Friday, September 12, 2014

Reflections on History Reference Materials

The study of history is never complete.  There is always one more piece of evidence, one more missing link, one more point of view that could turn a thesis on its ear, changing everything.  This subjectivity is increased by the researcher; he or she is challenged to set aside preconceived notions, emotions, and belief systems in order to focus on concrete facts, all while keeping the humanity, and the consequent emotions, of those being studied in mind.  It is also affected by the librarian, who provides access to relevant research materials via processing (for archival collections) or cataloging and metadata creation for all items.

I was reminded of this fact as I progressed through the steps of this week’s module on research materials for historians.  First came “Historians and Their Information Sources,” by Dalton and Charnigo.  One of the findings of their study was that articles are increasingly chosen over books, manuscripts, and other materials by researchers.  This being a 2004 article, they do not address the prevalence of online journal databases as a possible reason for this increase.  Instead, they suggest reasons the following: more articles than books are published; articles provide information in context more quickly than books; articles tend to be more specialized.   They also point out that books and articles are more likely to be used by historians than are manuscripts, and while they express surprise at this fact, it would seem that access to materials is a strong hindrance to their use.  Is it possible that these materials not in use by historians contain answers that would change history?  Perhaps not, if we are discussing major events, but certainly they can increase our understanding of those events, particularly at a personal level.  But, certainly, if these items can be located and accessed, they may provide a more complete picture.

The Royal Society Library collection exemplifies the access challenge mentioned above.  Although there are a handful of digitized renderings of collection items available for viewing, the patron side of the viewer displayed no metadata and no transcript of manuscript materials.  How do we know these items are available and what they are about?  The collection is lovely, and it is clear that a multitude of collection items are not available online, but a large collection that is difficult to access is a collection that cannot easily be used; this also applies to items are available online but are lacking relevant metadata.

Both libguides – one from Kent and one from Cleveland Community College – demonstrate a tendency to reach for online articles and books for research materials.  What struck me about these, and about the Digital Librarian’s history section, was the subjectivity.  This is of necessity, certainly, and subjectivity does not mean that the guides are sparse; indeed, each is an excellent portal for finding useful resources.  However, neither the Kent libguide nor the one from Cleveland has been updated since 2013, which is problematic considering the speed at which new resources are made available.  The Digital Librarian’s site, while extensive, is missing links to materials on Ohio history, and was also last updated in 2013.  This is not a deal-breaker, of course, and history researchers are certainly aware that no resource is a one-stop shop.  It simply highlights that access is key, and that when access is inhibited for any reason, materials are difficult to use.

Similarly, the RUSA section’s history page on Facebook is an aggregator of recent articles and events relating to the study of history, as is the sub-reddit on history.  As resources for researchers, these are good methods for accessing secondary sources and, possibly, primary ones when references are included.  Still, like the other sources discussed above, these are curated and presented, and thus are exclusive.  This is not to discount them as resources, only to serve as a reminder that access remains a concern and that no resource can ever truly be complete.

One link from the history sub-reddit serves as an excellent example of this (although, admittedly, this is applicable to nearly every resource used by historians).  I conducted my review of Reddit on September 11, so it stands to reason that a number of articles shared there were relating to 9/11.  One such article was about the photograph of the Falling Man, an individual who chose to jump from one of the towers rather than waiting for its collapse.  We are not certain of his identity (although some believe him to be Jonathan Briley, an employee at Windows on the World), but his identity is not key to understanding the photograph and its place in history.  He appears to be in control and, indeed, he demonstrated a modicum of control by choosing to jump from the tower.  We cannot view this photograph without feeling a strong emotional reaction, and we cannot learn all there is to know about this moment by viewing the photograph.  In context, with knowledge about the day, however, we are able to understand something different about humanity and our will to survive or control our own destiny.  There has been a good deal of criticism of the photographer, Richard Drew, for having taken this photograph and the others in the series (which show the Falling Man tumbling through space), criticism which called Drew tasteless, crass, voyeuristic, and so on.  Again, the photos draw a strong emotional reaction.  But, again, what can we learn?  Could we learn as much if we did not have access to this image?  Can we undertake the herculean task of setting aside emotions that, after a decade, remain raw?  These questions are primarily for researchers, but as librarians we should ask them of ourselves, as well.  We have the power to curate the research experience for our patrons, simply by providing access, or not, to related materials.  We should strive to provide the most complete experience possible.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts in re "Falling Man"!