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September 18, 2014

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Can you write history without going anywhere?

Two years ago, I started working on a book about the tumultuous final year in the life of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith. Digging in, I was startled by the cornucopia of historical resources available online, just a few keystrokes away.

Mormon history is quite digitized, thanks in part to the hyperactive “bloggernacle” — the erudite community of Latter-day Saint commentators and history buffs — and also thanks to the wealthy Salt Lake City-based church, which has invested in archives at the Church History Library and at Brigham Young University. Many documents and publications dating from the church’s founding in 1830 can be downloaded from anywhere in the world.

Layer onto that the instant availability of almost any 19th-century book, thanks to the oft-reviled Google Books, and you have to ask: Do I have to leave my study? Can I write history on a laptop?

“Absolutely yes,” answers Richard Oram, associate director of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, “with a lot of caveats.” Oram pointed me to several impressive online collections, including the California Digital Library and the ambitious Walt Whitman Project.

Oram specially commended the Valley of the Shadow website, a comprehensive Civil War-to-Reconstruction online archive coyly arranged like a library. “It’s very well-known in the history field,” he said. “People have done substantial research online into the social history of the counties represented there.”

Having said that, Oram thinks that even well-funded institutions like the Ransom often require a personal visit. Affluent libraries can provide detailed, online indexes to their holdings, but the indexes describe what the document is, not necessarily what’s in it. “A lot of these topics involve the need to look at the original in the flesh, so to speak,” Oram notes. “Any time you have an intensive subject investigation, you pretty much have to come and do the digging.”

Money doesn’t necessarily buy you archival love. “Professional digitization is expensive and time consuming,” Oram says. “You can’t just throw up a bunch of images. You have to include search terms and provide metadata” — akin to document captioning — “at great expense.”

I also put the history-in-a-laptop question to Andrea Pitzer, who recently published “The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov,” a bravura revision of the Russian-American writer’s most famous works. The book required extensive, original research. “The great thing about digital archives now is that it’s possible to do a huge amount of upfront work online,” she responded via email. “One historian I’ve talked with described how, in the pre-digital era, if you didn’t hear via word of mouth or from a curator that a given library had holdings related to your topic, you might never know that material existed.”

The two major Nabokov archives, the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection and the Library of Congress, both have excellent online guides to their holdings. “But the vast majority of the materials themselves — the letters, the diaries, family photos — aren’t online,” Pitzer explains.

“It would be hard to do a book on Nabokov that dealt in depth with his works or his life without seeing at least some of these items,” she adds. “Even when they didn’t focus on the questions I was considering, I wanted to go through key documents, to make sure my ideas weren’t contradicted by information in them.”

What was my experience? The euphoria of reading 19th-century documents and newspapers online dissipated quickly. While the Mormon church has paid to digitize its own newspapers, some informative anti-Mormon publications are available only on microfilm, in regional libraries.

On the other hand, technology spared me an expensive trip to the Mormon collection at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif. Its online index allowed me to ask for a few documents, which the library scanned and emailed to me, for a nominal fee.

That wasn’t the case at the Leslie F. Malpass Library at Western Illinois University in Macomb, Ill.

Malpass has several specialized Mormon collections, and a librarian emailed me useful finding aids.

But WIU is a large public university with (comparatively) modest rare book and manuscript resources. If you want to root around files, you have to get off your duff and go. I’m glad I did.

Alex Beam wrote this for the Boston Globe.

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