I visited the RLG Cultural Materials site and opted to browse the Social Life and Customs. To my surprise a thousand images showed up on my screen in some daunting and indiscernible manner. Just like walking into a tradition archive, without a guide, stuff is just there. I decided to take advantage of the site’s search feature, and of course, I entered the keyword “pirate”. Another seemingly unorganized collection of images appeared on my screen, but all these had something to do with pirates (or so I assume). I still didn’t find this presentation of materials to be helpful, so I chose the Results Overview display option (which really should be the default display option) and was in business.
I found about 60 musical scores about pirates, posters, photographs, and even a useful broadside from 1704. Most of this material wasn’t germaine to my search for actual pirates, but there was some good material about cultural portrayals of pirates (Gilbert and Sullivan were well represented). As indicated above, I was most intrigued by the broadside because it was an account of pirate executions in Boston in 1704. This scanned image contained speeches I hadn’t seen before from my prior searches in Evans and ECCO and other places. The item entry mentioned that the broadside wasn’t listed on Evans because it was a photostat, so I am assuming that because the image was not keyword searchable, it wasn’t part of the Evans collection. The Results Overview utilizes databases to offer some nice sorting options. I was able to sort by where items were from, who created them, or who they were about, and unlike a traditional archive where pieces might be donated and not yet cataloged, I could discern the limits of this online collection. If something wasn’t indexed or cataloged, it simply did not exist in this archive.
Because my pirate search was producing limited results, I opted to play around with more modern cultural material. I liked the idea of using motion pictures as primary material (something I don’t really get to do in the 17th-18th centuries), so I opted to look at propaganda as a theme. I wanted to look at military recruitment materials (posters, videos, etc.) and see how the US military changed its approach toward getting young men to enlist. My search yielded a plethora of sources, and the first image I found was from 1917:
This poster did not seem very clever nor compelling to me, but it implied that joining the army would cultivate courage and disciplined reason in a young man. It almost seemed that the poster was reaching out to the parents of young men more so than the men themselves. Later posters were more creative and had images of fierce cats and soldiers marching toward adventure. The theme of improving one’s moral character sometimes resurfaced, but more often, the posters and images conveyed notions of toughness.
I was disappointed in finding that RLG did not contain military recruitment posters (at least for the US military) beyond 1918. I guess I could explore various portrayals of war and soldiers during the first World War, but I was more hoping for a visual theme occurring over time. Anyway, it was a fun exercise.
Digital archives offer faster and a more convenient means to find and present information. To look at these images and media, I did not have to leave my living room. I wouldn’t have to travel across the country to find these things. Conversely, what I see is what I get. I won’t ever be able to find a lost treasure in some musty room because for something to be digitized, it must have already been cataloged and indexed. One random thought I had after reading the articles and then looking through the RLG website: granulating objects like the words in a text to be keyword searchable does not seem to be all that far fetched or strange to us. Wouldn’t it be cool if we had the time/energy/ability to do the same for motion pictures? RLG has information like the creator of a film or the people/themes depicted in it, but I’m talking about something beyond that. I would like to see an index of every scene, every second of film and the stuff being captured in the frame. Digital archives are very useful tools, and I believe once more material is scanned, uploaded, indexed, etc., the default approach to doing research (historical or otherwise) will change as well.