Thoughts on the effect of distance reading on research

I have been working on researching the collaboration of Black organizations in South Africa during the 1920’s. It is during these years that Marcus Garvey’s UNIA movement was gaining momentum in Africa, specifically South Africa and Liberia, The South African Communist Party was founded, The Industrial and Commercial workers Union (ICU) a sister organization to the IWW was founded, The African National Congress was founded and gaining momentum in South Africa, as well as religious rebellions. While this topic has not attracted a great deal of attention from historians interested in South Africa, there is a wealth of sources, many easily accessible following the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The challenge has been sorting through all the useful sources. For example, I have more than 50 speeches, articles and documents from these organizations specifically from the 20s with many more that I am aware of. There is also an abundance of newspapers published by or circulated by these groups at this time. My project has been to understand the social and political climate  of the native community in South Africa during this interim period between South African Independence from Britain and the establishment of Apartheid.

Digital history has begun to open to me new ways of reading the many sources that I have been struggling with as well as new questions to ask concerning these sources. This week I have been tracking down these many sources by sifting through online archives and picking out nearly all sources from the 1920s in South Africa. The majority of these sources have been on http://africanactivist.msu.edu/index.phphttp://www.sahistory.org.za/, and http://www.anc.org.za/index.php. Many of these I had seen before and yet passed by because I simply could not read it all. While searching this week I was not concerned about my ability to read each source and choosing only a selections that seemed specifically interesting to me, but was thinking that instead that by using text analysis to “read” these sources I would actually get a more complete representation of these organizations. While we have discussed concerns about Digital History methods further distancing us from history, making it a less personal practice of statistics, graphs and text analysis rather than telling a story, but this week i was realizing that these tools will allow me to do further research and tell a more complete story.

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