Review: The US and Us: American History in Britain in the Twenty-First Century

The US and Us: American History in the Twenty-First Century, University of Leicester, 16 January 2017

This one-day event followed an enjoyable and thought-provoking meeting at the University of Leicester in September 2016. That event, as Ben Offiler indicates in his review, focused on publishing, impact, grant application, and how we might employ digital resources effectively in the classroom. This time the focus shifted to the challenges and frustrations facing UK-based researchers studying the USA. Travelling across the Atlantic to visit archives is costly and time-consuming. Moreover, as events which transpired after this workshop took place have reinforced, visiting the US to conduct research may be an option denied to some, and an option others choose to forego on the grounds of ideological disagreements with the actions of the current regime.

The framing question of the workshop, therefore, was: how do we research the US from a distance? Andrew Johnstone, the organiser of this series of events, and holder of the British Academy’s Rising Star Award, drew together an impressive roster of academics, archivists, and librarians to help us answer that question.

Heather Cole (Houghton Library, Harvard), Dan Linke (Mudd Library, Princeton) and Kirsten Carter (FDR Presidential Library) introduced us to the expansion of digitisation in recent years and the complications that come with this. What gets chosen to be digitised? What level of digitisation is required? How should this material be made available? How should it be catalogued so that researchers can find it easily? Although initiatives like the Digital Public Library of America are attempting to collate digital repositories and make them searchable across a single platform, the very different approaches of individual archives to finding aids and description means this task is far from complete, and is likely very far away from completion.

Nor is digitisation, as the panellists pointed out, a one-off, finite process. Improvements in technology, and changes in the questions researchers want to ask of documents, may require revisiting and upgrading a digital copy (for instance, replacing a microfilm copy with a better digital reproduction). The Emily Dickinson Archive curated by the Houghton Library, for instance, demonstrates how vital is preservation of marginalia and other marks or material elements that might otherwise be dismissed as unimportant. Similarly, the development of Optical Character Recognition (OCR) has helped make many digitised documents text-searchable (we hold out hope for a version of OCR that works for scrawly nineteenth century handwriting!).

One enduring theme was the cost and politics of digitisation. Digitising archival material is both technologically complicated and labour-intensive; and therefore, costly. Archives and libraries—usually operating with limited budgets—are obliged to look outside their institutions for both skilled technicians and funding, which may explain why some collections are prioritised above others. Archivists, librarians, and curators must also confront the different purposes of digitisation, to preserve material (especially material that might otherwise decay or be lost, such as old film or voice recordings, or even newer technologies like floppy disks), or make it accessible to a wider audience? While these aims may sometimes coincide, they may also work at cross purposes.

The second session of the day dealt mainly with the digital humanities. As one speaker suggested, this frequently comes up in job interviews – perhaps more because the panel themselves are unsure what it is, rather than to test the candidate! When engaging in digital humanities research, we must ask ourselves whether we are discovering something that could not have been discovered using another technology. To put it another way, are we mapping merely for the sake of mapping, simply to say we are keeping up with the latest trends in digital research? The panellists, Matthew Connolly (Columbia and History Lab) and Andrew Prescott, Theme Leadership Fellow for the AHRC ‘Digital Transformations’ theme (University of Glasgow), aptly demonstrated both the broad scope of digital humanities, and the genuinely inventive and useful applications of its methodologies. Some recent, exciting projects which use digital methodologies include Digital Harlem, Richmond Slave MarketViral Texts, and Legacies of British Slave Ownership.

But digital humanities research can come with problems and quandaries. Some may be logistical, in that metadata may be incomplete or inconsistent, for instance, or the dataset may be too large for a small team of researchers to cope with. Others may be ethical, for example what are the implications of big data for issues of intellectual property, privacy, and cultural memory? Digital humanities can be expensive, too, which requires researchers to think critically about the merits of the approach, and its sustainability.

This panel emphasised that we must first understand the tools of digital research in order to appreciate its potential limitations. Coming to this understanding is not a solo project, but a team effort requiring a crucial interdisciplinarity. Collaboration, therefore, was an important theme of this panel , not only with other historians, but with computer scientists, statisticians, and even legal experts. This is vital for overcoming the problems of scale or incompleteness, and in building strategies for asking new and useful questions of large datasets.

Finally, Mercedes Aguirre (British Library) and Jane Rawson (Vere Harmsworth Library, Oxford University) emphasised that UK-based Americanists have more close and ready access to archival and digital material than they may think. Both the Vere Harmsworth (attached to the Rothermere Institute) and the BL have significant American holdings, including rare books and manuscripts, campaign ephemera, periodicals and diplomatic papers.

Moreover, the two institutions have extensive digital repositories (usually accessible onsite though some remote access is available), such as the BL’s African American newspaper collection. This raised another potentially thorny issue: the cost and politics of digital subscription. Curated collections of digitised primary sources, purchased in bundles along with software to render them viewable, are phenomenally expensive and come with ongoing costs in the form of annual subscription. Librarians are under immense pressure to justify these expenses to budget-holders, and are often obliged to look to usage statistics as proof that the collections are a worthy investment (whether or not this is a fool-proof measure…). The moral of the story is to make as much use of collections to which your institution subscribes as possible!

Two overarching ideas stood out overall. First, that despite the problems, frustrations, and costs involved in using digital archives or engaging in digital humanities research, we should be excited, not daunted, by the opportunities and the scale of the data available. Digital research can be ground-breaking, and can prompt us to approach new sources and new types of sources, to approach old sources in new ways, to ask different questions of those sources, and to form truly interdisciplinary collaborative networks in seeking answers to those questions.

Second, the presenters were anxious to emphasise–and those who have conducted archival research in the past will no doubt agree–that the archivist and the librarian are still important. There is no substitute for talking to those who know the collections well and can advise about material that has not yet been digitised, organised, or catalogued with a finding aid. Indeed, all speakers made evident their thorough knowledge of the collections with which they worked, as well as their genuine passion for preserving and sharing that material in innovative, inclusive, and inspiring ways.

The day’s panels, and ‘The US and Us’ programme more broadly, demonstrated the richness and resourcefulness of current American history research and teaching in the UK. More importantly, the programme emphasised the crucial role of ECRs in pushing the boundaries of this research and teaching, and provided an inclusive and positive forum for forging new connections and networks and engaging in substantive debate about the future directions of American history in this country.

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About Rachel Williams

Rachel Williams is a Lecturer in American History at the University of Hull. She is currently working on a book about civilian relief agencies in the Civil War era.
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