High-hanging Fruit

Accessing digital resources is arguably the biggest problem facing historians today. This issue is multifaceted and works against us on multiple levels. Though the most broad problem is lack of access to computers and or service providers due to geographic location or poverty, my main focus on this issue will be the hurdles facing researchers- predominantly in the first world. These issues include: translating documents in foreign languages, accessing resources in foreign countries, retrieving and digitizing resources from antiquated formats, and circumventing prohibitive costs (a factor that applies to all these issues).



Google Translate has improved immensely in recent times and has proven to be an extremely accessible and useful tool. Above is a screenshot of Google Translate at work. The text was ripped from an Argentinian news source, and as a non-Spanish speaker, this tool allows me to access foreign news. This could be used for foreign textbooks, letters, e-mails, photograph captions, etc. Problems with Google Translate:
Though this tool is incredibly useful, some documents do not translate as well. Poems and song lyrics, whose meanings are much better understood with precision, are at times lost in translation. However, for simply getting the gist of how an event played out, then Google Translate will be acceptable.



Translating isn’t the only way Google is helping researchers. What may be one of the greatest boons to students, educators, and researchers alike in the past few years has been Google’s efforts towards digitizing as many books as they can. Books in the public domain, or books whose author has permitted full access can be viewed in their entirety. However, authors who don’t give full access usually offer previews of about 20% of their book’s total content. Google Books offers suggestions on where to buy or borrow a book, and any book can be viewed in plain-text which aids those who are visually impaired1. Books that are not in the public domain, have unclear copyright status, or whose author does not have a deal with Google Books are viewable in “snippets”. When used in conjunction with a search engine, the snippets are searched using key words or phrases that limit a researcher’s use to only what they need. This snippet aspect of Google Books has generated considerable controversy. Many authors have argued that Google Books Library project goes beyond the realm of fair use and limits creative rights. After over eight years of legal proceedings, Judge Denny Chin has dismissed the lawsuit against Google Books. The esteemed Judge even went on to advocate the project saying: “In my view, Google Books provides significant public benefits,”it advances the progress of the arts and sciences, while maintaining respectful consideration for the rights of authors and other creative individuals, and without adversely impacting the rights of copyright holders.”2

1Google, “Google Books Settlement Agreement with Authors and Publishers”, Youtube video, 5:03, June 23, 2009, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J16juV1acCI
2Albanese, Andrew. “Google Wins.” Accessed December 2, 2014. http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/content-and-e-books/article/60006-google-wins-court-issues-a-ringing-endorsement-of-google-books.html


Professor Rwany Sibaja received his Pd. D. in History from George Mason University. His research is centered on 20th century Argentine cultural with an emphasis on athletics. Professor Sibaja’s utilization of digital tools largely characterize his approach on teaching. The focus of his current research is on the effects of soccer on society in the 1950’s and 60’s.

Marshal Golden: What kind of projects have you worked on that required sources from foreign countries?

Prof. Rwany Sibaja: The major project has been my book manuscript which stemmed from my dissertation. The types of sources when I arrived to Argentina I knew that I’d be working with…newspapers, that I would be working with sports magazines and that I would try to be working with the official records from both the Argentine Soccer Federation as well as from some of the major club teams in the country. What I found was I had no problem accessing those except for the newspapers…because the microfilm is in poor quality. The machines are in even worse quality. It made it extremely hard to read. Thankfully I had already done quite a bit of newspaper research at the U.S. Library of Congress. Their machines there are fantastic, because you can actually put the SD card inside the machine, and then with the remote control- it’s like a T.V. remote. You can just scan, zoom in, and then click. And then it takes a picture and it saves that image straight to your SD card. So I could just sit there and just go through maybe eighteen reels in about three hours. So that’s really nice. But in Argentina it was really poor…

MG: So even a country like Argentina- a little more economically developed in it’s region, in comparison to not just digital…accessing digital resources, but tangible primary documents their storage and the way that they preserve their documents was not as good as the United States.

RS: …digitization…they’re way behind. There’s just no money for it, or the manpower to do it. So, that’s a work in progress…but, as far as the actual saving of materials. Boxing them up. Categorizing them in a certain way…it’s actually pretty good…You would have to know what you’re looking for, you would have to look for a particular person, a particular team, or a particular event. Pull out the catalog, see which ones, order the envelopes. You would have to wait there, then they come out- you gotta put some plastic gloves on- they’re really hot…make your hands sweat. You have to deal with them, you have to write down tons of information. At the end of the day turn that slip in. And if you wanted them like, put on a CD, then you would actually have to take a CD, take some money, and then you have to come back like a week later and maybe they’re ready. So that’s what I’m talking about in terms of…bureaucracy and hoops to go through, but they have done a good job of preserving material, it’s just that they haven’t organized it. A lot of time they don’t even know where to find it. “Well we know it’s somewhere here”…and then they’ll just say, “well we couldn’t find it.” But they know it’s there. And so you have to go back several times, until somebody actually knows where to find it.

MG: So you definitely had to travel…it most cases you had to go to the country to access these resources.

RS: For my topic yes…now, once I got to Argentina I didn’t have to travel; everything’s in Buenos Aires- the capitol. Could I have done some research at regional libraries or universities in cities four, five, six hours away? Probably, but the media is all centered out of Buenos Aires…so it just made it easier to not have to travel when I was there.

MG: So that’s one of the benefit…you can go to the forward city, or the capitol and access probably the best collections from that.

RS: True. But it also means that I’m working with a limited amount of sources. So I have to be up front about that. A country like Costa Rica…it’s different, because everything is actually is in San Jose. There’s very little very that’s going to be outside the capitol city…it’s a smaller country.

*Interview is truncated. Refer to sound file for full interview.


One of the benefits of retrieving data from outdated technology is that there is a cult following of techies who are willingly offering their assistance to other “digital archaeologists”. An advantage to accessing data from older technology is that in many cases the tech has drastically reduced in price. As can be seen from the image below, USB drives capable of reading floppy disks are about $20.

floppyPROBLEMS: Although many older forms of technology become cheaper, some that are more rare become more expensive and harder to adapt to newer technology. In many cases, disks could only be read one side at a time. Such disks would require a manual flipping, but ” when you flip the disk over, the hole is on the opposite side and the drive can no longer position itself. There are several mechanical hacks (involving wire cutting and soldering things to your drive) that allow modern drives to read these ‘flippy’ disks, but no really elegant solution has yet emerged.”1

1Reside, Doug. “Digital Archaeology.” Accessed December 2, 2014. http://www.nypl.org/blog/2012/07/23/digital-archaeology-recovering-your-digital-history


One of the major contributors to digital history are major universities or institutions offering open archives. Such groups are those like the American Memory Project, or the University of Michigan’s Making of America. Additionally, the Library of Congress has been quick to adapt to the trend of digitization, offering countless documents in the form of digitized books, maps, notated music, and even 3-D objects.

However, some of the largest publications require subscription access. Newspaper articles have fallen under similar circumstances as historians, and are noticing a shift towards free access articles becoming more prevalent in use among journalists and researchers alike.1

1Weber, Benjamin. “Digital Databases | HASTAC.” Accessed November 25, 2014. http://www.hastac.org/blogs/bendavidweber/2012/11/18/digital-databases


From my research, the main conclusion I can come to is that sometimes the best sources of history are the hardest to find. Whether they are in a foreign language, badly damaged, written with sloppy penmanship, stored on difficultly outdated technology, are non-digital and in a foreign country, or simply are too expensive to afford. Historians who reach for “high-hanging fruit” should be highly rewarded for their efforts, as this fruit takes great effort to pick.


Albanese, Andrew. “Google Wins.” Accessed December 2, 2014. http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/content-and-e-books/article/60006-google-wins-court-issues-a-ringing-endorsement-of-google-books.html

Google, “Google Books Settlement Agreement with Authors and Publishers”, Youtube video, 5:03, June 23, 2009, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J16juV1acCI

Reside, Doug. “Digital Archaeology.” Accessed December 2, 2014. http://www.nypl.org/blog/2012/07/23/digital-archaeology-recovering-your-digital-history

Weber, Benjamin. “Digital Databases | HASTAC.” Accessed November 25, 2014. http://www.hastac.org/blogs/bendavidweber/2012/11/18/digital-databases