Historians Discuss Digitization of Blackwell Family Archives

John Frederick Bell, Melanie Gustafson, Richard S. Newman, and Elizabeth Reis. Photo by Kevin Grady, Radcliffe Staff PhotographerJohn Frederick Bell, Melanie Gustafson, Richard S. Newman, and Elizabeth Reis. Photo by Kevin Grady, Radcliffe Staff Photographer
The Harvard Crimson
October 14, 2015
By Menaka V. Narayanan

Historians discussed the impact of technology on historical archives at a panel Tuesday afternoon to celebrate the digitization of five collections in the Blackwell Family Papers, a recent endeavor by the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute.

The almost 130,000 pages of material spanning from 1784 to 1981 reveal the activities of a family of notable leaders in several social movements during the 19th and 20th centuries, such as abolition, prohibition, and women’s suffrage.

The four experts on the panel expressed their admiration for the online archival material in terms of facilitating access and use, but said that the digital transition requires greater effort to place documents in context.

“We don’t escape by moving to digital. If there’s any thought that this is going to hasten the process of research, I think that’s a little foolhardy, honestly,” said panelist John F. Bell, an American Studies Ph.D. candidate in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. “I think if we’re going to do research in a meaningful way...we still need to recognize the importance of careful reading, of spending time with sources, of having a knowledge of context.”

For her part, panelist Melanie S. Gustafson, an associate professor in the History department at the University of Vermont, said that archive digitization did have some drawbacks in minimizing the experience of visiting an archive and meeting fellow researchers.

“Archives are where you meet people dead and alive. It’s also where you make those discoveries,” Gustafson said. “I’m not saying you can’t make discoveries at the computer, because you can, but that sense of ‘Oh my god, look at that cross hatched letter’...there’s something about that happening in the archives.”

Pablo Morales Henry, an archivist and programmer at the Schlesinger Library, walked attendees through the features of the site, showcasing different online filters and search tools to aid in research. Features included a ‘Finding Aid’ to navigate through documents, tools to increase readability of old papers, and a folder system that allows the user to personalize how his or her information is stored.

The event culminated in a group discussion in which audience members suggested ideas for furthering the impact of digital archives, such as expanding it to high schoolers and linking archives from various universities together to form a large database.

Attendee Suvi E. Karila, a visiting fellow from Finland in the History department, said she felt a personal positive connection to archive digitization.

“Those are periodicals that are really hard to reach...but many papers have been digitalized,” Karila said. “Today, for a person like me from Finland, it’s possible to access this research that would have required a lot of money ten years ago.”

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