Blog Post

Leaving Paper Behind

photoMoving means packing up my office. As you can see, on one side of the office are books; on the other, filing cabinets and piles of paper (it’s not usually this messy, I promise).  Most of the books are making the move; none of the paper is. I’m finally investing the time, and the last of my research funds, in scanning my photocopies. I’ve been thinking about why it has taken me so long to do this, to recognize that the transition from paper to digital is productive not procrastination. I don’t think my situation is unique, but it has not been directly addressed in the growing number of excellent posts on digital workflow and available tools. (Perhaps only academics of my generation are in this situation, but it is one I fear we are passing on to our students by not modelling research practices appropriate to the digital age.)

I have progressively accumulated less paper over the last few years without being able to entirely free myself of it. I gave up photocopying in the archives first for a scanner in 2003, and then a camera in 2006, shifted to scanning on my department copier, and collected pdfs rather than printouts. But changing my tools did not entirely stem the flow of paper. Some archives did not allow the use of either the scanner or camera. Until recently, when I ordered copies online rather than visiting the archive, or requested interlibrary loans, I received photocopies in the mail. And those copies joined all the paper I collected when photocopying was the only tool available.

For much of this time, I felt it didn’t matter whether my sources were digitized or photocopied. I generally printed out anything I wanted to read closely, or documents I wanted to be able to spread out to look at their entirety in one gaze, or material I wanted to take home. I told myself that it was just easier to work with paper; in fact, I was just accustomed to it. And at some level, the copies seemed closer to the actual sources that something on my computer monitor: while a photocopy was not an original document, it did share being on paper with the original. And as such, it also felt tangible, less liable to being lost or destroyed than a computer file.

In retrospect, I was relying on a deficit model of digitization, akin to that which Jim Mussell and Tim Sherratt have recently eloquently critiqued in regards to digital representations, focused on what I couldn’t do. I wasn’t thinking about the problems of working with paper, or what I could do with digital sources I could not with paper. Keeping track of what I had on paper was difficult; even when I organized copies into folders, I needed to remember they were in my filing cabinets. If I wanted to work at home, I had to try to anticipate everything I might need. The more I used copies, the more beaten up and marked up they became, and the more difficult to see in a new light. The more I looked at grey images on the standard paper, the less I remembered the color and size of the original documents. At the same time, I only vaguely recognized that it was becoming easier to use digital material. Online archival collections expanded, and journal databases delivering pdfs became the norm. Monitors became cheap enough that I bought a second one, and could spread out my digital files before me just as easily as my copies (I remember coveting the array of screens in Al Gore’s office in An Inconvenient Truth – but I don’t remember all that paper!). Dropbox let me back up and access those digital files anywhere without needing to remember to copy them to a server or a flash drive. Spotlight allowed me to find relevant documents on my Mac I did not remember I had.

But if I had aLittleSnapperdopted Zotero, I could have done so much more: collect, tag, index and cite sources, integrate them with my notes and share them with my collaborators. Digital sources are dynamic and fluid in a way that paper simply is not. But each time I started moving to Zotero, all the paper held me back – without spending valuable research time scanning, I would be working with only some of my sources.

Moving has had the unanticipated advantage of finally getting me over this hump, of putting me in the position to develop a fully digital workflow of the kind elaborated in recent posts by Nick Blackbourn, Michael Hattem, and Dylan Gottlieb to name just a few. Moreover, that workflow can be extended a step further than the collecting, organizing and writing they describe. Working with digital sources opens possibilities for different kinds of analysis. As William Turkel put it, “Traditional analog sources are only useful to people; digital sources can be manipulated by computers.” Digital sources are potential raw materials for digital history, for text-mining and visualization and who knows what else in the future. Recognizing that historians can leave paper behind, that historical research is becoming substantially digital in its practice and products, helps us see that the gap between mainstream history and digital history is smaller than it is commonly portrayed.

And digitizing everything will make packing up your office much easier.