Wednesday, March 11, 2015

World War Wednesdays: History People Problems

World War Wednesdays: History People Problems
A woman drinks tea on a pile of rubble in the aftermath of the London Blitz, 1940.

     I hope that a deviation from the theme will not be unwelcome this week! When I first began blogging with Tyrconnell Heritage Society, my posts served as almost an emotional outlet for some of the history-related events that I experienced. Last year, I attended the national D-Day ceremony here in Ottawa and I found it to be a very moving and thought-provoking time, which I later expressed in one of my first posts. I've always found that the only way I can properly deal with thoughts and feelings is to write them out, so it's great to be able to do so in this format. Throughout my time as a blogger my posts have shifted towards more informational content, but I thought I'd create this little feature to periodically discuss some of the problems that I encounter as a student of History which I hope you may find relatable or at least laughable in a sad and pathetic kind of way.

     As I've mentioned in some of the previous posts, I've recently undertaken a research project through my Second World War course which involves local history of Elgin County. This was something that I challenged myself to do because local history projects involve a great deal of ground work (traveling to archives to access documents, networking with other historians or people who can provide additional information), as well as the usual historiography research. In doing so, I have learned a couple of things that make my not-so inner history nerd want to curl up in a ball under my bed and never come out.

     When I first took on this project, I was required to meet with my professor, Dr. Serge Durflinger, to discuss the topic and the manner in which I was going to pursue it. It turned out that Dr. Durflinger had done a similar project himself regarding the Second World War and his own hometown of Verdun, Quebec, about which he wrote a book called "Fighting from Home". Being the terrific and helpful person that he is, he gave me a bit of advice. He said that while I was doing my research, it would be very difficult to stay focused on the topic because I would find things about my hometown that are so fascinating and full of personal connections that I would want to read every single article and document. So far, this has proven to be true. It turns out Elgin County was just as interesting in the 1940s as it is today, if not more, and I'm having a great time discovering the charming, heartwarming, and remarkable stories of its wartime residents.

     Another thing that Dr. Durflinger and I talked about was the documents that I would be accessing in order to gather my research. Something that is a very hot topic in the History department here and in classes is digital history, or how primary documents are being preserved and made accessible to the public. Last semester when I researched Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, I was able to access his entire life's collection of diary entries which have been meticulously scanned and digitized by Library and Archives Canada and can be found on their website. Had I not been able to do that, I would have had to travel to the LAC and request the documents in hard copy, and filter through the thousands and thousands of pages to find what I needed. When they created King's digital diaries, the LAC made it keyword searchable, which means that if you were looking for a specific theme you could just type in that word and only read entries that include it. It is thus an extremely valuable resource and makes life much easier as a researcher!
     Unfortunately, not all historical documents are like that, if they are even digitized at all. Dr. Durflinger told me that when he was conducting research at his local archives for his book, he scanned copies of original documents so that he could have them on hand. He said that one day he received a phone call asking if he had the scanned copies he needed, because the entire primary collection had just been disposed of. He thus was in possession of the only remaining copies. It is stories like these that are like nails on a chalkboard to historians. The thought of precious original materials being tossed out with the trash is absolutely horrifying. I suppose that in a fantasy historian world, there is room and means available to store every single document, photograph, painting, etc. that has ever existed, but that just does not seem to be possible today. It seems as though the number of times that these things are being accessed is making it not worthwhile to continue storing them in vast quantities which require carefully controlled conditions.

     When I travelled to the Elgin County Archives in St. Thomas the last time I was home, I was the only visitor there, and the archival assistant, Stephen, was beyond helpful in finding resources for me. He brought out the entire collection of original newspapers from the No. 4 Bombing and Gunnery School in Fingal, and just being able to look at them let alone read them was so exciting! Yesterday, I travelled to Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa to continue my search for documents. Their hours are extremely restricted, and even then there were not many people there. While I was unable to meet with an archival assistant because of the hours (they're only available from 10:00-3:00 and only on weekdays), I got to explore their catalog system and search for things that might be useful. They have a full service of genealogy resources, so I thought I would try that out. I searched some relatives' names under their 'Births, Marriages, and Deaths' records, but nothing came up. I then searched for my great-grandfather under the Military Medals Awarded category and he did not appear (though he did receive medals in WWII). Then, out of curiosity, I searched for the  Wallacetown WWI Victoria Cross recipient, Ellis Sifton, and nothing came up. I couldn't help but feel a little disappointed by this. While I think that the digitization system is one that will both revolutionize and improve research prospects for historians, the current state of the process leaves much to be desired.
     Digitizing historical materials involves countless hours of meticulous and repetitive work which can be especially difficult when dealing with rolls of microfiche slides. Thanks to a few impressive collections and dedicated individuals, small portions of these are being completed and made available for public use, and make up the resources that would be incredibly useful if they happen to match your research topic. For the time being, these collections are a minority, which is frustrating at times. We have the technology available to us, it has proven to be highly effective in the case of the King diaries and others, but it takes a great deal of time and effort to do so. It is my understanding and belief that professional historians are not necessarily the ones who undertake these digitization projects, due to the repetitive and time-consuming nature of the process. If I were a professional historian, I would not be too excited to dedicate my time and expertise to a scanner and endless pile of documents either. From what I have seen, these tasks are entrusted to students and other employees who may be better suited for the technical aspect of the process. While I think that this is not necessarily a bad thing, it seems as though at the moment the research of myself and others is dependant on this small number of individuals who have digitized limited collections of resources with varying degrees of organization and effectiveness. It is my hope that in the course of my career I will see a day when at least the most prominent of historical documents in a general sense are made available to the public online in a way that is easy to use and explore. I also hope that this does not make historians lazy and unappreciative of these resources, but that it opens new opportunities for types of research that have never been possible before.

     So what is my point of all this? Do I think that we should all be spending our free time gathered in archival rooms reading old newspapers before they crumble away in our hands or are thrown away? Definitely not. What I do think is that having those newspapers scanned online and in an interactive way would help the public to interact with them in ways that we have never yet experienced. Wouldn't it be so cool to be able to Google the newspaper that featured your grandma's birth announcement and read the other things that were happening at the time, or to zoom in on a high-quality image that used to be in a dusty old box where nobody ever looked at it? It is often said that historians are notorious for not being able to embrace the future, but when it comes to this topic I look to it with open arms.

Oh and one more thing: if you find yourself in possession of old documents (family photos, old letters, etc.) that you are unsure of the origin or don't know what to do with, find yourself a local historian or historical organization (like the Tyrconnell Heritage Society) and consult with them before you think about disposing of them. They may be able to help you get some answers, or they could be of greater use to the person's research or to the facility. Never underestimate the power of a crumpled old photo!

What do you think? Would doing this spell the end of the archives as we know it? Would we no longer have a need for archival professionals if we could access it all ourselves? Let's hear your opinions!

Thanks for reading,


Dryad said...

I was reading an article just yesterday about the Israeli Military hiring and training Autistic children to work in their 3D Mapping/Satellite department. Some autistic children are well suited to performing repetitive tasks that require attention to detail.

Autistic children have support in primary and secondary school, but there is a huge gap afterwards. After the age of 21, there are few opportunities for autistic children.

As I was reading your article about the digitalization of historical documents, it brought that article to mind. It would take a lot of work and dedication to train and supervise the potential employees but I think the effort would be worthwhile.

Delany Leitch said...

You're absolutely right! This would be a very interesting idea to try, for the benefit of two very useful disciplines. Thanks for sharing!