Love Letters and the Digital Turn

IMG_3738There should be no need to mention in a blog about early American history that the digital turn is, perhaps, a fait accompli. However, over the past couple of years more and more articles have called into question the ways in which access to digital archives and digitized sources has changed both the questions historians ask and the kinds of research we do. Of this surge in publications, Lara Putnam’s recent AHR article stands out as a kind of canary-in-the-coal-mine warning to both graduate students and established professionals. Putnam, professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, calls on all of us to have an “extensive discussion of digitization,” thereby pulling our research approaches out of, “the realm of invisible methods, the black box where by consensus we leave so much of our discipline’s heavy lifting.”[1] For Putnam and others, the digital turn remains full of pitfalls that deserve our serious consideration.

For many of us, the warnings in Putnam’s article come as no surprise – keyword searching limits our available material to that which has been printed, lack of experience reading through local archives means that graduate students lack the on-the-ground expertise that comes from extensive field work, and the playing field of digital scholarship is dangerously skewed towards wealthy institutions that provide access to the most databases. There was one warning, however, that struck me as surprising and made me think about how different seventeenth century research is in comparison with, say, the nineteenth or twentieth century. Putnam explained that we are in danger of producing “a desk discipline” in which graduate students and scholars alike produce manuscripts without ever stepping foot into an archive.

I should stop here to say that I am writing this post at the Archivo General de Indias in Sevilla. So I, at least, feel somewhat immune to these warnings. However, I was surprised that, although Putnam’s article discusses at length the ways in which the digital turn has allowed (or perhaps required) that young scholars work on transnational topics, the issue of languages was not one that she raised. For anyone who works on research projects that span multiple languages, keyword-searching is an idea best described as laughable. For example, while reading through the records of the Casa de la Contratación from the 1610s, I came across the summary of a confiscated letter written by an English pirate from the Caribbean island of Saint Christopher. The letter was purportedly signed by Vatero Raulí and detailed a voyage to the Surinam River as well as English designs in the Americas.

Now, perhaps I was especially tired that day after working my way through pages and pages of testimony, but it took several hours for me to realize that this “English pirate” was actually the famous promoter of early English colonization, Sir Walter Raleigh. Nor is this the most creative Hispanization of English and French names that I’ve discovered at the AGI. John Park became Juan Esparque. Thomas Warner was written Tomas Guarnel. And Pierre Blain d’Esnambuc became, simply, Denunbuque. Of course, if I conduct a keyword search in the AGI’s database for Walter Raleigh, this incredible letter is not among the results. In fact, a keyword search for Walter Raleigh produced exactly two hits – this despite entire folders that discuss his exploits using various Hispanized spellings of his name.

It’s not just names that get tricky when working in the seventeenth-century Caribbean. If, for example, I wanted to find out more about the island from which Raleigh penned his letter, what name should I keyword search? Saint Christopher, St. Christopher, Saint Christophe, St. Kitts, or San Christoval? And Saint Christopher is, at least, an island that every European power agreed on the name. Finding information on Providence Island in the AGI is impossible unless one knows that the Spanish referred to it as Santa Catalina. The same is true of Tortuga, which for a brief period of English history was called Association Island.

The issue of languages and keyword searching is, perhaps, a minor issue to overcome. (Although I’m not sure how I would have ever guessed that the Spanish would transcribe Walter as Vatero). Perhaps the bigger issue, and one that Putnam addresses nicely, is the value of knowing a place. As she argues, “border-crossing researchers” need to “slog away in archives day after day next to in-country intellectuals,” if anything in order to be “forced to acknowledge one’s ignorance early and often.” While working in Spain, I’ve had the great pleasure of being made to feel foolish by generous local scholars whose knowledge about this place, its former empire, and the archives is humbling. In many ways, I couldn’t agree more with Putnam in this regard.

However, I do question how quickly the digital turn is changing the way that young scholars research. Perhaps I’m a Luddite, but I’ve spent the past year and a half in archives and find myself surrounded by my peers, most of whom found their research topics by going to a brick-and-mortar library or through the advice of research librarians and advisors. And, after careful research through the secondary literature, we all headed off to archival repositories to “slog through” the records of our chosen place and period. For some of us, sitting at our desks is still simply not an option, as manuscript digitization remains a slow process for many archival deposits in Europe and the United States.

Love letterI also hope that young scholars will never face a world in which archival research means simply opening a browser and typing a few key terms. The excitement and anticipation of opening a box of letters and shifting through the contents is half the joy of this profession – something that a Google search will never replicate. And, it is through the documents that we stumble across that history becomes something real, tangible, and surprising. Like this love letter – not something that I will ever use in my dissertation, but a glimpse of a world that makes the mariners I study so much more than vignettes and anecdotes.


[1] Lara Putnam, “The Transnational and the Text-Searchable: Digitized Sources and the Shadows They Cast,” American Historical Review 121, no. 2 (April 2016): 377-402.

8 responses

  1. Incidentally, I get a bit annoyed when Spaniards claim that early American colonists were just a bunch of pirates (whereas the Spanish, of course, were noble honest sea-faring men).

  2. This post is spot on, and only hints at the frustration (mine, at least) of seeing people claim research they did not really do. The topper is a book published this year in which an author said he saw papers at the Public Record Office in London – seven years after it closed. He obviously read an older book citing the material and assumed the archive was still there. Yet even reading documents online is a form of cheating. I have often seen handwritten texts in person which are obviously copies of original sources, because the penmanship is so clear and the page unblemished. Yet these documents might look real online. At least half of all books on the American Revolution are simply reworded copies of other books. I could rant forever on this topic.

  3. Pingback: Editor’s Choice: Love Letters and the Digital Turn


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