Considering Lara Putnam’s “The Transitional and the Text-Searchable”

In the April 2016 volume of the American Historical Review, Lara Putnam’s article “The Transitional and the Text-Searchable: Digitized Sources and the Shadows They Cast” investigates the relationship between the digital turn and transnational history and she suggests that “digital search has become the unacknowledged handmaiden of transnational history” – “historians can find without knowing where to look.”

In many respects, this is a great article that should be read by all historians, not just transnational historians, considering and meditating on their research tools and processes.  Putnam’s main thrust highlights how the digital turn has impacted historians work, particularly how OCR and the keyword search have accelerated our ability to locate primary and secondary sources using Google Books and databases such as ProQuest for newspapers.  Although seemingly benign, she suggests that this shift is revolutionary.

Particularly important to Putnam is the idea of “side-glancing” – the almost instance access to relevant secondary sources which allows scholars to glace outside of their own expertise to locate relevant materials.  Side-glancing, posits Putnam, enables scholars to break free from previous structures that limited historical scholarship, specifically state, regional, and local archives. Previously, archives made sense and also made researching the nation-state logical – going to multiple archives on multiple continents was and remains expensive.  Today, as Putnam emphasizes, one does not need to rely on the indexing of an archivist and sleuthing in the archive to make connections between people and places.  Instead, OCR keywords help scholars to make these connections and then pursue them, perhaps without ever leaving their office.

While this allows scholars to make connections that they previously could not, Putnam also issues pertinent warnings, particularly highlighting how digitized sources skew research. For example, citing Ian Milligan, Putnam describes how digitized newspapers are increasingly cited at the expense of other sources like local newspapers with more detailed coverage.  Moreover, she emphasizes that most digitization occurs in English and Western languages, significantly restricting the scope of OCR search and the results one gets.

Another important flaw to the keyword search is that it limits the historians understanding – if a keyword search provides a relevant newspaper article great; but it is also important to understand the context – what else was in the newspaper that day? What stories ran beside the own your search turned up?  How frequently did your topic appear? This also means that those individuals that appear in newspapers come to dominate narratives, perhaps leaving out important individuals that might be located in local and regional archives.

To combat the biases created by keyword searches and OCR, Putnam argues for the importance of researching in physical archives, noting that “things happen on the way to and in the archives.”  Being in a place and studying its past also puts historians in contact with local scholars with a better knowledge of the place and its archives.  As her narrative implies, Putnam does not advocate for “parachuting” approach to research whereby a scholars visits an archive for a week and photographs hundreds of documents – this hardly gives one a since of a place and its people, but for long-term methodical research.

Putnam’s arguments and reasoning are sound and I agree strongly with the importance of conducting archival research, especially for scholars studying countries besides the United States.  However, I think she fails to interrogate some of the restraints that her suggestions entail, specifically as they relate to doctoral students in the humanities.  These problems mostly revolve around the ability of departments and universities to fund long-term archival research, especially, as she notes, when the time degree is ticking.

For example, Putnam acknowledges that “support for graduate language study and region-specific interdisciplinary training is shriveling.”  A fact that anyone pursuing an advanced degree in the humanities recognizes.  But, her answer to this problem is for historians to recognize this as “an underserved niche” and “double down on placed-based expertise.”  Yet, this solution does not seem to solve the underlying problem – how do departments provide funding for their PhD students to developed this type of expertise, especially in a time when the political environment seems to be threatening the humanities existence?

Moreover, as she discusses, historians have long maintained strong place-based knowledge due to their need to visit administrative archives.  So, what exactly does doubling-down on placed-based expertise imply?  How does it make the humanities more relevant (perhaps valuable is a better word in today’s discourse) in and beyond academia? How does it help doctoral students find jobs?

This is not say that Putnam disregards these problems, noting that placed-based research “demands greater investment of time than current doctoral expectations make feasible.”  But, this statement hardly addresses the broader problems that are facing the humanities today.  We know that funding is scarce and that competition is fierce for money and jobs, particularly those without Ivy League credentials (yes prestige matters in the hiring and funding process), but how do we convey the value of humanities in order to secure the needed dollars to support long-term placed based research, especially for doctoral students?

Putnam’s article clearly identifies the impact keyword-search and OCR text search have had on historians’ scholarship and she makes a case for the importance of continuing place-based archival research to prevent the worst excesses of the digital turn.  Yet, if historians are to take her call for continued long-term research in foreign countries seriously, the discussion also needs to include conversations about funding this type of scholarship, especially for graduate students.  Working with limited budgets, we are the most likely to conduct “parachute” research, fail to gain a sense of place through brief visits to foreign destinations, and rely on digital primary sources.  But, if this problem is to be rectified, then departments, universities, states, and government are going to need to make an investment in place-based research, for professors and doctoral students alike.  Without this investment, Putnam’s solutions to double-down on place-based research seems plausible for only the most well-funded students and professors.

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