14 December 2006

My eyes! My poor, ruined eyes!

I have been staring at microfilm for five hours a day for the past week. You could also say that I have been staring at poorly reproduced copies of original documents for the past week.

I do not like it.

I know what it is I need from the films, but I am forced to scan, however briefly, each document contained on each of the sixteen rolls I have on loan from Library and Archives Canada.

I do not like doing this.

I like what I am learning. That is not the problem. The thing is, I’ve found myself thinking, everyday, numerous times, “There has got to be a better way to do this. This is horrible.”

Sometimes I scan the film at a quick clip. I do this because it is more efficient. Looking at the microfilm while it is whizzing past produces in me, however, an unpleasant side-effect: it makes me dizzy, creating nausea.

I hate this.

Recalling all those wonderful digital history readings and discussions from this past term, I want to think that I could just skip to the highlighted spots on the microfilm that are specific to my topic.

But I can’t.

I know that this digging through archival material is supposed to be part of the fun of being a historian. But I recall a certain device called the “internet” (ever heard of it?) coming up in our class discussions quite frequently. I also recall hearing that on the internet - and within other digital realms - you can “search” for terms, with results specific to that search appearing for you, on a sort of binary silver platter.

That, to me, sounds like fun. And fast. One turd of a lot faster than my current searching. Instead of a week spent scanning thousands of sheets of miniatures of old documents, I would only have to spend - at most - a day gathering what I need. And that would allow me to devote one heck of a lot more time to thinking about my topic. And isn't thinking the real point of writing a research paper in history?


1 comment:

Claire said...

At the risk of sounding cranky - well, first, let me say that I don't think your frustration would be so intense were it not the end of term and had you not been working so intensely, and it's entirely understandable. I hate microfilm too. But no, I don't think that IS the entire point of a research paper in history.

For my part, it'd be delightful to have the stack of books & articles on historical fiction highlighted, flagged, and annotated by my computer, leaving only my brilliance to interpret them...Oh, wait. How is the Unseen Highlighter going to know why I'm looking for what I'm looking for? What if they called it something else back then? What if I need to know a little something about historical context? (See your post on the weirded-out photos).

There's a sense in your post of "We've invented the internet; why are we still using cuneform? Internet generation, meet - every other generation. There's no legitimate reason to bind the practice of history to mid-century techniques; but there are legitimate reasons to retain past practices as part of your arsenal and not chuck them entirely. Like I said, a history paper isn't purely about your "thinking"; certainly I grade research papers partly on their creativity of analysis [How new is their argument, or the connections they see?], but also on their originality of research [how "new" is the information they use?] I fear that highlighting standard search terms allows people to become - not lazy, because that would sound old and cranky and "I had to do this so do you," but less critical and aware of what they're looking at: focusing on the yellow word, rather than the columns of newsprint around it. Also, the ease of use would make everyone go "yay digital!!!" rather than ask about a variety of sources which, God forbid, can't be Googled. [OK, that DOES sound old & cranky. In my defence, let me point out I'm 4 years older than you].

You can be an historian and adore microfilm. You can be an historian and use microfilm in manageable doses, when you don't have a grad-school term paper due and you're not annoyed at the world :). You can be an historian without using microfilm. [Witness, me].

Also, I wouldn't worry. In ten years, most of what you'd need to look at will be digitalized anyway, and there'll probably be a search engine to go with it.