A Dangerous Weapon in the Researcher's Armory: DIY Digitization in the Study of Social History

    Research output: Working Paper


    Despite their penchant for studying revolutions, historians rarely find themselves in the midst of them; changes of leadership and new administrative structures at universities rarely prove to be as revolutionary as predicted. Yet we are in the midst of a digital revolution that is changing the way we find source material, collect and store our sources, read and interpret them, present and publish them and use them to teach our students. There are few other revolutions in the history of our profession that compare in terms of the implications for how, what and why we research.

    The way we access primary source material has changed the environment of archives dramatically. Archives have become photography studios, sites from which sources are copied and removed rather than places to think, work and reflect. The occasional request for a photocopy of a key document has converted into the mass evacuation of whole archives through the lens of a digital camera. Fellow researchers are momentary companions in this process rather than longer term associates sharing coffee and ideas during well-earned breaks. Archivists have become gatekeepers to a digitized and privatized research process carried out mainly in the isolation of the office or the home study rather than in quiet, if sometimes disturbed, contemplation surrounded by other enquiring academics.

    Yet this has, on the whole, been a silent revolution. There has been very little in the way of discussion beyond the corridors and common rooms of history departments. Predictably—and fittingly—the more public of these conversations have occurred in online blogs and discussion forums. Now is, perhaps, a good time to reflect in a more consistent and sustained manner on this revolution. That is the objective of this chapter. The focus here is on one researcher’s experience of DIY digitization in the early stages of this revolution, during a collaborative social history project conducted with Professor Henry French (University of Exeter) and Dr Jennifer Jordan between 2007 and 2010. The process of personally accessing, collecting, analysing and interpreting the primary source evidence is my concern here, rather than the use of existing online sources, data storage, the use of meta-data or online publications of sources.
    Original languageEnglish
    Number of pages12
    Publication statusPublished - 2016


    • social history


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