Study Leave Week 17

The power of digitised research

The traditional activity of the arts and humanities academic digging out and poring over rare manuscripts in archives and libraries still remains the bread-and-butter of our research, but it is changing. With increasing digitisation of so many resources, the need for travel and extended research trips to difficult-to-access archives (often negotiating with protective archivists and librarians) is waning. This doesn’t diminish the extent of the research we need to do, but it does make us rethink our modus operandi.

For me, as I write and research my third book, I have noticed a significant change even in the 4 or 5 years since I was conducting the bulk of the primary research for my second book (in 2010-11, published 2012).  One of the major resources I need to consult frequently is the Département de la Musique holdings at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris. Contoversially scheduled to move sites in the coming years, the holdings and access to them are more precious than ever. Up until a few years ago, the majority of the catalogue (and holdings) were still only available in paper-card index format, consultable only in person at the rue Louvois site. Now, as I research less well-known French chanson and mélodie settings of Baudelaire, I am reliant once again on the Département de la Musique’s collections. Having assumed a research trip to Paris would be the first port of call for me as I deepened my primary research, I have discovered that in fact a number of the rare songs I need to consult are now available online, through the excellent Gallica digital library. It may not yet have everything, but it has meant that I could put off my travel until next month, enabling me to crack on sooner with the main bulk of the writing and research process of the first few chapters of my book.

Brilliant as they are, however, digital resources aren’t everything. As many a researcher of historical documents will tell you, the digitised text doesn’t always show up everything you need to know. For one of the key composers I work on, for example, hand annotated versions of song offprints were done by the composer in coloured pencil, and sections of these annotations which have been erased and then rewritten are only visible on the original copy. Discovering the layers of rewriting by poets and composers often highlights some of the lost compositional processes, leading to a breakthrough in the research and analysis. And it is this old-fashioned style of traditional scholarship that still excites many of us, because it reveals hidden gems that the digitised world cannot yet show us. I find myself researching, then, in two modes: digitally, and non-digitally. Both modes have a key role to play in my work, as I adapt my way of researching according to what is available in each format.

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