What is historical research in the internet age?

Can I google that for you?

The academic community, especially of medieval historians, has been scrambling during the pandemic to figure out how to keep doing research now that most of us can’t travel and most archives are closed. Just take a look at the 2021 call for papers for the annual Marco Manuscript Workshop, a meeting hosted by one of the few medieval studies centers in the US, which is entirely about how to do historical research with limited archival access. These things are the bread and butter of historical research – since the dawn of the modern era and the discipline of history, historians have travelled to archives to look through primary sources in person and write about what they found. But despite all the anxiety, the fact is that we can do an awful lot of historical research – even from primary sources – online.

This was actually a bit of a problem for me when I was applying for research fellowships a few years ago – I needed to justify why I actually had to leave my home institution to do my dissertation research. On a practical level, I needed an external fellowship that year because of how PhDs are funded, and the majority of fellowships for graduate students are based in research – they give you money so you can travel to where you need to be. The problem for me was that a lot of my primary sources had already been digitized or published in print. I was able to start my dissertation research a semester before my research fellowship kicked in because the notarial register of Giovanni Scriba, a 12th-century Genoese scribe, has been available in print since 1935 (and, more recently, searchable text). For some of the manuscripts I had planned to visit, I contacted the libraries that held them only to discover that they didn’t want me touching them and redirected me to publicly accessible digital editions or transcriptions. This was the case for the Cairo Geniza catalog at Princeton, and the New York Botanical Garden’s Circa instans manuscript.

Even when I did substantial work at a library in person, I found that they would occasionally direct me toward their digital copies unless I had a really compelling reason to view the original. This happened to me a couple of times at the Wellcome Library, when the manuscripts I wanted to see were in really bad shape and needed to be handled with care by a conservator. It also happened to my utter surprise at the regional archive in Palermo. In that case, the digital copy wasn’t available online – it was saved to a hard drive in the library itself. I expected that the librarians would insist I use their computers to view it, and I hunkered down for many hours of library chair sitting. But, even more surprisingly, they told me they would give me my own copy on a thumb drive, and then gave me instructions for how to run across the street through the open-air market to buy one (and then threw some shade my way for overpaying).

The regional archive in Palermo. Just behind the camera is a doorway that leads to the open-air market where one can procure fresh fruit, fish, or thumb drives.

Archival digitization was a major topic of conversation in a colloquium I took on archives while in my master’s program, and I’ve written about it before. As a class of students training to write history from archival research, we were faced with the anxiety of navigating the mystery that is the archival library, combined with the entirely new realm of the digital age that the scholars who were training us didn’t really have any experience in. On the one hand, regional libraries in underserved communities are often nightmare scenarios of water-logged books, surly and unwelcoming staff, and inconsistent hours. On the other hand, major libraries in most of urban western Europe and the US are temperature-controlled bank vaults with key-card entry and interactive digital collections. As students, we wondered what the result of this digitization would be on our work: what would historical research look like when all information was accessible with a few well-chosen keywords, and what would happen to the crumbling underfunded libraries that couldn’t make the switch? I even spent a little time fantasizing about a Star Wars-esque digital archive with virtual shelves, a vision that my professor found eerie and dystopian.

But we were only thinking as historians in that class, and even now, our academic organizations are only considering how digitization affects research in the ivory tower. Even though we know that our students assume everything can be explained by Wikipedia, we as historians don’t really consider the democratizing effect that digitization is having on historical research. Just about everything that we have access to thanks to digitization is also available to a heretofore unestablished category of amateur historians.

Unlike in the sciences, particularly astronomy, where amateurs can be legitimate contributors to current research, or the social sciences, where the research is too obviously technical for most people without significant training to get involved, amateur history is a no-man’s land of conspiracy theorists and your WWII-loving dad. Everyone thinks that they can understand history from just a cursory glance. But the reason historians, art historians, comparative literature theorists, and philosophers have to go to school for the better part of a decade and get a degree to contribute to these fields (aside from outdated gate-keeping measures), is that our work isn’t about knowing the facts of our fields, but about wisely and critically applying frameworks to analyze those facts. Put simply, history isn’t about what happened, but how and why it mattered. That aspect of historical study is not well communicated to the general public, who often believe that history is an unbiased set of factual events and that when historians construct narratives, we are acting politically. The other side of this accusation is the belief that people who are not trained in the methods of history can easily do their own research if they just read enough. And while almost no professional historians would agree with this, because history as a discipline has a hard time internally defining itself and its core methods, we can’t really articulate why amateurs get things wrong.

So where the digitization of archival sources leads me is not the future of professional history, but the future of amateur history. Amateur historians now have access to most of the resources that professional historians do, but without the methodological training: critical thinking, historiography (the debate around a given topic in historical writing), theory, methods of primary source analysis, and a contextual knowledge of the dynamics that continue to surround all of these features of historical research (essentially, history networking, which is a vital part of research). On the one hand, I think it’s very cool and exciting that anyone can get their hands on these things – I think accessibility automatically makes things more interesting to people. But on the other hand, this presents a new problem of dabbling – how do incorrect narratives take on new life when uncritical readers with large followings use them unawares?

I know that to some extent I sound like I’m just worried about the future of my job. And I am! I think history is important, and I think the work that historians do is important. I think the training we receive is necessary. Historians have the opportunity to provide the general public not just with information about the past, but also ways to use that information responsibly for enrichment rather than degradation. My industry is already in crisis, and my writing into the void isn’t going to save it. So my purpose here isn’t to convince you that historians are the only ones who should be allowed to interpret history. It’s to raise questions about how we can support increased access to information with increased critical thinking and contextual awareness in using that information.

I’ve been following the development of one particular community of amateur historians in the CosTube community – historical costumers on YouTube. Most CosTubers are sewing enthusiasts (some professional, some hobbyists) who make progress videos of their historically-inspired costuming projects. Some are historical reenactors, some are cosplayers, some are involved in SCA, and some are dabbling in the newly-created category of historybounding (combining modern clothing with historically-inspired elements). A small subset of CosTubers either claim professional titles as “Dress Historian” or “Fashion Historian” (the former is a field in academia in which someone can earn a degree, and the latter is a recent and more culturally-derived title), and many turn to what they refer to as research when they are planning a costume.

I don’t mean to disparage these historical efforts, and I think some really cool things have come out of it, like recreating ancient Nordic hair pins. And some CosTubers have looked critically at the fashions they are so fond of to consider the historical context with a little more grounding. But even when this research involves primary source investigations like trips to museum collections, use of vintage patterns, or studies of historical art, or even the use of really good secondary sources like in the Nordic hairpins video, it always has the potential to lead CosTubers astray. See, for instance, this recent video on the history of witch hats by CosTuber Abby Cox.

This clip starts at the part where historical context gets a bit questionable.

I think this is a cool video in general, and I’m in favor of a lot of the pop-historical education efforts around witches. And I took a look at Abby’s bibliography for this video, which she linked to in the description, and while it’s not up to the standards of an academic journal, it’s totally acceptable for a college paper. Where I had a hard time watching this video wasn’t in the claims Abby makes about witches or their hats. When it comes to the specific topic she’s addressing, she sticks closely to her sources and relies on information from generally reputable journals and some primary sources of varying merit. It’s when she makes claims about the context surrounding this topic, like what people thought of witches in the Middle Ages, where power came from, and how witches fit into the larger fabric of premodern and Early Modern society.

Here is the bit that made me initially turn off the video:

The Church and monarchs of the early medieval period (pre- 1100) were not interested in witches, and actively tried to downplay, ignore, and speak out against the possibility of their existence. However, by the thirteenth century, they had completely changed their tune and were all about hunting and eradicating witches. My personal theory as to why this happened is because the church was relatively new in its control of medieval Europe and it wanted to ignore any potential connections to traditional Celtic, Norse, and other pagan beliefs; however, when that didn’t seem to work, they just fully embraced that fear-mongering as an effective tool to maintain power and control over Europe.

Timestamp 6:20-6:54

There are a lot of problems with this set of statements, but also some clues about how Abby did her research, in the context of her bibliography. Abby doesn’t have any sources on medieval witchcraft – all of her articles and primary sources speak to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – which means that everything she says about the medieval period is either background information from one of those articles or conjecture. But the fact that she is using and defining the term “early medieval period” suggests to me that this was a periodization referred to in one of those articles that she then had to look up. And that’s a good sign. It sounds like she did reasonably thorough work and really did investigate things she didn’t understand.

But that doesn’t change the fact that everything she says in this section is just wrong. Witches weren’t really an articulated category of the occult before the fourteenth century (in Europe) – it’s not that medieval power structures weren’t interested in them, it’s that the concept didn’t really exist. Most historical studies of witchcraft don’t even touch on the medieval period, so it’s hard to find any information on when the concept of witches developed, but Gary Waite argued that witches are an inherently Early Modern category that developed out of the medieval notion of heresy. That shift was pretty slow and seemingly grounded in the religious and social changes surrounding the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. So definitely not “by the thirteenth century”.

Abby makes an implication in talking about what “the Church and monarchs” did that these people had some kind of broad power to enforce social behavior, which… I don’t have a singular source that shows this is wrong, but this is a very incorrect (but common) view of the kind of control these institutions had in medieval Europe. She gets more direct about this when she goes off on her tangent about her personal theory. And that tangent is really full of bad assumptions – how long the church had been in power, what kind of power it had, the relationship between Christianity and “pagan” traditions, what was considered “pagan”… It’s not really productive for me to argue with each one.

I understand where this stuff comes from. It’s in the category of “common knowledge”. And historians are not immune to it. It strikes me that a lot of Abby’s errors are common misconceptions in Early Modern scholarship as a way to distance the modern world from the medieval, so I would believe that these are things Abby picked up from the articles she read on Early Modern witches. I’m writing an article right now with an entire section on how this kind of common knowledge works its way into historical scholarship. But historians have a lot of checks on these kinds of claims – conventions around citations, peer review, and the public shaming that comes with being in a community of scholars. Some of those are good things, although they are not foolproof. And at the same time, you can absolutely make valid historical arguments without them. Abby clearly did a lot of real research in preparing this video. And she can’t be expected to produce content for YouTube to the same standard as an academic journal.

I don’t think it’s an accident that Abby’s most glaring errors were medieval. The democratization of historical information that comes in the digital age creates a particular bias toward modern periods. History already has a modern bias (ironic, no?), and digitization exacerbates that by boosting access to modern sources like printed books and sources in English, while leaving manuscripts and non-English language sources at the same level where they always sit. So on top of scholarly standards that I think are unreasonable to expect of amateur historians, there is the extra barrier of exactly the same difficult skills that make medieval history so inaccessible even to trained historians. If amateur historians can’t hope to access primary sources about the premodern period, and they have no particular skills to direct them to good secondary sources, how are they going to do good amateur history?

So I’m leaving this open question: what kinds of resources do amateur historians need in order to share their work without also spreading misinformation?