Sunday, June 07, 2009

My Trip to the Wisconsin Historical Society: Another Shout Out to Historians

I'm typing this one up on the Smartphone on the way home from Madison, WI. I came up last night straight out of work on a bus (with the L in Chicago su-cking!), stayed a night in a hotel that couldn't filter out the sounds of revellers at the bar across the street then got up this morning, had breakfast and got to the Wisconsin Historical Society at 10ish. An hour behind schedule, but it's the weekend.

I spent the day doing my first ever active historian work. A young guy and an older guy gave me an intro to the archives room then fetched me the commonplace book for George Ripley from the years 1822 to 1840.

George Ripley pretty much founded the Brook Farm Association of . . ., the socialist-Associationist community I'm currently trying to write about. I've written a little bit here and there about Ripley and Brook Farm. Most of what I've written lately has been to complain that Ripley should have kept more journals or, at the very least, provided much more articulate reasons as to his motivations for starting Brook Farm and why certain organizational processes were started there. That way, people like me could evaluate the results of Brook Farm better.

Ripley used his commonplace book to write down quotes, his thoughts on philosophers and critics and, near the end, he used it to work on projections for calculating, budgeting and figuring out the feasibility of crop growing on Brook Farm. I used to use my Palm Pilot for the same thing and have started to do so with my Smartphone.

I pored over the commonplace book for a half hour or so. Ripley organized it by subject pretty well. He probably did so for his own benefit, but it certainly helps the historian. He should have put more of his thinking and kept writing in it. I have the feeling that he just got too busy after 1840, trying to publish magazines, working on cyclopedic collections of philosophical and critical writing, trying to make Brook Farm work then working his ass off to pay debt leftover after Brook Farm dissolved.

The biggest faux pax on my part consisted of planning to use pens to take notes. The Society asks researcher not to. Doesn't take too much thought to understand their reasoning. Pens have a higher chance of leaking and exploding ink all over these mostly one-of-the-kind artifacts. Pencils and hands may smudge graphite on the documents, but I think there's a much smaller chance of the happening. I didn't to take any notes, though, so I didn't break any rules.

Even though if I destroyed that copy of the book, it wouldn't be as bad as other documents. Harvard University has the original copy, and this is just a copy. Yeah, getting another copy would probably be a huge pain the ass, but at least I wouldn't have been responsible for destroying a one-of-kind artifact that makes up our cultural heritage.

Doing that would just make me feel like a big jerk.

Done with the commonplace book for the moment, I went down to the microfilm room. No problem finding the microfilm I wanted since the older guy from the archives printed out a page that had the information for me. Just took me a minute or two to figure out the organizing system.

The first microfilm machine didn't help me, but the machine didn't do anything wrong. It was an old school machine that pretty acts as a projector on a screen with user interface device to navigate through the microfilm. The problem lay on the film: the text was published on the film so it was rotated 90 degrees to right-side up. I would have to twist my head 90 degrees on end then put some cognitive load on me to translate rotated print into correctly angled print. Gravity and our sense of balance really makes things difficult for us that.

Now that I think about it, my neck wouldn't have enjoyed twisting itself like that for hours on end.

I wandered aimlessly around the room until I discovered something amazing: computers set up to read microfilm. I've never seen that before! One of the staff helped set up one of the computers, showed me how to load the film then set up the computer so the text was rotated correctly. The coolest feature which I didn't have the opportunity to use: the microfilm computer will scan directly to a flash drive (hopefully in PDF form). Awesome!

The microfilm contained letters that Ripley and his second wife sent his sister, Marianne. First challenge from the outset: no table of contents, no index and no search feature. I have to find what I'm looking for by reading/scanning the whole text in some systematic fashion. I took probably the most obvious system: start at one page then read until there are no pages to read.

The second problem, and by far the worst of the two, all the letters were handwritten. Even worse, Ripley had horrible handwriting. His wife had more aesthetically pleasing handwriting, looking all neat and uniform, but she didn't allow for any white space in her letters. She made everything as tight as she could. Without the white space, it just looked like little pretty scribbles.

Ripley didn't even bother to stay neat with his handwriting. He wrote his letter like he signed it at the end. He had plenty of white space, but he just in a script and didn't think about making it easier to anyone else to read it. Sure, maybe he wasn't thinking of me or another historian when writing his sister, but how easily could his sister read his handwriting.

For both Ripley and his wife, reading the English was like reading another language that I'm trying to learn. There was stuff in there I could understand easily enough. As I learned different scrawlings I could read those particular scrawlings better.

When I came upon a scrawling I couldn't understand right away, though, I went into translation mode. Sometimes I just stared at the word until I could make it out. Other times I stared at the word, tried to pick certain parts, tried to pick out letters or just let the first word that it look like catch my attention. I would just keep whispering that word or let the parts that I picked out run around in my head. That sometimes worked.

A more holistic approach generally worked best, though. I would take chunks of words, legible and illegible, then through my understanding of the words I could, the logic of English syntax, sentence structure and probably other linguistic words I don't know or can't think of at the moment, and also visual pattern recognition of words, I could translate most of the gibberish.

Remember me saying that reading text at a 90 degree angle because the microfilm was published that way would cause a large cognitive load? I can't imagine how well my brain could on top of reading text at an angle, handle essentially having to interpret chicken scrawl. I think my brain might have exploded all over the microfilm monitor!

There's just one more element that made the microfilm research difficult. This one probably comes from reading any microfilm, however. The quality of the copied pages varies, from page to page. To adjust for easier reading, I had three settings: zoom, brightness and contrast. Zoom and brightness helped a lot, but I have no idea if the contrast setting even did anything. Having to change these settings for practically every page su-u-cked!

I sat at the microfilm reading computer for about four hours and didn't read the whole microfilm. I started reading it word-for-word. I didn't think I could just scan because the squiggles on the screen didn't even look like they spelled anything. Just squiggles!

I had set my phone to have alarm go off at 3, though. The last bus from Madison to Chicago left at 4:30, and I wanted to make sure to grab a bite to eat and some water before leaving on the 4 hour ride home.

When that alarm went off, I snoozed it for 5 minutes. I started scanning. Of course, I started finding references to my research topic at this point. None of them held relevance to the my writing, though. Argh!

I don't know if reading the microfilm word-for-word for about 3 hours primed my visual pattern recognition or not, but within that last half hour, I was able to get through quite a bit and get enough gist of it. Enough of a gist to know that what I'm reading didn't have anything.

Nonetheless, at 3:30, fighting against my nature, I accepted defeat and got out of there. I had just enough time to grab a burrito and some water then get on the bus home.

I will have to visit Madison at least once more to scan the rest of that microfilm. If what I believe is on there is on there (as another historian cites in a book on George Ripley), I must get that information!

After my experience today, I must give a shout out to historians out there and exhort my readers to do the same. Researching and writing history is a labor intensive vocation. The reward for it probably doesn't provide nearly the compensation that equals the labor power that goes into it.

So, historians, my hat goes off to you.

2 comments:

JohnnyHank said...

Just a quick note. You can rotate the spool apparatus on the old school microfilm readers so items that are filmed "sideways" can be read without neck injuries. :)

And if you're cursing sloppy handwriting, just wait 'til you encounter cross-writing!
http://www.edwardtufte.com/bboard/images/0002vY-6535.jpg

The_Lex said...

I'm kind of lame. At first I thought I was looking at the wrong side of the microfilm. I fed it all onto the empty reel to the right then switched the reels. Only when I looked at it then did I realize the writing was "sideways," not on the wrong side from the original reel.

I didn't bother asking for directions to use the old style machine. After all, I wanted to print pages that looked useful to me, and I couldn't see a printer attached to one of the old style machines.

Sitting down at the computer to read the microfilm provided me with such a relief! I grew up at the beginning of the digital/information age, and the computer/Internet was my babysitter. Microfilm machines always confused me for some reason.

Took a look at the cross-writing. Who does/did that? Mr. Ripley would sometimes finish his letters on the first page at a different angle from the beginning of the letter. It didn't cross with the rest of the letter but that ended up irritating me a little, especially when I didn't know if the people who made the microfilm reprinted the first page with the end text at the "right angle."

Can people perform some type of process to make older parts of a palimpsest readable? I imagine that would cause migraines, too.