The Physicality of the Past

Morgan Hubbard

Digital media have made the historian's job easier, no question. Documents once sequestered in archives are now available instantly to the researcher with a laptop and some savvy. The W. E. B. Du Bois collection at the University of Massachusetts Amherst is a great example. The entirety of the collection is being digitized; when the project is complete, every document in the collection will be available, free and searchable, online.

True, the vast majority of historical sources aren't yet available digitally, and probably never will be, because the cost of scanning and hosting is too great. But even then, technology has made inroads on insularity. Need to see some documents in an archive in Dublin but don't have the money to get there? Find some blogs, make some connections, beg a favor, and see if a colleague across the Atlantic won't take a day to find what you need and send you the scans. Promise this new colleague a like service when she requests material from archives near you. Do this a few times, and suddenly you're plugged into a network of researchers that mostly erases the geographical distance between you and the historical sources you need.

But there might be a cost to this process—as Robert A. Heinlein said, There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. Digital research removes certain sense perceptions from the researcher's tool kit. A screen can't communicate touch or feel, or the way light plays on a page, or the musty smell of long-unopened books. But, you assert, this is all secondary to what the documents say, which should be the researcher's foremost concern. This is true. But I argue that the physicality of sources is, if not crucial to our craft, at least important enough to merit consideration.

Take these pages from the July 1963 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The paper's yellowed, which is to be expected for a magazine printed cheaply on pulp paper (this fact in itself is an interesting commentary on the business of mass-market fiction magazines in America after WWII.) And see there, that splotch over Heinlein's first name? That's mustard. You can see more traces of mustard above and below. And on the facing page, right at the bottom, is a fleck of onion. Someone, somewhere, was eating a sandwich while reading this magazine.

The mustard and the onion don't change the meaning of this document. What they do is maybe more profound—they connect us to the material reality of the past, and to the people who experienced it. The mustard and the onion remind us that this collection of words was more than an expression of deep historical trends. This magazine was a set of stories, read by a real person for real reasons, which, hard though they may be to ascertain, are very much of interest to historians like me. The magazine's physical presence is a reminder that as historians we have an obligation not just to abstract notions like evenhandedness, but to the people of the past whose stories we're trying to tell.

TANSTAAFL photo courtesy of UMass Science Fiction Society
Magazine photo by Morgan Hubbard, 2010