Fibber McGee’s Closet

How digital technology has transformed the writing of history

Today’s post is a change of pace. I hope you will like it if you are not a historian, perhaps because it gives you an idea about how the sausage is made nowadays. Please forward to any interested reader, and invite them to subscribe (or convert your own subscription)for the low, low bargain-basement price of .40 a post (less than it used to cost to Xerox two documents at the Library of Congress!)

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Photo credit: Dell Publishing/Wikimedia Commons

I want to think about the ease of doing historical research in the digital age and its difficulties; not only the pleasure in how much research we can find online but also how little of what we collect is visible when transferred to our own computers. The shift from paper to digital—and the promise that more and more will be available online every year without even traveling to the archive itself—has produced a syndrome among historians of all ages that I call “Fibber McGee’s Closet.”

For readers who don’t know them, Fibber and Molly McGee were fictional middle-class radio characters created during the Great Depression by vaudeville comedians Jim and Marian Jordan. In April 1935, the married couple from 79 Wistful Vista made their debut on the NBC network, pioneering a genre that would become a staple feature of twentieth-century media entertainment: the situation, or ensemble, comedy.

One of the show’s running gags had to do with Fibber’s hall closet, which the audience knew was jammed with junk. At some point in the show, Molly would suggest that something Fibber needed was “in the closet,” or a guest would try to exit just as Fibber said: “That’s not the front door – that’s the closet!” When the closet door opened, an avalanche of nameless clutter jangled through the airwaves as audiences roared with laughter. When the final items clattered to the floor, Fibber delivered his rueful catchphrase: “I gotta clean out that closet someday.”

Ten years ago, when I still worked in Connecticut and had an office closet, it was as full as Fibber’s, packed with large file boxes of research. Brought home from archives a couple of pounds at a time, I had amassed these Xeroxed documents and handwritten index cards, which eventually became a book. Although I had begun using a computer to write while still in graduate school, I never imagined writing or thinking without well-organized boxes of files that could be laid out on the floor and covered with Post-its.

These papers were the product of what had been, in the mid-1980s, new technology: cheap photocopying made the duplication of documents affordable. Diversion of archivists’ valuable time to mundane duplication, excessive handling, harm to documents from the light and heat of copying machines, and the disordering of folders caused some libraries to keep prices just high enough – sometimes as much as 50 cents or even a dollar a page—to discourage the kind of mass copying that I favored early in my career. But assuming that it was affordable, copying could shorten a research trip dramatically. As a bonus, it eliminated the copious, finger-numbing, and possibly error-ridden note-taking with number 2 pencils that had constituted the previous state of play in historical research.  

I can’t explain why I still owned those files in 2011. Nostalgia for a youth spent in the windowless basement of FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., where every trip to the bathroom required an escort by a strapping female Special Agent? Perhaps. Fortunately, just as I was approaching the moment when the closet where the boxes lived was almost full, my friend and colleague Beverly Gage announced that she planned to write a new biography of former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and asked if I had anything tucked away.

The perfect solution had arrived: I could clean the closet and be a good colleague at the same time! I loaded the boxes in my car, drove to New Haven, and left them in Bev’s capable hands. On my way out the door, I said: “There’s only one rule: you must never. Ever. Give them. Back.”

Today, were I to be sharing my current research, I would hand over a one-inch thumb drive that had three times as many documents as were in those boxes: documents and interviews downloaded from online collections, videos downloaded from YouTube, and my own videotaped and transcribed oral histories.

I doubt that most history graduate students are faced with the dilemma of redundant paper files. But that problem has been replaced with other challenges. We can own a larger volume of documents, but their sheer numbers can obscure or complicate the bigger story we are trying to tell. There is making sure we can identify each one for citation. There is the difficulty of working across collections when you can only see one document at a time.

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When they were laid out on the floor, you could see all of them, each with a citation written across the top.

 For those of us writing recent history, the decades between 1970 and the present, volume is the worst problem, and it has several causes. One, for political historians at least, is the expansion of bureaucracies. For example, the expanded activities of the White House and its larger staff have produced an explosion of data. A second issue is that this data is not just on paper anymore. As communication technologies have developed – photography, radio, newsreel, television, audiotape, video, fax, and digital media—there are more ways to record and be recorded.

To give you a sense of the scope of the problem, here is a crude comparison drawn from my own research career. The FDR library, where I did a chunk of the research for my first book, has about 17 million documents; the Ronald Reagan library has over 50 million presidential documents alone (generated in two, not three and a half, terms, and with no World War), 1.6 million feet of photographs, and a half million feet of film, audio, and videotape.        

The volume problem extends to duplicating and storing these documents. Like Cold War spies, we historians make sense of a folder as quickly as possible and create images rapidly with the tacit promise that we will read and sort them later. Taking more home can be a good idea intellectually. Just as a whole document offers more context and less room for interpretive error than a notecard, having all the documents in a folder can preserve important connections between the most important ones.

But it is also a management headache. This is why a digital research environment requires all twenty-first-century historians to think like archivists.

A collection of documents tells a story by how it is arranged; historians tell new stories derived from, or sometimes hidden by, those collections. When put in dialogue with each other, collections may tell another story altogether. When we take evidence from an archive, we have to replicate the organizational schema of each collection, not just so that we can reproduce it in our citations but also so that we do not lose the story that the original organization of the collection tells. At the same time, we have to create parallel archaeology, reflecting and supporting the emerging argument of our own research. This requires a higher level of mental organization and the ability to make well-chosen tools and apps work together to keep the original story intact while we produce a new one.

And yet, a great many historians I know barely understand their computers. Their hard and cloud drives – not to mention their email accounts and G-drives—resemble Fibber’s closet. This means that the capacity to collect and reproduce research in a digital form far exceeds the capacity of many scholars to make good use of what they have collected.

In fact, many historians aren’t really interested in technology at all. They often regard their computers as lovely typewriters that occasionally and inexplicably do bad things, hiding critical documents and secretly erasing stuff on their own time. Digital technology becomes an obstacle to be overcome on the way to a book. Having never used a typewriter, graduate students and younger historians often do better, but not because their mentors have taught them how. 

Why? Because, minus some nips and tucks, graduate education has not changed that much in the last thirty years. The fact that digital historians—who do know how to do this stuff—often work outside history departments, in institutes of various kinds, schools of media, and in the library has exacerbated this problem even in institutions with robust digital academic cultures.

Few history departments teach the forms of epistemological organization and information architecture that are better associated with DH projects like Cristina Patuelli’s “Linked Jazz Project,” or the collection and curatorial approaches of Meredith Evans’ “Documenting Ferguson.” Nor are students schooled in how one might choose tools for data analysis, or for better perception and visualization of patterns among documents. In fact, forms of collaboration—with communities and other scholars—are frowned upon in a field that still views the single-authored book as the stepping-stone to promotions.

But all historians must be at least minimally digital now, and the consequences for not having this training can be scary. The best-planned research, transported from the archive and to our digital devices, can quickly become muddled, unidentifiable, and intimidating junk that is difficult to see, understand, or retrieve. Having thousands of documents on a hard drive or cloud, literally at our fingertips, is an amazing phenomenon—until you realize that you can’t see them at all, much less the story they tell.   

The humanities have many challenges before them, but how historical scholarship and methodology will change in the age of digital excess is one of them. This has become even more apparent as we contrast the scope and style of digital history projects, even those produced by comparatively junior historians, with book projects, which sometimes seem surprisingly narrow by comparison. In contrast to the wealth of evidence digital historians are collecting, the big questions they are asking, and the stories their data tells across time and space, books—good ones, bad ones, and excellent ones—look pretty much like they always have.

So on to the good news.

On the surface, the digital world is cleaner, saner, and better than than the world of paper documents. We aren’t killing trees. We aren’t toting around boxes of heavy paper. We aren’t waiting for photocopies that we have paid through the nose for, and someone, usually a woman with at least one advanced degree, has taken time away from her work to produce.  

We are doing less harm to collections by not slapping them down on a hot glass plate and covering them with a rubber mat. At a place like Harvard’s Schlesinger Library, which limited each scholar to 500 copies a year (often necessitating the employment of graduate students as undercover agents, each of whom was entitled to her own 500 copies), we can walk away with as many scanned documents as we like.

But nothing digital is, on the face of it, usable in the way paper was. Unlike those boxes of documents I gave away, it’s not in the least obvious what is in a .jpg by glancing at it, nor can you put more than a couple of electronic files side by side to understand how documents are speaking to each other and how they move your story along. Although you can mark them up, those markings and notes, unlike Post-its (one of the greatest technological inventions of the twentieth century), are largely internal to the .jpg unless you use a tool like Zotero.

These are research and writing problems, to be sure, but they are also cognitive problems and need to be addressed through new forms of training. When either the nature of the archive or the way the archive is used changes, historians must agree to change with it. Decisions that we often made in the archive (copy this, don’t copy that, take notes on this) can now be put off until later when we digitize everything. Potentially, we have a more kaleidoscopic view of what our subjects are up to as we write, but it can also be a more chaotic one.

In other words, the digital world has the capacity to make us simultaneously more and less efficient, more knowledgeable, and less able to understand what we know fully. These cognitive challenges also force us to grapple with differences in how we pay attention and think, something that historians rarely discuss. On the computer screen, the useful things we pull down from the internet are all crammed up against what is not useful, what might represent another research project altogether, or what might keep you clicking through until you discover how someone lost 80 pounds in only a month. Similarly, what often drove the absent-minded Fibber McGee to his closet was the need for a raincoat, an umbrella, or a lost briefcase – something he needed for work, which was buried in footballs, fishing waders, umbrellas, and appliances awaiting repair.

If you are engaged in recent history as I am, being distractable and roaming through the internet's trash can be crucial. Writing a short piece about the recent history of celebrities coming out as queer, an assignment centered on Jodie Foster’s speech at the Golden Globes, I found myself watching and taking notes on endless Ellen de Generes videos on YouTube. Because there had to be a connection, right? 

And there was. Much of what I collected was eventually edited out of the piece. It was a distraction, and it made the essay too long. On the other hand, although I cut what amounted to days of research and writing, I finished the piece confident that I understood the broader terrain of lesbian celebrity. This is more like twentieth-century research than one might think, with one exception: YouTube is entirely uncurated, the possibilities are infinite, and I had to figure out on my own what mattered and what didn’t.

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Creating a bespoke digital archive that has some integrity without the help of a librarian or an archivist is a foundational skill.

More good news: what used to be put off to research trips can at least be begun at your desk. For example, I read a 1982 memo that Elizabeth Dole sent to Morton Blackwell, Ronald Reagan’s policy chief. She mentioned a General Accounting Office report on organized crime and the distribution of pornography. (God Bless her little legally-trained Republican soul, she also noted the report’s reference number in parentheses.) 

What I used to do with such information was write it on an index card and put it in a box marked: “Next Washington Trip: Odds and Ends.” Now I abandon what I am writing and Google the report number. To my great joy, it came up, leading me to the GAO website where—miracle of miracles!—our federal tax dollars are once again at work!—I learned that the GAO has scanned and uploaded every report they have issued in the last forty years! I downloaded about fifty and sent them to my research assistant to tag and upload to Zotero.

As archives are scanned and uploaded, students will increasingly need to work in ways that my generation learned on its own. I suspect the Covid-19 pandemic has already accelerated our move out of the reading room, and it will be necessary to fields well beyond my own. This means that departments willing to embrace new research methods and the partnerships with archivists they require will have a competitive and intellectual advantage.

More importantly, solving these digital problems enhances our capacity to think, teach and write history to the high standards we cherish as the archive changes and challenges us differently. It sharpens close reading and editing skills and allows us and our students to represent the past better through design, visualization, text editing, analyzing metadata, and mapping.

In the 21st century, we all are and must be digital historians. There is no other choice.

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Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).


What I’m Reading:

  • Christopher John Sprigman argues that there is a solution to politicized Supreme Court rulings: don’t enforce them. (The Editorial Board, May 25, 2021)

  • Forget about dedicated anti-vaxxers for a minute: almost half of unvaccinated Americans are afraid they will be too sick to work—and will lose their jobs. (Judd Legum and Tesnim Zekeria, Popular Information, May 25, 2021)

  • Why does Black inclusion in leadership positions stall at 4%? Because white people think they are done and stop trying. (Jamal Simmons, Democracy, May 4, 2021)