I’ve recently been utilising my time as an invalid by undertaking some cursory research in readiness for a forthcoming job interview. It started with the purchase of a particular text and an Oxford Guide of the same by a leading academic and has, of course, eventually led to research via the internet. I say “of course” because you would be hard pressed to find even the most ardent Luddite not being lured by the visceral charms of the world wide web in these technological times, and I am by no means a Luddite.
However I would say that despite my love of the internet, my pleasure in the ease of use, my wholehearted embracing of social networking (Facebook, Twitter et al) I have always been steadfast in my love of books – actual, real books, that you can touch and acquire papercuts from. I’ve spent a great deal of money over the last decade accumulating the little library I now own. Not all of them are classics by any means (Intimate Adventures of A London Call Girl, anyone?) and I have dispatched many to other owners in a vain attempt to de-clutter, only to swiftly occupy their spaces on my shelves with newer volumes.
I’m not one of these people who enjoy the smell of a book (a new book often has an unpleasant smell in my opinion, something akin to the material on the seats of those very old 54 seater buses that used to take us on school trips; a combination of ill-concealed nausea, sweat and Opal Fruits), but I do enjoy holding one in my hand, and I love the process by which I select a new tome: the hours I can spend in a bookshop, wandering aimlessly between the shelves – holding three, disposing of them to pick up others, to then pick up the three original books after hours of further deliberation. And that moment at the till when you spot another volume that you’ve missed in your explorations and you agonise as to whether you should purchase THAT as well.
But my research has started something of a sea change in me; not one that I can particularly date, but it has happened nonetheless. It, in part, also relates to an admission I made to myself several months ago that the items I store and covet will have little meaning to the generations that follow me, and I started wondering whether I should dispose of those items to save my future family the bother of doing so.
Earlier today I read this articleby Tristram Hunt on behalf of The Observer, in which he takes the view that “nothing beats the thrill of an original document”. Now Hunt is talking predominantly about texts with a distinctly scholarly odour, and the transformation of research by the digitisation process. He talks of the “ubiquity of history” as if it were a negative thing. “Why sit in an archive leafing through impenetrable prose when you can slurp frappucino while scrolling down Edmund Burke documents?” he asks, but really what is the problem with this? Wouldn’t it actually be a delightful thing to think that a person could download the Domesday Book, or the Magna Carta, to revel in their intricacies, to marvel at their beauty? Isn’t it a very fine thing indeed that a group of primary school children can view the Bayeux Tapestry in their own classroom?
My opinion, supported by many of the academics I’ve been reading, is that emancipating the researcher from the archives can create a renewed passion for the task of unravelling history. We are well on our way to creating a symbiotic relationship between the humanities and modern technologies, and it would be a shame if this was stymied by what could be perceived as an inherent arrogance by a small minority, the Luddites of this tale. There is, as drabacus comments “an unpleasantly over-privileged tone” to the piece – not everyone has access to the National Library.
The comments beneath the article are encouraging. Leviathan212 says: “I will happily give up the thrill of the original document for greater access”. I know that there is a prevailing sense that there is nothing better than handling the original document and I completely understand that, because I love the feel of a book and the sight of a printed page before me. I also understand the comments made by UnevenSurface, who points out that original researchers had the confidence of knowing that “certain things we saw were beyond the capabilities of the day”. However, DavidPavett says “History does not belong to [the specialists]”.
Back on terra firma, I am investigating purchasing a Kindle. In the meantime I will continue to enjoy snapping the spine of a new book, and making it my own.