There's a very romantic image - and it's certainly one I possessed when, starry-eyed, I embarked upon my first degree in history - of the archetypal historian, preferably be-spectacled, poring over manuscript sources in a library or archive, preferably wood-panelled. It's an image that is still so much the reality of what historians do that the postgraduate forum I help organise ran an entire session last year on how best to survive long trips to archives (the answer seems to be dogged determination). Well, since starting my PhD I've developed the spectacles, but I've found myself spending less and less time breathing in the scent of old paper, and more and more hunched over my laptop, trawling through the great conglomeration of information, images, and PDF files that is the twenty-first century world-wide web.
However, I've recently concluded that there is no need to apologise for my "archivally light" PhD research. Indeed, the kind of thesis that I'm trying to write simply wouldn't be feasible if it was based around physical trips to archives. There are no discrete collections of early modern mountain history to delve into over a long visit to a single archive, and even if there were they wouldn't provide me with the type of overview that I'm hoping to achieve. Because the early modern understanding of mountains has been relatively unstudied, I want my thesis to be as broad as possible - because without a breadth of understanding I think it would be impossible to contextualise any more focussed reflections that might be waiting to be made. So, I want to immerse myself in source after source after source, in order to see if I can draw any patterns out of them (or even just conclude that there are no patterns to be drawn).
The digital age, therefore, is perfect for the kind of project I've embarked upon - in fact, in enables it. A great advantage of working on the early modern period is that any published material is long out of copyright: and, thanks to the digitisation efforts of projects such as Google Books and EEBO (Early English Books Online), vast swathes of early modern published writings are freely available online, and, in many cases, fully text-searchable. And then there are image databases, from whence I can draw impressions relating to artistic representations of mountains, like ArtStor and even Wikimedia Commons (although I haven't found a way to efficiently streamline search results by date range on the latter). Finally, thanks to an increasing emphasis on making the results of government-funded research freely available, new archivally-based projects are increasingly creating online databases or resources for all to use. And having all of these sources at my fingertips means that I can process a lot of potential sources very efficiently, moving quickly on from sources which prove irrelevant to my particular topic in a way I could not if I had, for example, travelled to a specific collection just to view it.
I remember when I embarked upon my undergraduate thesis, more than one tutor commented to my year group that a thesis could still be 'original' without being based on wholly unpublished sources. This seems doubly true of the early modern period, in which published works are in many cases all that survive of the extensive reflections of many scholars, travellers, and thinkers. Of course, I love a good archive visit as much as the next historian (the smell! the thrill of touching words written 300 years ago!), but trips to archives will never make up the heart of this particular research project of mine. For the duration of my PhD, at least, I will happily delve into the great, disorganised, potential-filled library of the ether that is The Internet.