- Rethinking Access to the Past:History and Archives in the Digital Age
SOME HISTORICAL QUESTIONS ARE EASIER ANSWERED than others. Much of what determines the degree of difficulty with which a specific question can be answered is the access a historian has to their evidence. A simple query about the past might be answered within minutes by querying Wikipedia; a more complex question on a local topic might require a short visit to a nearby archival collection, library, or museum or even multiple archives. As the questions we ask of the past increase in sophistication, historians require greater investments of both time and money.
The nature of these archives can also compound the challenges historians face. The quality of the documentary record as well as its structure, curation, and language all pose obstacles lengthening the research process and adding to its costs. Except for highly specific and local questions, the answer to most historical inquiries requires the use of institutional archives and collections. For the most part, the practice of historical interpretation done well is slow, costly, and often quite complicated.
Additionally, the work of history involves at least two intertwined ways of relating to the past. One way that people approach the past is through local and lived experience. This approach often underpins family and community histories; genealogy and history societies, local libraries, and museums support it. Researchers whose interest in the past is shaped by their local realities may periodically extend their historical inquiry beyond these institutions, but they often remain restricted by financial, vocational, or family commitments. The other approach is the one most often (though not always) taken by professional historians. With institutional support from a university, museum, library, or government agency, historians working from this perspective often have access to considerably more financial, technological, and infrastructural resources as well as a broader professional network to support their work.
Archivists, librarians, curators, and historians have long been working against the challenges of access to archival materials. Though Early Canadiana Online (formerly CIHM) and the Champlain Society are probably the best-known organizations for this type of work, the Atlantic region also has a [End Page 217] rich late-19th- and early-20th-century history of archival activism. In Nova Scotia, men like provincial archivist Thomas Atkins and Dalhousie English professor Archibald Macmechan published collections of documents related to the province's early colonial history.1 In New Brunswick, it was men like botanist William Francis Ganong and medical doctor John Clarence Webster who published volumes of early documents related to that province's history.2
As far as we know, Prince Edward Island did not have a similar champion of the archive but similar types of publications were also produced.3 These Atlantic efforts were matched by similar endeavours led by prominent Maine businessman and politician James Phinney Baxter, Canada's first national archivist Sir Arthur Doughty, New York medical doctor and archivist Edmund O'Callaghan, and Wisconsin librarian and lawyer Rueben Gold Thwaites.4 Taken together, all of these works weighted down library shelves during the late 19th and 20th centuries as archival collections were made accessible through historical transcription in works that continue today to be foundational for the early study of the Atlantic region.
These archival anthologies are not without problems. Though they made historical records accessible to researchers unable to visit the archives, they also removed each document's text from its broader context. In some cases these editors translated documents without including the text in the original language (this is particularly the case for documents written in Indigenous languages). In other cases the documents were reordered or reorganized to make thematic sense to a reader rather than respecting their archival structure. In these collections, the archival context of the document – which itself was similarly curated – is often silenced in favour of a document itself. [End Page 218]
Further, in nearly every case, these collections were organized to support a specific perspective on the past, be it regarding the Acadian deportation and early years of Nova Scotia for Atkins, travel narratives for Ganong, religious records for Thwaites (among other subjects related to American colonial expansion...