The Transnational and Text-Searchable: Digitized Sources and the Shadows they Cast

Hurry up and read Laura Putnam’s American Historical Review article “The Transnational and Text-Searchable: Digitized Sources and the Shadows they Cast” before they put it behind a paywall again.

To the rich debates underway among those scholars already attentive to the “conceptual impact of the digital age,” I seek to add the simple point that the affordances of digitized search are particularly salient for the international past.[6] The disintermediation characteristic of digital information flow shrugs away the nation- and empire specific archives, indices, and historiographies that have been central gatekeepers within historians’ practice. To the likewise rich debates theorizing history’s transnational turn, I seek to offer something equally simple: the suggestion that we could not be doing what we are, at the pace that we are, with the range that we are, if it were not for the search box before us.

For historians, borders are not what they used to be. Instant access to topic specific secondary sources has made glancing outside the boundaries of place-based expertise effortless rather than extraordinary. To underline that this is a method, a procedure worth thinking about as such, I will call it side-glancing. Meanwhile, as primary as well as secondary sources are uploaded from an increasingly broad swath of the globe, full-text searchability has made seeking individuals, place names, phrases, titles, and organizations across hundreds of thousands of publications a viable way to trace international movement. Together, side-glancing and borderless term-searching radically change the questions we are likely to ask and the stories we are able to tell.[7]

The impact of digitization on the knowability of past processes of whatever scale and locale is significant. But the impact on the knowability of supranational or transnational processes is overwhelming. To see why, we need to consider the topography of physical information that long shaped scholars’ choices. Once we grasp how radically that topography has changed, we can assess the costs as well as the benefits. We can scope the blind spots of the brave new world of sources at our fingertips, and we can ask what transnational history loses when the real-world friction that international research once demanded is radically reduced.

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