JACAR Newsletter Number 32
September 30, 2020
”Special Feature : Message from Director-General Sumio Hatano"
”Special Feature : Message from Director-General Sumio Hatano"*Correction: The original version of this article was posted on September 29, 2020. However, some of the language in the original article regarding the scope of JACAR’s responsibilities and the methods for viewing pre-1945 “Gaihōzu” (Imperial Army maps of non-Japanese territory) contained errors. These have been corrected with this update. Our apologies for any confusion this may have caused. (October 20, 2020)
Benefits and Drawbacks
With infections caused by the novel coronavirus now spanning the world, the Japan Center for Asian Historical Resources has seen an increase in the number of people using our services. The number of users was already on the rise before the Covid-19 disaster struck, but from April to July in particular the number of visits our website received increased by 1.4 times compared to the preceding four months. Archives and libraries around the world have been forced to close or limit their hours, so this trend only makes sense given the increase in the number of researchers who find themselves having to work from the confines of their homes.
Certainly, the increase in visitors is a gratifying development for JACAR. However, I think we should also pause to consider this moment from a broader perspective. Specifically, what impact is this rapid spread in the use and availability of digital archives having on history research and education?
Generally speaking, the concept of “historical resources” includes both primary source materials—that is to say, the actual material objects and texts that exhibit the traces and scars of the past—and direct copies of such materials that exist in print, microfilm, and digital formats. Of the two, it is commonly understood that greater emphasis has traditionally been laid upon the primary source materials, particularly in historical and literary research. However, it is not hard to imagine that many scholars are finding it difficult to get access to source materials, and that being able to put JACAR’s offerings to use is next to the best thing.
Of course, using JACAR as an example, while the original materials may have been in color, in some cases an archive such as ours can present them only in black and white. More importantly, users should bear in mind that the goal at a digital archive like JACAR’s is to recreate for website visitors who look at our files a sensation that is on par with what they would experience if they were working with the original documents. We work to stay out of the way of allowing the user to understand the historical context of each item by using the same classifications for materials and methods for organizing them that had been applied to the original items. However, this, too, has its limitations. Over the internet, we cannot replicate the feeling one gets from actually holding an original item in your hands and comparing it with other items on the shelves nearby while also noting the implications of those other items being nearby and perhaps even detecting the (literal) “ambience of the times” that all of those materials exude.
Furthermore, there is always the danger when preserving materials electronically that, thanks to constant technological advances, the data itself may get erased or may become impossible to reproduce. From that perspective, the fact that, for example, documents written in ink at the time of the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877 have not faded and can still withstand inspection perhaps speaks to the superior quality of print. Bear in mind that, for example, the US National Archives and Records Administration has been working for more than a decade now on a system for the permanent preservation of electronic data. However, these efforts have yet to bear fruit.
These drawbacks and shortcomings to digital data are likely why using JACAR represents a “second-best policy” for many historians. That said, even just a glance at some of the topics that organizations such as the International Council on Archives have taken up in recent years gives one a real sense of how the rapid diffusion of digital archives and the remarkable advances in search capabilities are producing significant changes in how history researchers approach their work around the world.
What Is Going to Change?
What, then, will change in the field of historical research? For historians themselves, it is becoming easier to access and view historical materials, and it is now possible to eliminate the time and effort that visiting archival institutions requires. In JACAR’s case, we are becoming a particular convenient tool especially for site visitors who live overseas.
Search methods, too, are evolving. Multiple resource collections are now being bundled and grouped together, which means that website visitors can now conduct multi-faceted searches that span those multiple collections. Speaking to JACAR’s case again, it is now possible with some historical events for researchers to cross-search for relevant materials held by multiple institutions. Such crossover searches help researchers to uncover new facts and through their discoveries revise existing interpretations.
Furthermore, another benefit of digitalization is that some historical source materials can easily be scanned and converted into searchable text. Thinking about this in terms of identifying issues for research, this means that researchers could shift from using deductive approaches in which their searches through the resources are premised by some hypothesis or theory to using an inductive approach whereby they develop their hypotheses as they trawl through massive amounts of data Being able to proceed flexibly by trial and error unconstrained by having identified any specific issues in advance is certainly another upside to digitization.
Another clear benefit of digitizing the archives is the greater development that should occur in data-heavy fields like quantitative economic history. Digitalization will allow the collection and analysis of data on economic growth in various parts of the world that spans several centuries. This should help researchers to accurately discern trends in global economic growth.
The spread of digital archives as a tool for historical research may have its benefits, but we should not forget those who speak of its demerits as well. One of those demerits is the tendency for the special tension—that is to say, the awareness that one needs to be attentive and work with special care—that comes from engaging directly with historical materials to fall off as our awareness of the need to read them carefully fades away. This tendency is the obverse of those worries that come when the researcher works with the physical materials when they still lack the knowledge, training, and fully developed methodological know-how to fully interpret them in their historical context. Also, there are those who say that making source materials more openly available through digitalization will erase the distinction between amateur and expert historians and is no guarantee of the quality of the finished product. This is another point to consider.
The Opening Up of Historical Research
Still, perhaps the biggest advantage of digitalization is—using JACAR as an example—that it opens the way for not just historians but for the average person as well to easily access and use source materials. As already noted above, there can be a downside to taking historical research out of the hands of experts and opening it up to the average person, but we should think of the expanded possibilities that come from the diversification in interpreting and assessing history and in the opening of new fields. The fact is, it’s no longer unusual for such people to come up with ideas that history experts have not hit upon.
That said, this is not to say that there have been no instances in which JACAR has obtained materials on its own and digitized them. JACAR’s mission has been to collect materials in digital form from three government institutions—the Diplomatic Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Center for Military History at the Ministry of Defense’s National Institute for Defense Studies, and the National Archives of Japan—and make them publicly available. Be that as it may, there have also been instances in which we have received either been requested to digitize, preserve, and administer materials of various sorts, or consulted with on such matters.
One of the biggest such projects today was the “Gaihōzu” collection of maps of foreign countries created by the Imperial Army General Staff Office’s Land Survey Department. This collection of finely detailed maps was created by the General Staff Office mainly for military purposes between 1888 and the end of World War II. With an emphasis on former Japanese territories (including the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan, Sakhalin, and the South Sea Islands), they cover an area that stretches to northern China and Siberia to the north, parts of the U.S. Mainland to the east, Australia to the south, and Pakistan to the west.
Copies of the “Gaihōzu” were preserved at universities and other locations, so they escaped being destroyed or impounded with Japan’s defeat. Subsequently, considerable work has been done on these maps. A joint research group involving Tohoku University, Ochanomizu University, Kyoto University, and other institutions has digitized more than 10,000 items, and this digitized “Gaihōzu” oeuvre has been made available for public viewing. At present, a portion of these maps can be viewed at the National Archives of Japan.
The researcher who allows her or his imagination to flow might think of ways to combine the “Gaihōzu” information with data from long-run analyses of economic growth or from population statistics from various parts of the world. Doing so could lead them to go beyond the boundaries of geography or topography to perhaps get a broader perspective on transportation networks in East Asia, or on historical changes to landscapes, or on demographic shifts, or on the dynamics of industries.
Whatever the case, the ongoing evolution of digital archives will create a limitless expansion in the methods used for historical research and the topics of study. This is precisely why historical researchers will of course be called upon to thoroughly hone their fundamental skills of being able to draw out the information they need from historical resources and apply that information toward creating an appropriate finished product. Moreover, it would seem they should now also devote some energy to honing their powers of imagination enough to help them discover unexplored terrain.
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