Digital Research Methods: Notes from the (Teleworking) Field

The COVID-19 public health emergency has underscored the importance of digital research. While many federal, state, and local archives and record collections remain closed, our historians have continued to work with legal clients to ensure that their time-sensitive investigations continue with as little interruption as possible.

HAI has access to an extensive array of online and subscription-only databases—but to see their full value historians need to apply careful research methodologies and rigorous analysis. Two interconnected questions capture some of the most challenging aspects of historical research: How do you locate relevant information relating to your research question, and what factual conclusions can be drawn from this information?

Until we can again fill library reading rooms, we rely on digital resources. Source: Library of Congress

Historians undertaking a search of legal records have long benefited from the digital turn. Legal records were some of the first historical documents to be provided in a machine-readable format. Databases like LexisNexis and Westlaw introduced computerized resources in the 1970s, and have expanded their holdings to include both published federal and state court decisions. Another resource, HeinOnline, provides access to law-related periodicals, treatises, statutes, and federal regulations. Public Access to Court Records (PACER) enables researchers to obtain case and docket information from federal appellate, district, and bankruptcy courts. Although some databases provide full-text coverage of court cases as early as the 1990s, digital searches typically yield citations that supplement, but do not replace, in-person repository research.

In the mid-2000s, online databases began leveraging advances in optical character recognition (OCR) software that turned images of documents into machine-readable text.  Although not perfect, OCR software made it possible to search for keywords, phrases, and topics within the text itself. These innovations transformed the field, but even today, a vast majority of archival sources are still not digitized. As of April 2020, for example, the National Archives and Records Administration has digitized just 0.904% of its holdings. Thus, in most cases, digital resources comprise an important but partial research effort. A comprehensive search for potentially-relevant documents must not be limited to electronic materials.

Mapping tools like Google Earth add depth to historical research.

One notable benefit of the digital turn is that historians are now able to employ new analytical techniques, such as text analysis and mapping, to interpret collected materials. Basic tools like Voyant can produce text analyses that show word frequencies, word clouds, word trees, and other visualizations. Other software packages in Python and R programming languages can be used to detect mood, context, and semantic networks in large volumes of textual data. Mapping tools, such as CARTO, Google Maps, or Google Earth, help historians visualize data spatially, showing patterns as they relate to geographic information. Filters, time sliders, and panning and zooming capabilities enhance mapping data.

When properly utilized, digital research tools help us obtain insights and perspectives not available to previous generations of historians. The temporary closure of federal, state, and local libraries and archives have refocused attention on what can be done remotely. While not without limitations, our digital capabilities are vast and ever-expanding.