Doing research in your pyjamas: digitised sources, word search and methodology

I was recently at an IHR workshop talking about approaches and challenges to research and teaching for French historians.  The digitisation of books, newspapers and archives, but also the growing precision of online research catalogues, has an effect on the way we work as historians. Whereas before we had to physically go to a library for research, now, all of the sudden, we can do it in our pyjamas from home.

Well, sort of. I never really read books on google books, nor do I spend extended periods of time looking at digitised archives. Indeed, I find the software is often a bit clunky. By scanning the document with a mouse/zoom, I can slowly make out the content of the document, going from top to bottom, from left to right. I then click to look at the next page, which (more or less slowly) loads up, and then start scanning the single page again. The process is longer. It takes me much longer to read a document online than it would ‘in person’. There is no ‘flicking through’, there is less intuition. When it is in my hands, I can (pretty) quickly assess a file’s significance for my research ; when it is on my screen it takes a lot longer.

That being said, the internet can be an extraordinarily powerful and valuable tool for historians. Did I not already mention the thing about working in your pyjamas?! As a mother I am now much more selective about the time I spend away from home, and prolonged trips to do archival/library work in France seem less realistic all of the sudden. Parents are not the only ones who have to think carefully about planning trips to archives, though. The financial element of travelling to archives, and the teaching/admin duties we are generally bound to, have a major effect on how much time we spend in the archives. I remember what my PhD supervisor told me in my first year: ‘go to the archives, go for a year, enjoy it, you’ll never have that time again!’ She was right.

Aside from convenience, digitised sources also change the way we research. Word search, in particular, speeds things up, allowing us to locate crucial sources at impressive speed. It could be argued that word search is too precise, though, targeting words but not necessarily meaning. We would thereby reduce discussions of – for instance – race and racism to instances where those words are used explicitly. They may not be used in the context we are looking for though, or the context we are looking for may be using different key words. Word search, despite it’s comforting quantitative element, is an imperfect science.

And yet, could I use word search to develop a methodological approach for my latest research? I am currently writing a paper on ‘Race, Racism and Resistance’ which explores how the notion of ‘race’ intersects with the history of the French Resistance both within and beyond the metropole. Right now, the methodology is a bit … random. This is in part out of necessity. Indeed, there is no quick way of finding out who were non-white resisters in Occupied and Non-occupied France. That is kind of the reason why I am doing this. It is difficult to even define ‘non-white’ (what does it entail? variations of skin colour are far too high), and to quantify and identify those who resisted. And yet, in order to penetrate my subject, I felt I needed to get some understanding of this.

I began using a traditional methodology: gathering key secondary sources on the French Resistance. I almost immediately added books on empire, race and immigration in my time period. I looked at approaches and arguments, but I also looked closely at content: were these historians mentioning anyone who may have been black, North African, in metropole France, in the resistance, etc.? I started to build a small list of names, many of whom were anti-colonialist and  intellectuals in the years either before or afterthe war. Their activities between 1939-45 were, however, rarely mentioned, or only briefly. So I used google – I word searched – and I followed a series of leads through more or less reliable websites. In doing so, I was able to amass a variety of information which interlinked and overlapped at times, such that I was in some cases able to get a much more firm understanding of how non-white intellectuals had been entangled in the resistance.

Using word search, I haphazardly discovered an online source I never knew existed: the Service Historique de la Défense has its Dossier administratifs de résistants online. These are organised alphabetically, but also by place of birth and role in the French Resistance. If you go down the list of over 500,000 names, you can see who was born in Mali, Senegal, Algeria, and was part of the resistance as the FFL (Forces françaises libres); FFC (Forces françaises combattantes); FFI (Forces françaises de l’intérieur); RIF (Résistance intérieure française); DIR (Déportés et Internés résistants). It will take months going through this entire list, I have no doubt. It will also be imperfect since not everyone born in those countries was non-white, and since not every name has a place of birth or a resistance homologation. But it will be worth it. Just the other day, scrolling down the ‘D’ list, I came across one Syrian FFI resister, Jacques Dingian. By doing a simple word search of his name, I was able to identify the significance of the Corps France de la Montagne Noire, a maquis with numerous Algerians, Moroccans and other non-white, colonial, ‘indigenous’ resisters.

Would I have uncovered this without word search? Possibly by asking Rod Kedward and other maquis specialists. Is word search more distracting than anything else? Possibly, because my paper would probably be done by now ; instead I’m still following leads.

But this is just one of the many examples where word search has opened important avenues of investigation. Avenues which I would have probably left unexplored for a while. If anything, it had pointed me towards the usefulness of digitised sources. Reading up on Germaine Tillion’s network to help colonial POWs, I wanted to follow up some points, and so used the Archives Nationales’ online sources. I found documents which spoke to my specific questions, making my paper all the more robust and giving me a better understand of the significance of colonial POW escape networks in the French Resistance.

Word search and digitised sources are, as it so happens, proving invaluable tools as I take my first steps into a new research topic. More than that, they are becoming an important part of my research method. They can not replace archive trips, but I do believe they can enhance my research in new and unexpected ways.