Have you ever left an online review after dining at a café or staying in a hotel? What about after a visiting a museum or a local heritage site? You probably left your comment for the benefit of future visitors or to get the attention of management, but that review may have had unintended consequences. Although you not have known it, your opinions could be creating valuable digital sources for the historians of tomorrow.[i]
It might feel like websites such as Google Reviews, TripAdvisor and HotelWorld are a pretty new phenomenon. Certainly, online reviews are a product of the twenty-first century. But as consumers, we humans have been recording our opinions on recreational experiences for a long time. The best historic example of this is the visitor’s (or guest) book. Typically identified by its leather cover, heavy pages, or dusty appearance, this thick tome sitting in the corner of a museum room or end of the gallery corridor should not be overlooked. Though some visitor’s books may only elicit a signature, akin to ‘X was here,’ most are filled with colourful and reflective feedback. Even the briefest of autographs can open intriguing avenues of research, whether exploring the nature of the ink to the style of the handwriting.[ii]
Visitor’s books have a rich history. Some of the visitor’s books housed in archival collections date back as far as the seventeenth century – guest books from castles, parish churches, homes of noblemen and aristocrats, hotels, galleries, and museums. Historians of different research backgrounds can gather important information from these sources as they search for new threads into the past. Social historians who have spent time in the archives will know the feeling of scanning a visitor’s book for a familiar name or pertinent date. Heritage scholars, likewise, find guest books to be a vital way of accessing a place, building or exhibit now lost to history. Economic historians may recognise class patterns amongst the names and occupations of the visiting folk. A cultural historian may leaf through a visitor’s book to uncover the development of tourism and leisure lifestyles.
While they reveal much about time and place, visitor’s books are not without obstacles. In fact, reading through visitor comments should leave us with more questions. Who are these entries written for? They could be for the benefit of the home or estate-owner, for the perusal of staff, or for the visitors who will follow. How do the entries in the book relate to one another and to the assumed reader? This will naturally change the way we can understand each comment. We must also be careful not to see only the names and dates in the book, but to read across the grain, considering those that are missing from this cross-section of society.
Perhaps the dusty visitor’s book is going out of fashion, but online review websites are only blossoming in the digital age. How will the next generation of historians examine our online guest books? As we are coming to see, the web is both a great social leveller and a wall behind which individuals can hide. Historians must soon contend with everything from fake Amazon reviews to internet trolls and hackers. Digital sources are not permanently written in pen and ink. Online comments can be swiftly deleted or edited with a single click – or even lost in a server blackout – but when saved, they may be accessed time and again without damage, unlike traditional historical sources. What’s more, this archive is dynamic and evolving, as reviewers interact with one another and owners respond to their comments.
While it poses a new set of challenges for the modern researcher, the internet still provides us with a chance to access the experiences of unforeseen numbers of people and to process masses of demographic and language data. If handled correctly, digital sources may yield insights into recreation, leisure, culture, and social experience on a larger scale than ever possible before. As we approach this new type of archive – online and digital – we would do well to learn from the visitor’s book, a complicated source, but a richly valuable one for historians of every flavour.
Images: Cover and Extract from Visitor’s Book from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Family Home, Springwood Guest Book, Box 56, Roosevelt Family Papers, Roosevelt Presidential Library.
[i]To consider how historians are beginning to use TripAdvisor reviews as a source for audience perceptions of historic sites, see Perry L. Carter, “Where Are the Enslaved?: TripAdvisor and the Narrative Landscapes of Southern Plantation Museums,” Journal of Heritage Tourism, 11, no. 3 (July 2, 2016): 235–49, https://doi.org/10.1080/1743873X.2015.1100625.
[ii]For a good introduction to the study of visitor books, see Sharon Macdonald, “Accessing Audiences: Visiting Visitor Books,” Museum and Society3, no. 3 (2015): 18.