The Individual Research Archive: Hacking the “Papers of You”

A couple of years ago, Special Collections at the University of New Mexico’s Zimmerman Library produced a colorful guide to its holdings. I ended up finding a copy of the book in the hall outside of a professor’s office about six months ago. When I finally leafed through it, I was both impressed by the depth and importance of the library’s Latin American holdings, and shamed that I had no idea what all was there until after I had moved on from graduate school in Albuquerque. One of the key holdings that the Center for Southwest Research (CSR) has is the France V. Scholes Papers, which contain the usual mixture of primary materials, research and teaching notes, and other academic papers one comes to expect from the life work of a truly significant scholar. Scholes moved to Albuquerque in the 1920s to help with tuberculosis. His academic career was an important one in professionalizing inquiry into the history of Mexico, the Yucatan, and New Mexico amongst the US academy. He also trained some important institutional historians, including Richard Greenleaf, in the historical traditions of diplomatics and paleography. The collection, according to its description, includes:

…research and teaching notes, maps and correspondence about the colonial history of Mexico, Yucatan and New Mexico, with some related material about the Caribbean, Central and Latin America. The collection also includes academic and personal information.

It consists of 54 boxes and 16 oversize folders, all accessible in the Reading Room of the CSR. But, this isn’t the only France V. Scholes collection available for researchers who can make it to a distant academic library. Tulane University also holds an extensive France V. Scholes Collection, totalling some 277,000 items, largely typescript transcriptions and microfilm of manuscripts from the Archivo General de las Indias and the Archivo General de la Nación in Mexico City. Two important collections that complement each other– sources + research and writing process– that exist in disparate libraries. Neither of them make the actual papers, manuscripts, transcripts, microfilms, etc. available online.

There is a long history of scholars turning their papers over to libraries at the end of their careers. These collections are important for the two sides of historical research and publication that they represent. They provide a window into academic process, but also access to sometimes quirky, sometimes exhaustive primary sources representing years of intentional collection. There is intrinsic value to such collections for both historical education and historical practice.

What is more, I want to suggest that the technologies of the web have revolutionized the potential of collections in the everyday moments of their original production. Rather than putting research process and materials behind the veils of time, space, and limited access. We now have the possibility to construct and curate our research materials and process archives, what I call in the title of this piece the “Papers of You”, in real time, and make it immediately available to those without the resources to gain access to our eclectic collections. Moreover, individual scholars have it in their own grasp to produce truly important and impressive collections in much shorter periods of time due to the power of digital tools. As a simple example, in just thirteen days at the Archivo Nacional del Ecuador in June 2009, I managed to take 19,000+ photos of complete manuscripts. When added to the digital collecting I did during my dissertation research, I now have fairly conclusive collections of sex crime and murder cases as well as civil cases involving women as primary litigants in Quito, Ecuador for the period 1760-1800. I also have a lot more. What if this collection was made readily available to anyone working on the history of colonial Latin America in the 18th century? What is more, the abundance of sources represented by this collection presents its own set of methodological questions. I’ve been working through those questions in many of the normal ways– conference papers, seminars with my students, conversations with colleagues over coffees or beers, and in the solitary position of scholar before computer screen. But, I’ve also posted to this blog. Evermore powerful research software, such as DEVONthink provide points of accumulation for research notes that can be easily exported and even uploaded en-masse. Historians love to think in terms of individual books as self-contained projects. What if we put all of our materials and notes online as supplement to any given project? There are, of course, copyright issues that limit what can be made publicly available.

And, permanence is an issue. The traditional role of the library as both curator and preserver of scholarly papers should not completely disappear. Instead, what if at the end of one’s career, instead of handing over boxes of documents, microfilm, and miscellanea, we drop off a mysql dump?

How would this application of technology to the small corner of disciplinary history revolutionize its part of the academy? I can think of a few things in no certain order, and would love to hear more:

  1. Making research process transparent would open to the world the mystical reality of what it is academic historians do with their time.
  2. Making research process and materials available would demonstrate a commitment to the scholarly values of exchange, integrity, and open access that represent the better parts of academics’ nature.
  3. Distributed self-generated collections of archival material will build access particularly to resources from countries without the resources to do it all themselves.
  4. Students can gain access to the nitty gritty of doing history.
  5. It would keep people honest.

On that last note, imagine, if you will, if Michael Bellesiles had all of his research archive online. Digital History and the Digital Humanities need not be only about the new, but also about making the old much more useful.

So, I encourage my fellow historians out there to hack their individual research archive, and put up online the “Papers of You.”

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

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Posted in Digital History, Processes, Research and Writing, Sources

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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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