History Grinds to a Halt



The notice above is what greets you on the website of one of the world’s largest repositories of historical documents, the Library of Congress (that’s its beautiful reading room in the photo). It’s much the same message that greets you at Library and Archives Canada. And at the Detroit Public Library, which is home to an archive I was hoping to visit before my next book goes into production in a month or so. Also at the University of Delaware archives, which has a set of papers I was hoping might be the foundation of my next next book.


Everyone is in the same boat. If your research and writing derive from primary source documents, which is the only kind of book I’ve done, you’re out of luck. History is locked down, and it has been for about six months. It will probably remain locked down for another six months, which makes a lost year for historical literature.


It’s not the worst thing to come from this virus, by any stretch, but it’s damned frustrating. I was fortunate to see all the primary materials I wanted to see for my current project, apart from that one set of papers in Detroit, before the lockdown. I can get by without that last set. It’s not critical. the book will get done. I feel for writers who were mid-project when all this hit and now can’t finish or move on to something else.


I can’t stand to be without a book project. I keep lists of subjects I might write about, all either history or historical biography. Last week, with the current project pretty much in the bag, eager to start whatever’s next, I went from archive to archive on the web, starting with University of Delaware, hoping to find something open so I could start researching. They’re all closed. I thought Texas, at least, would be open, not that I had anything I wanted to research there, but it’s closed, too.


The British Museum, which contains the UK’s national archives (reading room above), is now allowing a limited number of visitors to visit for limited amounts of time and pull limited amounts of material. Not ideal, especially with the travel involved, but I’m sure it’s a relief for UK researchers to have even that amount of access. Doesn’t help me much.


There has been talk for decades about the need to digitize archival material but not a great deal of action. It’s expensive and it’s not like crowds are lining up to see this stuff but some of the more popular collections are available, at least in part, online. Half of the 40,000 documents in the Smithsonian’s Abraham Lincoln collection, for instance, are digitized. You can also see a lot besides documents on the Smithsonian site, like this Lincoln life mask (above) which was taken from life, two months before he was assassinated. The photograph below was taken a couple of weeks after the life mask.


I supposed I could fall back on journalism for my next project, but it’s not an easy time to report either. Freedom of movement is limited and a lot of things are happening on Zoom rather than live. Library access for research purposes is not great. And I prefer writing from archives.


Future generations of researchers are unlikely to have these problems. The US National Archives and Records Administration announced recently that after 2022 it will no longer accept paper records. It’s either digitized or it’s not archived. That will improve accessibility.


Those future researchers will have another problem entirely: a super-abundance of material. I met an official working on the Obama presidential library last year. I can’t remember exactly how many emails he was expecting in the collection but the number was staggering. And that’s in addition to all the usual papers and digital memos and official reports from an expansive federal administration.

The same super-abundance trend is evident in Canada. In 2005, Library and Archives Canada launched a huge web archive program (for some reason the website was down this week). It has collected 800 million items amounting to 36 terabytes of information.


If 36 terabytes of information doesn’t impress you, the Archives Unleashed Project funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and run out of the University of Waterloo aims to make petabytes of historical internet content accessible to scholars and others interested in researching our digital past. Pretty much the whole internet will be archived. You can read more about it here.


It was only seventeen years ago when you could buy a single catalog that purported to guide you to absolutely everything on the World Wide Web. Now we’re into petabytes, which are 1024 terabytes, or a million gigabytes, or six fucktons.