Feature Archive: Internet Archive Digital Library

Each month, a researcher shares their experiences of using a particular archive. The overall aim of this section is to create a database of the different archives available to those working on French and Francophone studies that will be of help particularly to students just starting out in research.

Sam Dobbie is a final year post graduate researcher at the University of Glasgow. Her research focuses on female agency in revolutionary Paris between 1789 and 1793, and seeks to combine theories of revolution with gender theories to determine the importance of women’s agency on the process of the French Revolution. Here she talks about using the Internet Archive digital library (https://archive.org/).

In October 2019, I commenced my PhD journey and was excitedly planning to embark upon research trips to Paris’ Archives Nationales and the Préfecture de Police in the summer of 2020. Unfortunately, in the March of that year, the Covid-19 pandemic forced my supervisors and I to rethink the sources that would compose the backbone of my research as lockdown imposed travel restrictions. The uncertainty caused by the nature of this pandemic has resulted in a reliance upon digital archives, which have proved very useful and allowed me to continue to be productive over the course of the past couple of years. One such source that has been invaluable is the Internet Archive (https://archive.org/). Established in 1996, this non-profit digital library brings together millions of webpages, books and texts, audio recordings, videos, images and software accounts. Enjoying partnerships with the likes of the American Library Association, the Digital Library Federation and Music Library Association, all users can access a wealth of material with free membership, which takes minutes to set-up requiring only an email address and password. Books can be borrowed for a period of one hour or fourteen days, depending upon the availability of the source in question, or accessed via the open library.

I stumbled across this resource completely by coincidence when doing research for my draft thesis chapter on the October Days of 1789, and was looking for testimonies from the Châtelet investigation carried out by the National Assembly across a seven month period in 1790. The Google results showed up three volumes of these testimonies available, in full, on Internet Archive. Since then, I have used this archival resource several times, the most recent being in October of this year, during my search for police reports from 1793 and their discussion of the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women.

Whilst this digital library is extremely useful for finding primary and secondary sources, I find that it is best for one to have specific material in mind when searching. This is because an advanced search can be carried out, reducing the amount of results generated from a more basic search. The open library is the aspect of the website that I am most familiar with because this is where the majority of the sources I have accessed are stored. Under the browse tab, one can access the following categories for their search: subjects, library explorer, lists, collections, K-12 student library, random book, and advanced search. Despite being an enjoyable resource to explore during one’s leisure time, if time is of the essence and one has the relevant details to hand, the advanced search option allows material to be found quickly and efficiently. For example, when looking for the police reports, I entered the title and author of the source reference from the edited collection by Darlene Levy, Harriet Applewhite and Mary Johnson, entitled Women in Revolutionary Paris, 1789-1795, into the general search bar. This produced a series of results with the sought after text appearing first. However, when searching for Olivier Blanc’s Marie Olympe de Gouges (2014), for instance, I used the advanced search option, inputting the title and author of the book. Despite being very different ways to approach this resource, the outcomes are the same. If the search yields the desired result, it will provide information about the availability of the text and ask whether one wishes to generate a PDF or EPUB version of the text in question. It will then allow the text to either be borrowed for a set amount of time or, if it is open access, allow full download of the material.  

Something I particularly like about this resource is that it allows searches to be saved and organised via the readings lists and log. This allows researchers to keep note of texts that are significant to their projects and actively keep exploring other collections, without worrying about backtracking through a vast amount of paperwork when creating or adding to the bibliography section of a substantial piece of work. This saves time worrying at the end of a lengthy project  about where sources were found, and also allows one to assess what types of source they have already consulted and the next possible sources to consider. Thus, this digital library is of the utmost importance to researchers looking for sources in limited circumstances, such as time restrictions and economic limitations.

Nonetheless, where there are advantages, there are simultaneously disadvantages. Online archives can be a rather isolated experience. A key lesson from this pandemic has been the significance of social relationships on mental health. Using resources like the Internet Archive remove the social aspects of the research process and leave researchers disconnected from the outside world. They also do not have the added benefit of archive specialists based onsite to help with the search for material or to answer any questions that may come to light when accessing the requested sources. Furthermore, it involves sitting in front of a computer screen for hours at a time, which poses its own challenges. Not only does this impact upon general health, it also leads to issues over the sources being consulted. The digitisation process often includes the translation of documents, interpretation, scanning and editing. This can result in information from the original source being lost, whether through translation or subjective interpretations, or the opportunity to see the way the original document was constructed being removed. The problem with this is that it then raises questions around whether the document being consulted truly reflect the original itentions and arguments of the author. Therefore, digital resources, in spite of having several advantages, can also present several limitations.

My top tip for researchers is that one must always balance the pros and cons before approaching any archive. In the case of the Internet Archive, there are many pros, the most notable being that material is available instantly and does not require travel. However, as has been emphasised, there are also cons to using digital archives, that may, in the personal opinions of the researcher in question, outweigh the pros. When deciding which archives to consult in the research process, one must carefully weigh up the various options, making an informed decision that suits their research style and projects.

Thank you very much for this, Sam!

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