The biggest changes in my research since I became a historian have come about because of the usefulness of laptops and digital cameras. When I started doing scholarly research, note-taking was still done using pen and paper (or pencil and paper for particularly careful archives). In the 1990s, however, computers suddenly became really portable, and could be carried into the archive and used to take notes. Suddenly, my high school typing class really started to pay off: ten fingers of typing madness.
My first real research workhorse was a PowerBook 160, 7 lbs and 25 MHz of raw computing power. Allied with a homebrewed Filemaker Pro database, this laptop carried me through a large chunk of my dissertation research. The main limitations on the PowerBook were its battery life (circa two hours) and the range of restrictions that archives put on the use of laptops. The former meant that there was often a mad rush for available outlets by scholars (the old British Library was particularly difficult; if you didn’t get there by 9 am, you weren’t getting a seat in the one row with available plugs). The latter meant that I had to be careful to check with each archive on what they would allow before visiting. The PowerBook did have an unexpected benefit: it got warm when being used, which was nice in archives with less than sufficient winter insulation (yes, I’m looking at you, Colindale).
Figuring out the process happened piecemeal. I didn’t plan ahead of time how to use the new technology, I just took it with to the archives and tried to use it. That meant that the laptop became an electronic notepad/typewriter at first, but I quickly began to figure out ways to use it to better advantage. I learned to program Filemaker, to set up ways to make each note individual and linked to a source citation. I figured out ways to use keywords so that I could gather the individual records into larger groups when I needed to use them. Later, as I was writing, I figured out how to apportion records to particular chapters. The result was barebones, primitive, and resolutely black and white:
The above was a personal memoir of a British soldier in the First World War from the Imperial War Museum.
The second record comes from a later iteration of the database and the improvements are evident. In an odd sense, the research notebook grew with the research, sprouting new features and new abilities as I went along. The advantage was that I could do more with it. The disadvantage was that retrofitting a feature left a fair number of earlier entries out, and it was often difficult to update them. Nor, I should note, did I particularly learn the lessons of this impromptu development. I’ve continued to adopt new technology but have essentially figured out how to use it as I go along. There are any number of my scholarly tools, electronic and otherwise, that have been fitted and retrofitted, made for one purpose and then pushed to do another.
Next: digital cameras.