Digitized sources make it possible for us to conduct research more easily than ever before. My own research continues to benefit from digital collections such as Michigan State’s own Feeding America project. The New York Public Library’s (NYPL) digital collections of historic menus and also every copy of The Negro Motorist Green Book have been central to some of my projects. Using digital sources means not having to travel to faraway places to access sources. That being said, using digital sources also alleviates the financial burden of conducting historical research. Digital repositories do more than close the physical gap between the scholar and their sources. Open source data such as that which is available through institutions like NYPL can lead to more robust scholarship. Instead of focusing on collecting the data and tracking down physical sources, scholars benefit from the availability of open source material and are able to present the data in new and interesting ways.
As a graduate student at Boston University, I found myself on the other side of the digital repositories. I took a graduate assistantship requiring me to digitize master’s theses for the Gastronomy Department. Recent theses were already digitized since we were required to turn in both digital and hard copies of our theses. However, this was not common practice in the department prior to 2008(ish). On one hand, I enjoyed being able to read through the work of the past Gastronomy students. On the other hand, it was a useful experience that taught me about metadata and the process of digitization. The work was rather painstaking since it required unbinding and then rebinding the physical manuscripts, but the knowledge I gained regarding the digitization of sources made the endeavor worthwhile.
Of course, we must also ask ourselves what is lost in using digitized sources. We read digital sources differently than we do the physical sources. Although many digital reading applications attempt to allow readers to mimic flipping through the pages, there is something to be said of the act of holding a physical source in our hands. Historical research allows for serendipitous findings that can change the direction of inquiry or lead to future projects. Can this be lost in using digital sources? Can a note marked in the margin be lost in a digital copy? A group of British scholars are now working on a way to maintain authenticity of primary sources as they digitize original Jane Austen manuscripts. By adding text recognition to the scribbles and the crossed-out words, the group is finding a way to allow for scholars to better understand Austen’s writing process.
As the digitization of sources continues, we must also assume that new technological capabilities will subsequently ameliorate. This will allow for a more robust presence of open source materials for scholars to use from anywhere in the world. Saving money in travel expenses is, of course, a real plus for graduate students in particular, but this is not the extent of the positive attributes of digitized sources. Having sources such as the NYPL’s digital collection of The Negro Motorist Green Book available has meant that I have been able to consolidate the information more quickly than if I had to travel to NYC to obtain the information.