Academic ethics and material necessity

At one time, not so long ago, access to archives was very scarce. It took time and money, discipline and focus; university affiliation and professional reputation, to get into special collections and archives and even the stacks of the Library of Congress. It took a socialization into a culture, a discipline.

An historian would sit for hours going through archival material, carefully taking notes, carefully recording citations, because the material itself was scarce, and because his or her time in the archives was a scarce and rare thing, hard to pull off. Necessity–the scarcity of perishable and rare sources from the past, collected in a special place–led to an ethic of practice that rewarded deep knowledge and sustained attention, careful citation and scrupulous records. This ethic was on the whole a good and admirable thing. I still teach it.

More and more, though, archives are digitized and open, and more and more, that kind of painstaking, slow scanning through physical documents is giving way to word searches that instantly parse and organize millions of texts.

Should the traditional method persist as a practice or an ethic when the necessity that fostered it is gone, or will be relatively soon?

You might argue why not? I’m not a religious believer, but I persist in a basically judeo-christian ethical practice even though I’ve removed the original necessity–a vengeful, interventionist god. The ethic has outlasted the thing that gave it shape initially.

On the other hand, my judeo christian ethics are in constant tension with secularism, or “secular humanism,” and it would probably be more accurate to say that I’ve adapted a judeo christian ethic to reflect the perceived lack of an intervening Mosaic god.

Operating a coal furnace required an ethic, but it would be silly to go downstairs and mime shoveling coal into a gas heater. It would be similarly silly to insist that researchers still use notecards, or worse, microfilm, or make refusal to use digital texts a requirement of academic work, and similarly silly to prize an ethic of work drawn from a vanishing necessity.

It seems to me that as necessity changes, the ethical and disciplinary practices of historians must and will change, and that those changes must reflect new necessities and possibilities.

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