalist newspaper in a political cartoon, calling it a “Gerry-mander.” Ever since, the creation of such districts has been called gerrymandering. [source]

220px-The_Gerry-Mander_Edit

The word “gerrymander” (originally written “Gerry-mander”) was used for the first time in the Boston Gazette newspaper on March 26, 1812.[78] Appearing with the term, and helping spread and sustain its popularity, was this political cartoon, which depicts a state senate district in Essex County as a strange salamander-shaped animal with claws, wings and a dragon-type head, satirizing the district’s odd shape.

source

 

%d bloggers like this: