Digital History: Can We Do Deep Research From a Laptop?

15796 (1)Today we have a guest post from Sharon Block, Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine and author of Colonial Complexions: Race and Bodies in Early America. Block's book examines how Anglo-Americans built racial ideologies out of descriptions of physical appearance, analyzing more than 4,000 advertisements for fugitive servants and slaves in colonial newspapers alongside scores of trans-Atlantic sources. Here, she explores the research process for the book, contemplating the role of digital archives in historians' work today.

Here is the arc of my historical research in two brief lists:

  1. Chester County Archives. Hunterdon Hall of Records. Massachusetts Historical Society. South Carolina Department of Archives and History.
  2. Accessible Archives. The Geography of Slavery in Virginia. Google Books. The Internet Archive.

List A includes a few of the twenty-nine archives I visited when researching my first book on Rape and Sexual Power in Early America in the 1990s. List B contains some of the digitized source collections from which I researched my most recent book, Colonial Complexions: Race and Bodies in Early America.

How did I transform from a dogged digger through manuscripts to a desk-chair digital document peruser? As a new scholar in the just-developing field of history of sexuality, I spent countless hours poring over manuscript archival holdings, making sure I had empirical evidence of sexual acts. In other words: establishing my credibility as a serious archival-based historian. In-between Rape and Sexual Power and Colonial Complexions, I spent a few years being the first historian to apply brand new text mining techniques to historical corpuses. Although Colonial Complexions does not rely on data mining (I manually read and analyzed all 4000+ documents in the book), its reliance on digitization grew out of lessons gathered from my work in digital humanities.

I began Colonial Complexions trying to figure out how to write a traditional historical narrative that still reflected the methodologies developed out of the exponentially expanding volume of digitized primary sources. Advertisements for missing persons—commonly known as runaway advertisements—seemed like a perfect way to understand the shared racial scripts in colonists’ descriptions of the people around them. After all, the ostensible purpose of a “runaway” advertisement in local newspapers was to allow others to identify the missing person.

My comparative quantification of thousands of formulaic advertisements reveals that even the most seemingly objective corporeal descriptors were influenced by the perceived race and heritage of the individual. Height, age, and an array of less quantifiable descriptors all bore the marks of the racialized imaginary. Colonists empowered racial divisions with daily accumulations of differences in physical features.

Digitized runaway advertisements may have been a great choice for such historical questions, but using them was not a purely intellectual decision. When I began researching Colonial Complexions, I found myself in a very different place, both literally and figuratively, than I had been during my decades-earlier archival research. I now live in California, which makes day trips to local colonial British American archives impossible. If a continent’s distance weren’t enough of a barrier, I spent two years working in Australia. As importantly: I was a parent with significant childcare responsibilities and a non-movable spouse. So those lovely months-long or year-long fellowships at various East Coast institutions just weren’t an option, even if I would even have been lucky enough to receive one. And in all honesty, even if I could have made lengthy absences work, I didn’t want to: my first loyalty is to my life, not my profession.

So Colonial Complexions’ research methodology was born of necessity. I was fortunate to confront these life choices at a moment when digitization has made colonial history sources beyond founding fathers-type papers far more available. With this in mind, I set off—virtually, via my computer—to gather thousands of these few-line advertisements in order to write a history that re-places physical bodies in the colonial production of racism.


Newspaper advertisements for missing persons were typically interspersed among ads for an array of economic transactions, such as missing livestock, lost property, and sale of human beings. This particularly detailed ad for Nann, “a Negroe Wench, Country Born” contains many typical descriptors for runaways of African descent. (Pennsylvania Gazette February 14, 1765, p. 1. Library Company of Philadelphia.)

Digital sources allowed me to to answer questions in new ways: for instance, scholars of slavery have repeatedly pointed to the nineteenth-century description of enslaved people having “a down look.” But what did this convey in the 1700s? Were enslaved people afraid to look powerful people in the eye? Why this would be seen as a permanent characteristic worth describing in a missing persons advertisement? With full-text-searchable collections of historic publications, I could see how the term was used in multiple genres: first, I looked for all uses of “a down look” in eighteenth-century publications. Second, I identified a variety of foreign language dictionaries to see how “a down look” was used and translated. Together, these allowed me to piece together the colloquial usage of the term in colonial missing persons advertisements (check out Chapter Five for my conclusions!).

I hope this project offers a model for a digital history methodology that does not have to result in a visual “wow!” or highlight technical bells and whistles (even though many are wonderful). My computational methodologies live quietly in the background of my narrative. (For the tech-interested: I ran probabilistic topic models on 80,000 newspaper articles and advertisements for an overview, and more frequently relied on JMP for basic descriptive stats.)

Ultimately, Colonial Complexions shows how colonists’ thousands of shared descriptions of their laborers, neighbors, and community members made ideas about race into a lived reality. Colonists turned belief into seemingly objective bodily appearance one brief advertisement at a time.

So yes, to answer my title query: you can do in-depth historical research from a laptop. Digitized sources and digitally-influenced approaches makes visible the powerful belief systems that they are often not explicitly discussed. Digitization may more easily allow for the aggregation and quantitative analysis of popular print, but it is not magical, and it certainly isn’t a replacement for the more personal stories that live in manuscript collections. As I enter a new phase of my life where I’m no longer responsible for raising a family (and not yet responsible for elder care), I suspect my next project will again involve time spent in brick-and-mortar archives. I hope that both approaches allow me to pursue my particular historical interests: tracing everyday people’s lives, relationships, and understandings of the world around them.

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