Historiography and Technology


In the translator's introduction to A History of Civilizations by the late eminent historian Fernand Braudel, it says:
...like all research workers [Braudel] had to face other setbacks, including a ban on photographing documents in the invaluable Ragusa Archives, where he worked in 1935. This, he noted, 'made my research a hundred times more difficult'.
The introduction to Braudel's posthumously (2001) published book Memory and the Mediterranean begins by boldly asserting:
Fernand Braudel (1902-1985) was the greatest historian of the twentieth century. So universal has his influence been on the study of history since the publication of his first major work fifty years ago that it is almost impossible for us to remember what history was like before Braudel... He was an innovative researcher in two respects, conceptual and practical. He made the move from government archives to commercial archives, and by chance he invented [an exaggeration] the microfilm, which he used in order to copy two or three thousand documents a day, to be read during the university year [1935 - RF] in Brazil...

[Braudel: ] "I bought this machine in Algiers: [then French Algeria - RF] it belonged to an American cameraman and was used to make rough images of scenes for films. On it you had a button that allowed you to take one photo at a time, or you pressed it and you took the whole shoot at once. When I was offered it, I said to the cameraman, 'Photograph me that: if I can read it, I'll buy it.' He made me a magnificent photo. And that's how I made kilometres of microfilms. It worked so well that when I was in Brazil I could spend whole days reading documents."

Today, Internet-based archives like the University of North Carolina's Documenting the American South provides access to texts, images, and audio files related to southern history, literature, and culture through the magic of digital technology. They skip microfilm and go directly to electronic media, which are instantly available worldwide at trivial cost. And now initiatives like the Google Books Library Project publish MILLIONS books the same way. Better yet, every word is indexed, which would have been impossible with old-fashioned paper-based (or microfilm-based) indicies.

Ron Feigenblatt

The challenge of the digital museum

Americans volunteer nearly one million hours a week of their time to museums... American museums receive more than 850 million visits a year, more than all professional sporting events and theme parks combined. [Surely the typical lack of a mandatory admission fee is a big reason for so many visits! - RF]

Digital technologies, now pervasive in homes, offices, and public spaces of every kind, pose another set of opportunities and challenges for history organizations. They afford history professionals and volunteers tools that can make collections, exhibitions, programs, and staffs accessible and interactive to degrees only dreamed of before... Remote visits to museums are ballooning...

Most young people today share with their elders a feeble understanding of American history. This situation is worsening... What young people do possess in abundance, however, is a native ease with the digital, virtual world around them. They seek to inform and entertain themselves almost entirely via the Internet, with its proliferating sources, images, sites, and self-anointed authorities. Whether and how history organizations continue to find and be found by young people is a pivotal question for the future.

- The Gift of History by Dennis A. O'Toole History News, vol. 65, no. 4 (Autumn 2010)
American Association for State and Local History

Postscript: Now that the origin of popular use of the Internet is fading into history itself, some readers may enjoy reviewing the genesis of an early online history library, the Historical Text Archive.

Another interesting essay on the early electronic publication of history here looks at the Gutenberg-e project, and mentions related efforts.