The nineteenth century witnessed a stream of technological innovations in all walks of life and even historians benefitted from these novelties. Indeed, they eagerly tested many of them and included them into their toolbox of useful research aids.
It is well known that nineteenth-century traveling was revolutionized by the introduction of a steam engine. Steamboats and the rapidly growing railroad network made travelling faster, more comfortable, and eventually, also more affordable. Historians had, of course, toured the world already for centuries, but technological innovations made it easier for them to follow Leopold von Ranke’s example of journeying extensively in search of original sources. The 1871 Edinburgh Review paid attention to the benefits of improved railroad connections. The reviewer, who wrote about Robert Burn’s Rome and the Campagna, a Historical and Topographical Description of the Site, Buildings, and Neighborhood of Ancient Rome, concluded that thanks to the easier connections, the author had been able to visit Rome several times before publishing his study. This, then, had allowed him to develop and contemplate his ideas and his study was a testimony of the advantages of such a maturing of ideas and observations.
In principle, historians were then able to return again and again to the historic fountainhead, but since traveling still came with a price tag, long periods in foreign archives were still hard to accomplish. The introduction of photography was therefore widely applauded among historians. By the end of the century cameras had evolved to a point that historians could easily use them to photograph sources to bring back home the records in visual form. However, the ease should be understood here in relative terms, because maneuvering a camera still required a certain level of technical knowledge and carefulness in processing the fragile plates. Despite this, the benefits of the new method of copying sources were evident. First of all, photographing saved time in comparison with the traditional pen and paper method. This brought along savings because historians did not have to spend long periods of time in foreign archives. Sources could be quickly reproduced and then carefully investigated at home.
Another significant improvement was that photographs were reliable copies of the original sources. Everyone knew that although carefulness and accuracy were historian’s highest virtues, human errors occurred when manuscripts were copied by hand. Even if historians hired experienced copists to do this manual work they could not be assured that the copies were free of mistakes. Often historians had limited budgets and they had to rely on less competent copists which meant that the risk of errors increased significantly. In any case, historians had to spend time for comparing their purchased copies with the original documents to eliminate the risk of blunders. Photographing wiped out these problems in one shot.
Historians followed with great interest their colleagues who experimented with photography. The benefits being so great, historians who could afford to buy one and who learned the tricks through trial and error, were not necessarily willing to share their knowledge with their fellow scholars. Henry Biaudet wrote from Rome in 1903 how the Bollandists energetically used and endeavored to improve the use of a camera in historical research. When he asked his Jesuit friend Pietro Tacchi-Venturi about this new method, he was only told that the method was fast and saved money. Further details Tacchi-Venturi kept for himself. Biaudet concluded that because his friend would not be willing to reveal anything else, he had to set to work to learn the secrets of photographing by himself. Once he mastered the technique, he published his results in Historiallinen Aikakauskirja (1905) so that all Finnish historians could benefit from the new innovation.
Biaudet praised the new method. He wrote that photography did not require a high level of technical understanding. Only a few attempts were enough to learn the process, because photographing historical records was manual work unlike photographing portraits or landscapes which required more thorough skills. This also meant that historians did not need complicated or expensive cameras. He did admit that there still obstacles which had to be conquered before archival research could be effortless and manuscripts easily transferred from piles of dusty scribbling into reliable document publications. The first one of these was the bureaucracy in archives. Archivists were extremely cautious about photographing and required numerous permissions from diverse officials before they allowed historians to take photographs. If historians were able to obtain all the necessary documents, they were usually required to present one copy of each picture to the archive, and in the worst case, even the negatives had to be handed over to weary archivists. Amongst the bureaucracy, there were positive exceptions. Biaudet was pleased to tell that in the Vatican Secret Archives archivists encouraged photographing and had even arranged a dark room for historians.
Photographing was a useful tool, but it did not render historians mere photographers. Historians were not able to disappear behind the cameras and distance themselves from the rest of the process of turning the documents into historical knowledge or document publication. Although the innovations in printing images had made it more cost-effective to print photographs, publishing thick volumes of facsimiles was still very expensive. Only a small sample of facsimiles could then be included in publications to give their readers an authentic taste of a specific period or historic figure. It was left to historians to transcribe the pictures into text and, depending on the type of a publication, to add the explanatory notes to a document edition or to craft an entire narrative account of the topic. Biaudet complained loudly about the tediousness of copying documents by hand. He had envisioned printers to take care of this, but for his disappointment he could not find a printer who could set types directly from his photographs of early modern diplomatic records. While technology was a great help, Biaudet learned that many stages of historical research could not be outsourced to technical devices. Historians were still very much needed throughout the entire research process.