Computers and the internet have globalized knowledge, and the practice of history has been no exception. Yet, due to the high cost of digital resources, ‘e-history’ has privileged researchers working out of rich universities, especially in the US. Additionally, due to the technical difficulties of digitizing non-Roman scripts, collections of digital materials are largely restricted to Western languages. In fact, an overwhelming majority are in English. Thus, ‘e-history’ has in many cases been both elitist in access and provincial in geographical scope. For those concerned with equality and diversity in the practice of historical research the time has come to ask: How can ‘e-history’ be global in the scope of materials it provides and its accessibility to researchers?
Parallel with the problem of narrow geographical scope, ‘e-history’ has tended to distract funds and attention from the ‘old-fashioned’ practices of using and preserving manuscripts and rare printed materials. Yet, the complete ‘digitization’ of historical research is neither likely nor desirable. Large numbers of archival materials will never attract enough users to justify investment in digitization. The benefits of on-site research at archives also remain substantial, including personal contact with archivists and librarians and access to the ‘physicality’ of many materials. Thus, a need exists for ‘e-history’ to facilitate rather than distract from the practice of on-site archival research.
This proposal offers a sketch of an e-resource, Gateway, which seeks to address both the aforementioned areas of concern. Modeled after Access to Archives (A2A), the purpose of the site is to provide researchers with centralized information about the contents of archive collections. A2A, however, only catalogues material held within Britain, and in fact many collections in Britain are only partially catalogued, or not included at all. For example, the very significant collection of vernacular Indian language publications held in the Indian and Oriental Office collection of the British Library is not included. In order to locate these materials, one must consult the printed finding aids, which are in some cases only available in the Library’s reading room in London. As in this case, such catalogues and finding guides for non-Western collections and less-commonly used collections of Western materials are often available only on-site. By providing scanned PDFs of finding aids, Gateway would greatly facilitate the ability of researchers to locate materials. Particularly in the case of distant or smaller archives, researchers require prior knowledge of the collection before embarking on extensive travel. The site would thus encourage historians to use a broader, and more diverse, base of archives in their research.
Although some of the above finding aids may be available in English (or French or German), Gateway would encourage the submission of catalogues in all languages. While at present scans of documents in non-Roman scripts cannot be digitized and turned into searchable documents, this disadvantage could in part be compensated for by providing grant support for libraries to do partial transliterated listings of their collections, so that a degree of key-word searching would be possible.
The audience of the database should be envisioned as global. The pricing and format of the site must therefore be designed to reach those working outside of well-endowed research universities. This could include anyone from the family historian working in rural Mississippi to the PhD student at Lucknow University.
In this spirit, all public libraries should be given free access. Individuals (non-affiliated researchers) should be able to purchase access at reasonable rates. Shortfalls in revenue could be in part compensated for by charging premium rates for ‘luxury access,’ aka printing facilities. The site should be accessible in multiple languages, possibly to include French, Arabic, and Chinese. The site should also be designed so as to facilitate loading on lower-bandwidth connections.
Geographical and Linguistic Diversity
So as not to replicate existing searching aids such as A2A, Gateway would encourage in particular the submission of finding aids for collections in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Catalogues of non-English language collections located in libraries in Europe and America that are not already available should also be included.
Lesser-Known Archives and Collections
Even outside of America and Europe, large national collections are being electronically catalogued and digitized—and this trend is likely to continue and escalate. Thus, the participation of smaller, private libraries would be of particular advantage to researchers. Such institutions include:
Searching Capacity in Non-Roman Script Languages
As Gateway is particularly concerned with increasing access to collections in languages using non-Roman scripts, one of its chief concerns would be developing techniques of performing basic cataloguing of materials in transliteration so as to allow researchers to perform key-word searches to locate materials. As a start, libraries should be encouraged and provided with funds to prepare catalogues of titles and authors of rare books and newspapers and basic search-terms for manuscript collections.
Research Grants for Archival Travel
As a complementary effort, Gateway could offer grant support to researchers working outside their country of citizenship or residence and those using multiple archival collections located in disparate regions. Such research grants could include a stipulation that researchers participate in the collection of materials for Gateway along with their own research.
Julie Stephens, 22 July 2007