Yes, let’s hack the archive!

The irreverent Sepoy of Chapati Mystery has deployed out a bold vision of translating the Medieval Asian past for the contemporary by creating complex, interactive, digital versions of Persian manuscripts (his name is Red) that can be compared in their versions and referenced to other documents (read The Polygolt Manifesto Part I and Part II.) It would require historians to embrace technology not only with enthusiasm, but with a willingness to learn to intricacies of computer programing itself. Amen!

The world of the modernist is not, however, the treasuries of beautiful manuscripts, but the piles of bureaucratic drivel produced by the modern age and tucked away to be forgotten. They are found in monolithic, poorly ventilated buildings in some forgotten part of the town. The archive! For years the archive has been at the periphery of memory even as they are at the center of civilization. The trip to the archive is a flight of fantasy.

Distance and procedures have made the archive difficult to penetrate. Young researchers can only guess what secrets they might reveal until they can scrounge up the money to visit. Once inside, the pace of revelation is slow: only so many documents can be ordered in a day, so many days in advance; and the pace at which they must be internalized can be so rapid that the subtleties can be lost. Moreover, there was no way to bring anything out of the archive that had not been brought in. The work of young researchers were their own, jealously guarded because of the difficulty it took to obtain it.

The digital camera can change all that. They are a cheap and portable means of storing hundreds of pages a day in a compact format for reading at a later time. Cameras have not always been allowed in archives–indeed, most national archives still don’t allow them–and the costs of film and developing made them useful for selective use. Digital cameras don’t require film or developing: the pictures are already in the perfect format to be read on laptop screens. In thirty minutes, a day’s worth of reading can be recorded and enjoyed at the nearest cafe. So much nicer than a stuffy reading room!

But there is potential to do more. All the information that can be gathered and recorded in a short time could be turned into a virtual archive. The thousands of images of files that a researcher can bring back with her or him could be constructed into digital replicas of the files that exist outside of the archive, available for public use. Even the files at national archives, which normally don’t allow any photography, could be approximated. Many of their holdings are often copies of documents made in provincial and municipal archives–smaller institutions whose rules are often more permissive, and who scale allows work to occur more rapidly.

The first thing to do is promote digital photography among historians. It wouldn’t require much. A cheap 3-4 megapixels is more than enough to photograph a page in great detail. Some standards might be established about how to photograph documents, but it would not be necessary. Second, locate sources of documents that are also in print. Many compilations hold selective documents that can be digitized with ease (I’m thinking of things like the minutes of the French Assembly and Joseph Hansen’s Rheinische Akten und Briefe.) They could be digitized and annotated, much as Sepoy would do to Persian manuscripts. Third, a database would have to be established to catalog who holds what and how images could be obtained. It would seem impractical, at first, to make all images available online. Rather, the database would act as a catalog of the real archives holdings that helps someone retrieve information from other scholars.

The act of translating, in this case, would take the obscurities of the archives not just from the past into the present, but also make the material of the historian more available and familiar to the modern world.