A recent article in the Guardian called "Online is Fine, but History is Best Hands On" seems to be generating a lot of controversy. Based on the article's comments, I think some of this is a reaction to the writer and not what was written. (I am unfamiliar with this gentleman, so I had no knee jerk reaction either way.) Or, perhaps he should have titled his article "Online is More Than Fine, but History is Still More Magical Hands-on"
The author acknowledges the value of the "ubiquity of history," but points out that there is nothing like the excitement of accessing original documents. I agree wholeheartedly with both views. Providing online access to the information contained in original sources builds bridges for Archives to larger audiences. This kind of access helps spread a wealth of knowledge to those who would not otherwise be able to see the resources containing this information. Yet, anyone who has had the good fortune to work with actual original resources can hardly disagree that the original does indeed offer us opportunities for a better understanding of the "mystery of history." I wouldn't shake with excitement when I saw a letter by Thomas Jefferson reproduced online (or in a book for that matter,) but I did shake with excitement when I held such a letter in my hand.
I think many of the people who have responded to the Guardian article have mistakenly assumed that this is an either or proposition. I don't think that is what the article author intended it to be. Maybe I am mistaken about that. There is a place for online research and there is a place for in-person research too when we can do it.
Here's a case in point: I am currently working on a project to find more information about a diary I found in a local antique shop. Yesterday, I intended to drive to Maine to do original research, but decided that I would check online first to make sure I wouldn't spend time accessing in person things that could be accessed satisfactorily online. I ended up spending the day at home because thanks to Google I had access to business directories and newspapers that had valuable information. In fact, the newspapers were very welcome because I had spent some time with them in a microfilm version in Maine a couple of weeks ago. The film was scratched and the machine was temperamental. The online version was much more comfortable on the eyes. Yet, not everything I need is online AND I am hoping to find some resources down the road that fall into the "mystery" category. My diary covers 6 months in a man's life. Maybe he wrote more diaries and I can find them somewhere. I would love to see that in person to compare handwriting, ink color and marginalia. I would just like to hold the other one so that I can feel more a part of this man's life.
And here's another case in point: A few weeks ago the love letters of Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn were made available online. I was terribly excited to see a copy of one of these digital letters because of a lifelong interest I've had in this particular royal. My very next thought was, "I hope that I can see the original one day."
I am lucky that I live close to Maine so I can explore the original sources for my diary project. Letters from London, especially those held by elite institutions, would be harder for me to access for my research if there were not some remote way to do it.
The wonder of the original is not easily explained. I think Archives in general should do a better job of making the original sources more readily available so people can experience this wonder for themselves. There is no good reason why local history original resources can't be made more accessible to their communities. These resources should not just be important to people who are undergoing projects like mine. They should be important to local citizens. Children should be brought to Archives as many are brought to museums to experience the past. Show a kid the diary of someone who lived a hundred years ago. Show him the type of pen he used to write it. Show him the desk at which this person sat....these artifacts make a difference in making the past seem more real and tangible. An experience with an original would then make a remote experience more valuable too. Once someone sees, touches, and examines an original, they have a better context for their understanding of digital versions of historical documents.
We are living in an age where we can have the best of both worlds - remote access and access to originals. Don't water down the importance of either.