So, call me melodramatic, but Open Refine might just be my villain origin story.
Not to sound arrogant in any way, but it has been a hot, hot minute since I came across a program that I couldn’t pick up within the first hour or two of using it. But somehow, Open Refine has thwarted me. Quite effectively. I despair for my future as a data organizer.
However, despite my mildly appalling lack of skill with this technical task, it still accomplished the goal of really forcing me to think about data, how we as academics collect it, and how we utilize it. Prior to the advent of the internet age that we live in today, research in history was done in-person, most often in an archival setting. Work like this was slow and imprecise in that historians were often looking through a lot of side information as they searched for their primary query. However, this excess information served an important function—it provided deeper context and understanding of other sources, ultimately expanding the researcher’s perception of their chosen subject matter. Lara Putnam terms this as “side-glancing,” and it is this periphery vision in research that for many years allowed greater context of sources and of topics as a whole.
However, as the internet advanced more and more of these sources were digitized and put in an online format. Researchers no longer had to travel the sometimes far distances to get to regional archives that, previously, were the only spaces to access sources on said region. With just a few keywords and a search bar, researchers are now able to cross international boundaries in pursuit of knowledge. This new ease of access does not come without cost. As Putnam explains in her article, utilizing the search box is to rely on the algorithms and other technicalities to pull the most relevant information to your query. Though this allows the researcher to quickly find relevant sources, the process cuts out a lot of the side-glancing that provided invaluable context and periphery information to research itself. This opens up new blind spots in research across the board, not just historical. Researchers need to become keen to these blind spots.
Putnam thoroughly and eloquently raises questions about our modern methods of research and, indeed, their limits. I know “limits” is not a word we as society tend to apply to technology that is constantly advancing, but for our research purposes, especially as historians, it is highly relevant. We often get so caught up in ease of access and just the sheer amount of sources we can pull these days that we don’t stop to consider the wider implications of what we’re reading. Just as doors were opened by technology, there are others that have also been closed. One of the side effects of digitization and digital access is that we as researchers lose much of the side-glancing that often provided us with just as vital information, even if it wasn’t directly what we were searching for. This, of course, does not even touch on the crucial discussion regarding inequalities in digitization and internet access is general. It has become very apparent that advancing technology in research has raised just as many questions as it has answered, and will probably continue to do so.