• Stephanie Brown

1. In which we discuss the digital world

Updated: May 26

Not all of it, just a nook. Because of a link that I found through one of the Facebook pages I manage, I read an article today by Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic called "The Way We Write History Has Changed." Madrigal--drawing heavily on research done by a professor at the University of Waterloo, Ian Milligan--argues that digital photography has changed the way that historians (and anyone else using an archive) does archival research.  


I married my husband in the summer of 1992, when we had both finished our PhD qualifying exams at Stanford and were about to begin work on our dissertations. My dissertation topic--women's experience of political justice during the Terror of the French Revolution (don't laugh, it's sexier than it sounds)--meant that there was an expectation that I would spend a year in Paris, researching in the Archives Nationales. That I would move there, live in a (likely literal) garret, and spend my days taking notes on dusty documents.


But I had just gotten married. My husband's research tied him to the campus; the terms of his program were such that he could not walk away for a year, research remotely, and live with me in Paris.


So I came up with a plan. I would go to Paris for three months, look at a targeted set of papers (the trial records of the Revolutionary Tribunal), and order (and pay for) the files that were important to my research to be microfilmed. Then I could go back to Palo Alto and spend the rest of my research time in the microfilm room in the basement of the library.  

It worked. I spent three months culling the document set in Paris. I paid to have about 200 trial records microfilmed. I came home and wrote my dissertation. (When I was finished, the library bought the microfilm and added it to the collection; if you ever happen to be at Stanford with some spare time, you can take a look.)


The catch? I did not get the year in Paris that French historians of my generation typically sought. My dissertation adviser took my decision to microfilm rather than move as evidence of lack of professional commitment. 


Life went on, we stayed married, we had children, we got our degrees. 


More than twenty years later when I went back into French archives, I was armed with my iPhone. I have spent four weeks in Paris in the last two years, and have thousands of images of archival documents that help build the story Flowers and Fruit

Archives de Paris, 2018 (personal photos)


Madrigal talks about the sense of the sacred that comes with archival research: the setting aside of everything not needful, answering of a set of questions to qualify you for the journey, the silent, beautiful spaces. I have spent some of my happiest moments in archives, "feeling like a pilgrim of a very obscure religion." The smell of old paper, the shuffling of aged genealogists, the whispering of archivists, and knowing that everyone else in the room is waiting for the number to light up that will show that their box has been retrieved from storage. It is intoxicating.


And it's expensive to get there, it's far from home, and if I'm there that means someone else needs to walk the dog.  How many doctoral students have given up the quest because they could not manage the year away, could not pay for the microfilm, could not weather their adviser's withering disregard? My guess: a lot. And all those students could have found archival stories that no one else would have been able to tell in quite the same way. We are all poorer for not having those stories on our library shelves--or in our digital databases.  


This project would not be possible without the new digital world; some days it feels barely possible even so. If I were not able to access archives online as much as I can, and were not able to telescope my research trips into concentrated forays with my phone, then I would have never considered telling the larger story of Flowers and Fruit. Someone else--a tenured professor or curator from a well-funded institution--could have, if they had stumbled across it.  


That I am here now, though, and that you are here with me, is a testament to the democratization of authority, the leveling of the playing field, that comes with the digital camera that can fit in our pocket.

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