Digital Organization and Analog Research Methods

Hilary’s most recent blogpost regarding handwritten notes reminded me of an interview in Popular Mechanics that I read earlier this year. In it, Eleanor Hildebrandt talks with journalist Robert Caro about his analog techniques in both research and composition. Caro has considerable reputation for his expansive, unparalleled investigation of the Johnson administration, so gaining some insight on his fact-finding process was pretty exciting to me at the time. Rereading the interview now, in the context of our class, there were two things that stuck out to me in particular about Caro’s thoughts on digitization.

The first is likely the main thrust of Caro’s worldview on research. In his own words, “Today, everybody believes fast is good. Sometimes slow is good.” To Caro, the process of physically sifting through papers and manually recording notes is fundamental to his knack for discovering patterns and narratives that other researchers have missed. While there’s undoubtedly an argument that this method works best for him simply because it’s the one he’s used all his life, I wondered if there was something broader and more abstract to it. If we think about Marshall McLuhan’s adage that the medium is the message, is there some value to supposing that the manner of organization (and consequently, methodology of research) influences the information we retrieve? The answer would seem obvious, but when we transpose it onto Caro’s tenets – that a certain degree of encumbrance in research can yield superior findings – can we arrive at any sort of practical conclusion? Are there certain things that digital storage and retrieval will always fall short of when held in comparison to traditional methods?

The other observation, which was perhaps more of a throwaway line by Caro, is in response to a question about the future of archival research when so much of our correspondence has no physical component (emails and texts, namely). Caro replies: 

Someone else could come along who was nuts like me and say, I’m going to look at every email. What’s more worrisome to me is that, when you talk about digitization, somebody has to decide what’s digitized. I don’t want anyone deciding what I can see. 

This strikes me as surprisingly narrow-minded for someone like Caro to say. Every archive, be it digital or analog, is the consequence of a conscious choice to preserve its contents. We’ve never saved everything, and every collection is the result of someone deciding what we get to see. The idea that archives are neutral, objective, and exhaustive is surely false. Caro explains himself a little by suggesting that the total eradication of paper records is more difficult than that of emails, but this seems to contradict what we know about digital preservation; the physical records are also far more likely to end up permanently lost due to organizational constraints and mishaps, let alone destroyed or damaged by happenstance. So is Caro’s commentary broaching a deep philosophical question within modern knowledge organization, or is he just revealing a sentimental attachment to old-fashioned archival practices?

(Gabriel Palisano, INFO 653-01)

Hildebrandt, Eleanor. “Historian Robert Caro on the Importance of Analog Research in a Digital Age.” Popular Mechanics, 15 Apr. 2019, http://www.popularmechanics.com/culture/a27128999/robert-caro-lbj-typewriter/.

McLuhan, M. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Retrieved from https://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/mcluhan.mediummessage.pdf

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by Hugh McLeod

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Pratt Institute School of Information
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