What should historical research look like in an age of digital collaboration?

Historical research, as most of us know, has traditionally been a solitary practice. Even in this postmodern age of killa’ collabs and remixes with co-authors named feat., historians, by and large, are still a lonely bunch of recluses. Admittedly, one’s choice of subject has a lot to do with how crowded your subfield is. Unfortunately (or not?), I’ve rarely been in a position where I knew somebody else who was actively researching the same war as me (War of the Spanish Succession) and might want to look at the same sources. John Stapleton is the closest example from my grad school days, and he focuses on the war before “mine,” so we’ve given each other feedback and pointed each other to various sources from “our” respective wars over the years. In general, though, it’s been kinda lonely out here on the plains.

But the times they are a-changin’ and the prairie turf is being transformed into suburban subdivisions. The question is whether all these houses will follow a similar aesthetic, whether their architecture will reference each other, or whether the only communication between neighbors will consist of vague nods at the grocery store and heated arguments over how far their property line extends. (Thus far, subdivisions are still segregated into ethnic neighborhoods.)

If we look beyond the discipline of History, we’re told that it’s an age of collaboration (CEOs say they want their new employees to work effectively in teams) as well as the age of information overload (I believe that – my main Devonthink database has grown to 104,000 documents and 95 million words of text). Even the other kind of doctors are having a rethink. Now this whole Internet thing allows like-minded individuals to communicate and commiserate across the planet, and not just with their neighbor next door. “Global village” and all that. As a result, even historians have figured out that we can now find out if we’re alone in the universe or not – I assume everybody has Google Alerts set for their name and publication titles? This academic version of Google Street View certainly has certainly expanded my worldview. My one semi-regret is that, thanks to online dissertations, conference proceedings and even blogs, I now find out I was in the archives 10-15 years too early, and there are currently a bunch of people both American and Euro looking into the period – and by “bunch” I mean maybe 6-12. Even more reasons for making connections. Hmmm, someone should create a blog that allows EMEMH scholars to communicate with each other…

So how should historical research work in this interconnected digital age, in this global, digital village? In an age when the moderately-well-heeled scholar can accumulate scans of thousands of rare books and hundreds of archival volumes? The combination of collaboration and digitization has opened up a spectrum of possibilities, and it’s up to us to decide which are worth exploring. Here are some possibilities I see, stretching along a spectrum from sharing general ideas to swapping concrete primary sources (Roy Rosenzweig undoubtedly predicted all this twenty years ago):

  • Topic Sharing. The way it’s traditionally been done, in grad school, or if people meet up in the archives or at a conference or on fellowship. You let people know the specific topics you’re working on, and let it progress from there: “Oh, you’re working on X. Do you know about …? Have you checked out Y? You should really look at Z.” This has two advantages: first, it allows participants to keep the details of their research close to the vest, and more fruitfully, it allows the historiography to develop into a conversation rather than separate ships passing each other in the night – it’s such a waste when something gets published that really should have looked at X, Y or Z, but nobody suggested it. Or, perhaps peers studying the same period/place offered comment, but other potential-peers studying the same theme didn’t (or vice versa). Sharing subjects also forces people to acknowledge that they might not be the only person writing on topic X, and encourage them to consider whether they might want to divvy up topics rather than writing in ignorance of what others will be publishing, or already have written. Say, hypothetically, when one thinks they want to write a chapter about how the French viewed battle in the War of the Spanish Succession, and then discover that another scholar has already written about a thousand pages on the subject. So letting others know what you’re working on would be a start: type of history, subject (sieges? battles? operations? logistics?…), type of study (campaign narrative? commander biography? comparison of two different theaters?…), sides/countries (including languages of sources being used), and so on.
  • Feedback and advice. This requires longer and more sustained interaction, but is far more useful for all involved. I’m not convinced by the latest bestseller claiming that the crowd is always right, but crowdsourcing certainly gives a scholar a sense of how his/her ideas are being received, and what ideas a potential audience might like to read about in the first place.
  • Research assistance. Here, I would suggest, is where most historians are still living in the stone age, or more accurately, are on the cusp between the paper and digital ages. Most of our precious historical documents survive entombed within a single piece of paper(s), in an archive that may require significant costs and time to access. Depending on a government’s view of cultural patrimony and the opportunity for a marketable product, a subset of those documents have been transferred to the digital realm. But not many. This is where many historians need help, a topic which we’ve discussed many times before (as with this thread, which prompted the present post), and where collaboration and digitization offer potential solutions to the inaccessibility of so many primary sources.
    But there is a rather important catch: copyright. Archives and libraries (and publishers, of course) claim copyright over the documents under their care, and they frown upon the idea that information just wants to be free (ask Aaron Swartz):
    CAC copyright slipSo this puts a bit of a kink in attempts to create a Napster-style primary source swap meet – though I am getting a little excited just imagining a primary-source orgy like Napster was back in the day.
    Fortunately there are steps short ofscofflawery. Most of these revolve around the idea of improving the ‘finding aids’ historians use to target particular documents within the millions of possibilities. These range in scale from helping others plan a strategic bombing campaign, to serving as forward observer for a surgical strike:

    • A wish list of specific volumes/documents that somebody would like to look at. This could be as simple as having somebody who has the document(s) just check to see what it discusses, whether it’s worth consulting. This, of course, requires a bit more time and effort than simply sharing the PDF.
    • Or it might mean providing some metadata on the documents in a given volume. For example, I discovered in the archives that if the Blenheim Papers catalog says that Salisch’s letters to Marlborough in volume XYZ cover the period 1702-1711, and I’m studying the siege of Douai in 1710, it is a waste of one of my limited daily requests to discover that Salisch’s letters include one dated 1702, one from 1711, and the rest all on 1708. The ability to pinpoint specific documents would in itself be a boon: many archives have indexes and catalogs and inventories that give almost no idea of the individual documents. Not only would it save time, but it might also save money if you want to order copies of just a few documents rather than an entire volume.
    • Or, such assistance could be as involved as transcribing the meaty bits of a document. Useful for full text, though purists might harbor a lingering doubt about the fidelity of the transcription.
    • Or, it might mean running queries for others based off of your own database. I did that for a fellow scholar once, and if you’ve got something like Devonthink (or at least lots of full-text sources), it’s pretty easy and painless. Though if there are too many results, that starts to look a bit like doing someone else’s research for them.

Of course with all of these options, you have to worry about thunder being stolen, about trusting someone else to find what you are looking for, etc., etc. And there probably isn’t a good way to assuage that concern except through trust that develops over time. And trust is based on a sense of fairness: Andy’s questions about how to create a system of calculating non-monetary exchanges have bedeviled barter systems for a long time, I think.

As usual, I don’t have a clear answer. Simple sharing of documents is undoubtedly the easiest solution (cheapest, quickest, fewest number of eyes between the original source and your interpretation), but I don’t have a system for the mechanics. Nor am I clear on the ethical issues of massive sharing of sources – is “My thanks to X for this source” in a footnote enough? If some documents are acquired with grant funds, can they be freely given away? And the list goes on…


Well at least it’s something

386 posts and 100,000 views in 3.5 years.

Screen Shot 2015-04-25 at 4.55.30 PMAnd more to come.


Bird’s-eye view of the French Wars of Religion

Recently finished up three days on the French Wars of Religion in my Religion, War and Peace course, which means I can now post this old graphic summary of the wars. It almost makes sense of those crazy conflicts. Almost.

Can't we all just get along?

Can’t we all just get along?

This is probably my favorite time chart, aesthetically at least, but feel free to provide corrections or comments. Tons of gory detail, but I think you can also see the big picture as well.

Here’s an abbreviated version I put in the margin of my Powerpoint slides:

For the masses

For the masses

Early modern warfare in modo italiano

Courtesy of Brian Sandberg’s blog,* we learn there’s a new EMEMH blog in town. Pike-and-shot, from Maurizio Arfaioli, who has written on Italian condotierri among other topics.

So check it out.


* Not the illegal drug dealer Brian Sandberg whose bio pops up in Google if you were to google his name.

The Other Brian Sandberg

The Other Brian Sandberg

At the least, Brian isn’t that particular illegal drug dealer…

More news. Oh boy!

The Royal Dutch Library (KB) has posted their scans of 10,000s of newspapers from the 17C-19C online. For example, there are over 4,200 issues just between the period 1700-1709. Which means I have lots more downloading to do.

The newspaper selection includes such classics as the Haarlem Courant, the Leiden Gazette, the Amsterdam Gazette, the Amsterdam Courant, the Rotterdam Gazette, and so on. As you’ve probably noticed, I’ve translated all those titles into English. But never fear if your knowledge of the Netherlands (and its langauge) is limited to thinking that Deutschland refers to the land of the Dutch. Several of the papers (most are triweeklies), including the Rotterdam Gazette (Gazette de Rotterdam) and the Leiden Gazette (Nouvelles extraordinaires) are, as their parenthetical titles suggest, in French. And everybody who’s anybody knows how to read French.

[Edit: The URL is http://www.delpher.nl. Kranten means newspapers in Dutch.]

Mort à la Différence!

Once again, my blog becomes a harbinger for things-to-come. Just weeks after I wondered (in a comment thread) why the French Archives de Guerre (SHD, an official French governmental agency, mind you) didn’t have a French equivalent for “le Wi-Fi” on its website, it turns out there’s been a possible sea-change in official policy towards protecting the French language from foreign infiltration. Those familiar with French culture, and with the history of Cardinal Richelieu’s l’Académie française, know that there’s been a long tradition of keeping the French language French, through legislative means as necessary. Depending on your opinion of French culture, that’s either a good or bad thing. For what it’s worth, English authors like Defoe and Swift failed to convince their own government to set up a comparable English Academy, much to the chagrin of non-native (and more than a few native) English speakers ever since.

It gets a bit more complicated when we include the tendency of French to take a lot of words to say things. Feel fee to point me to some linguistic study, but my wife, a computer programmer, can confirm that she constantly has to lengthen the width of her web form columns when converting a technical English-language form to French (with French translations provided by French speakers). The result, as a New York Times article points out, is that the term “wi-fi” formally translates into “accès sans fil à l’Internet”, which is great unless you want to use more than 113 of a tweet’s 140 characters.

But as the world globalizes, and as computer technology breaks down barriers between countries (see map below), convenience increasingly wins out. As does character count.

Total views of Skulking blog since Feb. 2012, by country

Total views of Skulking blog since Feb. 2012, by country

Now, apparently, the French establishment is beginning to relax a bit, and bow to the inevitable mishmashing of languages around the world by allowing foreign words into the official vernacular. That, I think, is a good thing.

Numerous news outlets are reporting on the recent comments by the French minister of culture online, some behind paywalls no doubt. Here’s just one.

The Cardonnel School of Management and Labor Relations

Adam Cardonnel is well known to Marlburian scholars. As personal secretary to the Duke of Marlborough and de facto Secretary at War, he was the administrative link that kept John Churchill connected to goings-on in the rest of the world. As a part of his office he also kept 9 volumes of letter books (Additional MSS 61394-61401, almost 2,000 folios of condensed script), wherein he copied all the administrative outgoing correspondence on the Duke’s behalf.

Cardonnel letter book

Cardonnel letter book page

He was, in other words, a servant of the Duke, and of the State.

Historians today are fortunate to be able to take advantage of all those copies Cardonnel made for nigh on a decade. But why are we so lucky to have a Cardonnel? If we stop and think for a moment, we quickly realize that every hour Cardonnel spent copying was an hour he couldn’t be doing other things. Thus, even servants of the State have servants, which prompts the business/labor historian in me to ask: how does a servant treat their own servants?

Let’s let Cardonnel tell us his secret to Human Resources management in his own words:

“… [A servant] was telling me the morning I came away that some of the servants grudg’d going into the feild without more wages. If it be so, pray let them have what they ask; but I’le be even with them, for as soon as I come to the camp I’le strip ’em and turn ’em loose, then it’s likely they will be glad to serve me for less.”

(From Alfred Morrison, ed., Collection of Autograph Letters 2:66, to Henry Watkins.)

Move over Zig Ziglar and Tony Robbins, we’ve got a new motivational speaker in town.


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