The Promise and Peril of Digital Research

I’ve become a big fan of the digitization projects led by google and a number of leading libraries over the past few years. These projects hold particular promise for scholars investigating colonial and nineteenth century Latin America. (Even more so, I would imagine, for europeanists.) Particularly because google has made the commitment to digitize everything they can that has expired copyright, many hard-to-find offerings that have been languishing anonymously in card catalogues and on basement bookshelves in libraries around the world are coming available in a very accessible and utilitarian format.

For example, one can find on google books full text copies of the Siete Partidas, the Fuero Juzgo, the Obras de Gacilaso de la Vega in their 1804 edition, innumerable commentaries on the law, guides for magistrates, science, medicine, travel diaries, and more in their original 18th and early 19th century editions. Early national criminal and civil codes that are difficult to find or difficult to acquire through interlibrary loan are at one’s finger tips, ready to download in PDF form. Unfortunately, the PDFs that you get directly from google books are not already OCR’d, and the RAM required to run a 600 page PDF through the OCR machinery can be quite substantial– but with Adobe, one can easily cut the works into chapters, OCR them, and store them in a centralized folder.  Once that is done, desktop search engines like Apple’s Spotlight can index the texts and make them fully searchable.  Better yet, a program like devon-technologies’ DevonThink can store the pdfs in a database and so smart searches that utilize AI to look for linguistically similar texts across large bodies of data (millions of words).  This is truly revolutionary.

 

A quick example– I’m currently revising the final chapter of my book which deals substantially with the events surrounding the establishment of the 1809 Junta Suprema in Quito. I knew that the President of the Audiencia, the Count Ruiz de Castilla, had an English secretary around that time, but I didn’t realize he had written an account of the events that temporarily deposed the Count. I happened upon Harvard’s digitized Latin American Pamphlets site and did my requisite search of Quito, and up popped a spanish-language account by the secretary (William Bennett Stevenson). I then went over to google books and found Stevenson’s full account of his years in South America, serving not just Ruiz de Castilla but also Lord Cochrane. Stevenson’s account is full of excellent little turns of phrase. His description, for example, of the Marqués of Selva Alegre includes this nice tidbit: “At the gaze of the people he would, like a peacock, have allowed his gaudy plumage to fall to the ground; he would have endeavoured to hid himself, or, as the most enthusiastic Quiteños expressed themselves, “his shoes did not fit him.”

This work, and many others like it, show up in the notes of historians who wrote in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, but were neglected by later generations of scholars who moved on, so to speak. Hopefully the accessibility provided by google, individual libraries that are digitizing their collections, and online repositories such as the Biblioteca Virtual Miguel Cervantes will open these works to new analysis, including that made possible by tools like DevonThink. 

That’s the promise, but what is the peril? Well, there is no substitute for sitting in the archive of a city or place that you are studying- seeing it, smelling it, feeling it, stumbling upon long forgotten texts, the whole visceral experience of dust that is archival research. Digitization could threaten that experience ultimately as grad students and professors no longer feel that pull of the archive. It is also a potential threat to interlibrary loan staffing, I would guess. I’m OK with the latter, though not with the former.

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Associate Professor of Early Latin America Department of History University of Tennessee-Knoxville

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Chad Black

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I, your humble contributor, am Chad Black. You can also find me on the web here.
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