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Smartphones in the archive

By Davide Martino (@DavideMartinoDM)

‘Writing this book would not have been possible without Samsung, whose phone was of invaluable help.’ If acknowledgments were an honest reflection of the research process, a similar sentence would probably feature in most scholarly works of the last decade. Though pencil and paper, as well as our eyes and hands, are not usually acknowledged, the use of a smartphone or camera probably should be, for it alters our relationship to the sources.

Reliance on reproductions of originals in historical research is as old as photography itself; its many undeniable advantages include greater freedom and flexibility. Aby Warburg, for example, famously created entire collages of black/white photographs in his Mnemosyne Atlas.[1] In the last eighteen months, however, the Covid-19 pandemic has forced many historians to rely solely on reproductions, replacing the originals altogether. Even when archives have been accessible, smartphones (or portable cameras) have become indispensable.

My own experience of this transition is mapped by the shift in policy at the Florence Archivio di Stato. When I first carried out research there, in 2015, personal photography of documents was forbidden: reproductions were to be executed solely by professionals. A year later, researchers were allowed to take their own photos—but only after receiving written permission. This year, since the archive’s reopening, personal photography is not just authorised but encouraged. Covid-secure protocols, indeed, include a cap on the number of times each scholar can visit the archive. To make the most of these precious visits, getting through as many archival documents as possible is essential, and photography allows us to do just that. Or does it?

Objects, their physicality, and the senses through which we interact with them have become prominent subjects of historical research in recent years. Whether a ‘material turn’ is underway or not, we have learnt to look differently at such things as archival documents, which are also objects, with their own complex history going beyond the letters, digits, or images recorded on them. The first problem of digital reproductions, then, is that they flatten these objects, reducing them to an artificial two-dimensionality. This is a trite observation, and repositories of digitised sources often make up for the shortcomings of 2D images with multiple photos from different angles, accompanied by information about size, weight, material, etc. Despite seeing meticulous researchers place a ruler next to the documents they photograph with their own phone, or camera, I suspect they represent a small, impressively well-organised minority.

However, taking rulers along is no solution for the second problem. Photos change our way of working with the sources, altering in turn our relationship to them. The opportunity cost of ‘snapping’ something is so low—it takes a few seconds and next to no efforts—that, as a rule, we photograph a lot more than we need. This is a good remedy for the risk of leaving out something important, and it can also yield pleasant surprises in the form of unexpected finds, but it increasingly shifts the real work till ‘later’. ‘Later’ is, as a rule, out of the archive, often physically and geographically removed from it, and the possibilities to follow up on a promising lead. Often long enough ‘later’ that our hands have forgotten what the paper, or parchment, felt like, and our brains might have mixed up one source with another. ‘Later’ is also, as a rule, in front of a screen, which allows for zooming but not for turning, (un)folding, or holding up to the light.

A good way to conceive of the difference between these two ways of working might be to think of fishing. Line fishing is a game of patience, rewarded now and then by a good catch, each an isolated event. Fishing trawlers, by contrast, dredge the waters over a large area, then lift their nets and sort through their catch. Whilst the latter is less sustainable from an environmental point of view, trawling through an archive with a smartphone in hand presents other challenges. Its advantages are numerous, and well-known to all who have carried out research recently—but they come at a cost. It might be a price worth paying, but we won’t know for sure until we have had a proper reflection and conversation about it. Being honest in acknowledging our reliance on such devices might be a good place to start.


[1] https://live-warburglibrarycornelledu.pantheonsite.io/.

All images were taken by Davide Martino.

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