- Introduction:Civil War Governors of Kentucky
Every historian has an archival story and likes to tell it. We swap tales of the detective work undertaken in the archives—of the records found and not found, of the serendipitous discoveries that keep us returning to the repositories, again and again. We tell about the protective archivists looking over our work and of freezing temperatures, long hours, and exhausting days. Our stories are set in the physical space of the archive—the heavy wooden tables and the dusty, acidfree boxes usually take center stage—and we talk of "going" to the archive, of "moving in" and parking ourselves for days at a time, or even weeks. Our work in an archive is a physical experience, a journey even, because for a very long time the archive has been a physical place.
But archives are changing and so too are our stories. Over the last twenty years or so archives have taken shape in the virtual realm too. Our "travel" to archives now includes clicking through web pages, typing a URL into a browser, or Googling the names of archives we previously visited in person to see how the contents of boxes have become digitized on the screen. Our travel is now rapid and vast and efficient. We can locate ourselves in more than one archive within an hour; we can travel from one to another in a matter of seconds.
Sometimes those digital archives replicate what we could have seen in person—an entire boxed collection now visible online. Other times they are "invented," newly collected groups of records that were previously dispersed in scattered locations. Either way, the digitization [End Page 151] of the archives has revolutionized our research into the past, not only speeding up the pace of our research but opening up access to records that were previously difficult, if not impossible, to examine. The process of historical inquiry is less physical now, and with fewer of the limits and barriers that that entailed, historical research seems newly democratized. Anyone with access to the Internet can access the records of the past.
This digital revolution came to Kentucky in earnest in 2012 with the founding of the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition (CWGK). The brainchild of the Kentucky Historical Society, the project set out to collect tens of thousands of documents largely hidden in the files of the commonwealth's four wartime governors. Letters, petitions, pardon applications, and more, all written by Kentucky residents—upwards of 40,000 documents in total—describe the everyday experience of living the Civil War in this border state. The voices of men and women, black and white, urban and rural, rich and poor, literate and illiterate, are featured in these records, including, most significantly, many who often go unheard in more conventional accounts of Civil War history. In moments of need and crisis, they called on state officials—and produced, in many cases, the only written record of their voices that have survived to the present. The documents have been transcribed and annotated according to the highest standards of documentary editing and, beginning in June 2016, are being rolled out in a fully searchable online database. It promises to be a transformative work of social history, and federal grant programs have taken notice. Both the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission have recognized the significant value of this project and have provided crucial funding to make it possible.1
CWGK is opening up access to the lives of "ordinary" people, but is it more than a quicker, faster, and larger form of the traditional, physical archive? Indeed, one of the central questions animating [End Page 152] the digital revolution in the humanities over the years has been whether digital tools like the World Wide Web can revolutionize the way historians think too. Will our interpretations of the past be transformed, now that we can more quickly and easily process the records before us? Will we be able to ask new questions—and discover new answers—about the past? In the case of CWGK, will the Civil War, or will...