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The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed*

June 20, 2012, 3:33 am

Silbey has explained the wonderful possibilities that await a technologically proficient historian who visits a technologically advanced archive.

I wish I could say that I only visit archives where my widely acknowledged technological prowess is encouraged and feted, but alas, this is not the case. There are still many archives in my world that remain firmly rooted in the twentieth century.  For example, UCLA special collections has a number of manuscript collections I need, but does not allow cameras in the reading room. So I find myself spending much of my time in the basement of Young library, frantically taking notes while the non-historians above enjoy the sunshine.

Then there’s the copyright problem for anyone doing newspaper research after 1923. Thanks to the Sonny Bono copyright act of 1998, everything produced since 1922 is under copyright protection, which means it’s prohibitively expensive for most libraries to acquire searchable databases of newspapers of that era. Here at UC Davis, the only digitized California newspaper of the mid-20th century is the Los Angeles Times. To find most of the articles from the 1930s that I need, I must go to the state library in Sacramento, which has a marvelous newspaper microfilm reading room, but alas, no useful index. There are a few websites for digitized newspapers – news.google.com/newspapers and newspaperarchive.com – but their selection seems random and incomplete, and they never have what I’m looking for.

There’s also the problem of newspapers that have never been microfilmed, let alone digitized.  For example, to read the editorials of the Brawley News in 1934, which I’m afraid I must do, I have to trek Brawley, to which is about two and a half hours east of San Diego, and flip through brittle newsprint pages.  I’ll do this when I go to the Pacific Coast Branch conference of the AHA in August, when the average high temperature in the Imperial Valley is 121 degrees.

One of my colleagues does research that takes her to Venice, Paris, and New Orleans. Clearly, somewhere along the way, I have done something wrong. I must confess to a suspicion that other historians are sipping chardonnay, in the hot tub, while highlighting digitized documents on their ipads. At the least, I could be going someplace more temperate than Brawley in August.

*With thanks to this blog’s patron saint, William Gibson.

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