Previous
Next

Process, Part II

January 13, 2012, 1:18 pm

[First post here]

But if laptops replaced paper as the main way of getting notes down, the difference in the actual physical process of research was not that much altered. Go to the archive, order the sources you needed, and spend days or weeks or months taking notes on them. Copying costs at most archives were much too high to consider wholesale reproduction, and so note-taking depended on how fast you could type. Portable scanners did not really work; either one had to put the document face down on the scanner or drag the scanner along the document. Neither of those things pleased most archivists. In addition, the scanners were slow and did not offer much storage. Thus, note taking remained resolutely textual, and resulted in the production of lots and lots of MS Word documents with notes on specific sources.Notetakingwindows

That changed dramatically with the advent of digital cameras with high resolution, storage, and battery life. Suddenly, I could buy, relatively cheaply, a lightweight camera able to take hundreds of shots at a resolution that, properly framed, could be read with relative ease on a monitor back home. This advance came too late for A War of Frontier and Empire, but I decided to convert entirely over to using a digital camera for The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China, 1900. This was encouraged by the birth of my daughter Madeline, whose arrival meant that long research trips, while restful, did not contribute to domestic harmony.

Powershot sd800 frontBut what kind of camera? I thought about getting a DSLR, but quickly discarded the idea. This was going to be an experiment, and paying over a thousand dollars for a camera to do it seemed excessive. Instead, I decided on a smaller camera, a “point and shoot.” After a fair amount of Internet research, I settled on the Canon SD800. It got good reviews, took a detailed picture (without being too large), and was reasonably priced. I equipped it with the largest memory card I could (512 MB at first; now up to 4 GB, which translates to about 3000 pictures), and set off.

From the first moment in the archive, I was ecstatic.Archival research had always been something of a race against time, desperately taking down as many notes on as many documents before I had to pack up and go home, for the day or for good. Now, I could just snap a photograph of everything. Useful? Take a picture. Might be useful? Take a picture. Potentially useful in the future? Take a picture. There were difficulties, of course. I had to make sure the camera battery was fully charged. Angling the camera correctly to take a square picture turned out to be difficult. Getting enough light required work as even the archives that allowed cameras almost universally banned the use of flashes. It was, oddly enough, less interesting than before, as rather than reading through each document, I would simply make a quick decision as to its usefulness and then either move on or start snapping photos. It became an assembly line for research.

Those issues were minor, though. My ability to cover fully an archive became much greater and more dependent on how quickly the archivists could deliver sources than my reading or typing speed. In one week-long visit to the National Archives in Britain, I took 2284 pictures, page after page after page on the Boxer Rebellion. I offer a sample of one of those, an entry in an Admiralty ledger (ADM 1/7456) that categorized the awards and mentions in dispatches of each British soldier, sailor, or officer so cited. The page is for Roger Keyes, later First Sea Lord, who was a young commander during the summer of 1900. He did rather well–this was the second page devoted to him, and the annotations have spilled over into someone else’s heroism:

ADM 1 7456  16

My research had been transformed.

Next: making the laptop and the camera work together.

This entry was posted in a hit of methodology, boxer rebellion, digital history. Bookmark the permalink.