Who constructs the historical record, and who mediates your access to it? Many people and institutions play a role, beginning with the people who possess the knowledge and technologies needed to produce and reproduce texts. Institutions like libraries and archives also play a role, and the present guide primarily addresses historical research in libraries. To use libraries effectively (which is to say, intentionally and systematically), you need to understand what a library is, and how it is organized, because the way in which a library organizes the historical record tends to privilege certain types of inquiry, and even to elicit certain conclusions about the past. And no, not even Google or mass digitization has been able to alter the historical record's peculiar, discursive contours, nor has it been able to fill gaps in the historical record or retrieve documents never saved. In short: your attempt to uncover overdetermination in history is itself overdetermined.
Libraries collect and preserve the graphic records of human experience.1 Not every experience is documented, and not every documented experience is collected and preserved. At the University of Illinois Library you have access to over 14 million printed books, 9 million microforms, 120,000 periodicals, 148,000 sound recordings, 1 million audiovisual resources, 280,000 e-books, 29,000 cubic feet of archival records, 3 terabytes of electronic records, and 650,000 maps—that’s over 24 million records available for your research.
Librarians often refer to these records as documents (see next page!).
Research libraries differ from other types of libraries in that they attempt to collect documents as comprehensively as possible, within certain parameters. Of course, given the enormous number of documents produced (both published and unpublished), even the largest research libraries, like University of Illinois, can collect only a tiny fraction of those documents...
1. Jesse H. Shera, The Foundations of Education for Librarianship (New York: Becker and Hayes, 1972), 193.