Another Digital Revolution
Archival Research and Assistance in the Age of COVID
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I wondered whether the book I was working on would ever see the light of day. I was several years into a major project, and I still had a long list of archival collections to consult. A history of Boston and Black labor during the Civil War era, the project explores not only the work of Black men and women in Boston but also how white and Black Bostonians who journeyed south after the war viewed the labor of formerly enslaved people. With the closing of libraries, archival collections, research centers, and state and city records offices, I feared I might have to put the whole project on hold indefinitely. At the same time, I was grateful that these closures would protect the health and safety of the men and women who staffed them.
The last 21 months or so have reminded me of the incredible generosity and resourcefulness of archivists and librarians, as well as the remarkable transformation of the historical enterprise due to digitization. Many scholars younger than I take for granted the abundance of online resources. However, I began rummaging around in the archives over a half century ago, when the time, travel, and financial costs of doing research were barriers to tackling many intriguing projects. With the digitization revolution, many books and articles that are being written today could not have been undertaken just a few years ago.
Catalogers’ careful and often painstaking descriptions of archival collections posted online allowed me to target specific folders and even specific documents. I wrote to libraries and archival collections and requested a limited number of pdfs of the material. I was not the only person doing this, and the challenges I faced were minor compared to staff members contending with mountains of requests from scholars. After filing one request in April 2021, I received this response: “Please note that the library is currently operating under reduced capacity with three teams of 2–4 staff members working 1–2 half days per week. While our priority is to process requests for digitization during our shifts, we currently have over 700 requests in our queue and it will take some time for us to respond to all of them.” Patience rewarded, I did receive the material I needed.
The last 21 months have reminded me of the incredible generosity and resourcefulness of archivists and librarians.
I am grateful to the staffs of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Archives, local historical societies, archives and special collections at colleges and universities, and research centers, all of whom answered my queries. Although not deemed “essential workers” in official government parlance, these professionals ventured back into the archives when it was still unsafe for the public to do so. Working remotely, the interlibrary loan librarians at the University of Texas at Austin were able to obtain scans for me of pamphlets, scholarly articles, and obscure reports.
Individual archivists went out of their way to locate material for me. In one case, I was trying to track down an August 1849 letter to Boston mayor John Prescott Bigelow. I had seen a reference to the letter—and a folder number within a box in a particular collection—in a footnote in a secondary work. I submitted a request through the Houghton Library website in January 2020 and received a response from reference assistant Emily Walhout the following month. She had been looking for the document in the place I cited, but it was not there. She offered to search by the names of the letter’s signatories, which, unfortunately, I did not have. She wrote at that point, “I’m not quite ready to throw in the towel.” In the fall of 2021, I received another email from Ms. Walhout. Now back on-site, she renewed her search, looking in an uncataloged batch of Bigelow family manuscripts. Still no luck. I thanked her for wringing that particular towel dry; she went out of her way to try to track down a single document.
Along the lines of “necessity is the parental unit of invention,” after some digging, I discovered materials online that just a short time ago would have required a long, stomach-churning stint with a microfilm machine, including the records of the US Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands for Virginia and Washington, DC. The Boston City Council proceedings (approximately 700 handwritten pages for each relevant year) are all readily available online. HathiTrust is a remarkable repository of books, pamphlets, and other materials, including annual reports issued by Boston’s various administrative offices for this period.
The evidentiary riches that unfolded before me while I was sitting at my kitchen table were largely a function of my research topic—the United States in the 19th century. Not every historian can count on such resources at the touch of fingertips. In terms of accessing digital collections that university and other libraries have subscribed to, independent scholars are at a distinct disadvantage here. However, I did find free and commercial sites (in addition to special-access-only sites) that provided relevant material for my project.
Not every historian can count on such resources at the touch of fingertips.
I invested in memberships to several newspaper and genealogical databases with costs beginning at a few dollars a month. The fully searchable newspapers allowed me to follow the careers of individuals over time. For example, together with birth, death, marriage, and legal records, newspapers enabled me to piece together the life and labors of Joseph F. Clash, a Black man who ran a popular dance hall in Boston in the 1850s and early 1860s. Clash advertised his hall in local papers, and he appeared frequently in court, alternately as a witness, plaintiff, or defendant in a number of sensational, violent cases. Reporters, police officers, and at least some of the city’s elite patronized his North End establishment (he baited city council members with discounted admission prices), despite its reputation for fights; stabbings; and the prevalence of pickpockets, con artists, and scammers. Buried in an 1857 issue of the BostonHerald was a glowing description of the hall’s decorations, music, patrons, and refreshments (beer and mineral water, along with hard-boiled eggs, doughnuts, cake, mince pie, baked beans, cold chicken, lobster salad, and sausage).
The online availability of military records for Black men who served in the 54th and 55th Massachusetts regiments and the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry enabled me to cross-check their names and dates of service with information from censuses; demographic, Freedmen’s Bureau, and Freedman’s Bank information; newspapers; and pension applications (the last in the form of hard copies I requested from the National Archives). I followed one formerly enslaved Virginia man through his military service in Texas; back home after the war to work as a renter on a farm; to Massachusetts, where he moved with his family.
At times, the internet yielded astonishing surprises. I was interested in a will left by a Virginia planter who ordered that his enslaved workers be manumitted upon his death, but they did not receive the cash stipend stipulated in the will, and one of them sued on behalf of the whole group in 1855. The relevant legal documents are available on the Library of Virginia’s Virginia Memory website.
For me, doing research while staring at a computer screen does not compare—at least in visceral terms—to handling original documents in a hushed reading room. At the same time, my online sources allow me to check my work (reading my own penciled handwriting can be a problem), return to the material with fresh questions, and explore additional sources I did not feel the need to look at the first time around.
Historians and our colleagues in libraries and archives face multiple challenges on multiple fronts. So it’s good to stop for a moment and consider the profound ways that historical research has been furthered, enhanced, and strengthened by helpful and resourceful archivists and librarians and by the professionals who have edited and digitized archival collections, large and small. Only with their support was I able to complete this book, and my eyes are open now to new possibilities for future projects.
Jacqueline Jones is president of the AHA.
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