Paso Canoas, Panama/Costa Rica
May 12, 2017
The Senses of Archival Work:
Over the past couple of days I have been chipping away at the history themed chapter of the dissertation (Water Flows Back: A History of Transit Infrastructure in Central America will be the proposed article title. The proposed chapter title will simply be “Water”).
I have stumbled upon a treasure trove of digitized historical documents as part of a large scale move towards academic and scientific transparency and technological advancement in the region. On one hand, this is great. I have open access to historical maps and manuscripts along with professional studies of local researchers. This is huge for me to bolster the poor representation of local research in my bibliography. Also, I am able to easily work from my house as I build my history chapter and mark out specific tasks that I need to accomplish in the field. On the other hand, open access to digitized media leaves me feeling detached from my research. This is the paradox. A move toward connectivity creates disconnection. Shit, if this doesn’t represent the current dialogue within mobility studies! Let me explain what I mean. As a result of open access, there is really no need for me to physically go to the archives of these government agencies and historical organizations. I could, but I am really wasting everyone’s time. Especially when these professionals have spent countless hours scanning and uploading documents to their site. Often, the response that I receive when I email organizations about specific information is that it is all available on their website. So, this urges me to continue working from the computer.
And it is here that I am left with my moral conundrum. There is something exciting about diving into the archives. About being able to pick up and feel historical documents—to see the pen strokes of historical figures. I remember my time last year. I was in the archivos del ministerio de relaciones exteriores in Casco Viejo, Panama. My blue rubber gloves creating a thin pool of sweat to collect inside the protective covering. I was reading a letter from President Eisenhower to the President of Panama concerning to deal to construct the Pan-American Highway in Panama. The letter was signed by Eisenhower and notarized with the Presidential stamp. I took a minute to assess the blue pen strokes—pondering the mindset of the President at the moment of signing the letter. I could follow his hand movements as he created his signature. I then ran my fingers over the Presidential seal; wondering who laid the stamp, what did the stamp look like and in whose possession does it remain. All of these sensations made me feel like I was doing something important. As if I was uncovering some forgotten conversation. This was information that I could only find by putting my boots to the ground, gaining permission to enter the archives, and accessing these documents.
With digitized documents, these sensations are missing. The pen strokes that I read are mere digital reproductions of the original data; the detail of which is limited by the quality of equipment used to scan them. True, the information contained within the documents is the same, but the sensation of handling them is absent—this is similar to the argument regarding the proliferation of digital books versus physical books.
So, here is the moral conundrum. I like the feeling of scurrying through the archives and handling original historical documents. It makes me feel like I am doing something real...like I am pursuing that exciting sense of adventure that led me down this career path. It also makes me feel like I am doing something special. Only people that enter the building can access this information. You have to be here. Right? But this leaves me with this overarching question: Am I conducting my research for the true sake of the scientific community or is it simply a veiled project for self-fulfillment?
Whether or not I am in the archives, the information that I extract will be the same. The histories that I write will be the same...or will they? Will they suffer from same lack of understanding because the sensorial component of the documents is missing? The smell of the paper that they were using at the time or the sweat that dripped down on the pages as they scripted their thoughts? The sensory anthropologist would say, yes, it is important to be there. But there is still a side of me that also sees the selfishness in the whole concept behind field work: a heavily veiled project of self-fulfillment.