Keeping tabs on the discipline

The new issue of the Journal for Military History is out. A year ago, I decided to switch from the print version to the digital online. Unfortunately I didn’t realize that I wouldn’t receive any kind of email reminder to check when the new issue was up, and I’d keep forgetting my password and have to search for it in my email. Yet another reason to use that repeating reminder on your calendar app – or at least look and see if the journal’s publisher has an email alert setup. (Speaking of reminders, sometime I’ll do a post on my Pocket Informant setup – it won’t be useful for those who are quite happy with their calendar/task system, but it might be of interest to others.)

So I searched my way to the SMH webpage, and was pleased to find a webpage for each issue back to 2007. A few disjointed thoughts came to mind, all revolving around the question of how we should be ‘doing’ history in this digital age.

1. These webpages conveniently include the titles and abstracts of all the articles, including the articles on modern military history that I don’t read, as well as a list of the books under review. The abstracts in and of themselves are a significant advance, since the JMilH, and History generally, was surprisingly late to the abstract party. It used to be that most history journals didn’t print the abstracts along with the articles – they were only to be found in abstracting services like Historical Abstracts and America: History and Life (subscription only, of course). The JMilH only started including abstracts within the past several years I think – at least I recall I had to write one for my 2000 article, but it wasn’t published along with the article.

I can’t say why the historical discipline was so late to appreciate abstracts, unless it was seen as smelling too much of the sciences, natural and social. (Published abstracts also raises the question of what the point is in assigning students to abstract journal articles if the author already created one, though that wouldn’t be the only way we should be changing how undergraduate history is taught. But I digress…)

2. Such abstracts have a broader effect beyond simply identifying the argument of each article. I’m far more likely to read a 75-100 word abstract of an article on World War II than read the 25-page article; presumably modern military historians feel the same way about pre-modern topics, Europeanists about Asianists, and so on. I’m that much more likely to read them if all of the abstracts are on a single page, so I don’t have to page through the journal issue to the first page of every article. It’s thus much easier to see connections (or lack thereof) between different periods and places, without having to wait for the occasional historiographical article to be published. Now if only people would start publishing their ideas in argument maps.

3. What the provision of these pages also means, of course, is that you can easily import them into a DTPO database, making their full text available for any searches you might perform. Again, ease of use (ease of reading, ease of copying) makes a huge difference for items that are of marginal importance – probably why Zotero libraries (one-click and it’s downloaded) tend to be much larger than bibliographic databases where you have to enter all the information in manually.

4. You can also get a quick glance at what the (sub)field is interested in with this info – we’re finally starting to get easy access to our disciplinary information, rather than having it locked behind subscription databases like EBSCO, JSTOR, etc. I’ll post the word cloud to the SMHBLOG for those interested.

5. One of the articles in this issue is Jon Sumida, “A Concordance of Selected Subjects in Carl von Clausewitz’s On War,” The Journal of Military History, 78:1 (January 2014): 271-331. Its abstract:

This concordance of the standard English translation of Carl von Clausewitz’s On War by Michael Howard and Peter Paret breaks new ground in two important respects. First, it indexes the text in unprecedented detail by listing references to every significant proposition and distinctive phrase under major subject headings. Second, information about the location of indexed items includes the book and chapter of On War, and page numbers in both current editions of the standard translation.

I don’t have access to the issue yet, but it would be interesting to compare Sumida’s results with the original index in Howard/Paret – is Sumida’s article an indictment of the original? It would also be interesting to compare Sumida’s article with what one could uncover just taking the full text and using various forms of text analysis – how much effort and specialist expertise was required to add that value, vs. what you can get from basic text mining? Perhaps Sumida even addresses this issue. The article also reminds me of a somewhat similar effort several years back, John Lynn’s “The Treatment of Military Subjects in Diderot’s Encyclopédie.” Which in turn prompts me to wonder to what extent such efforts will be needed once we have the full text of the documents directly available to us? Will reference works like concordances soon become irrelevant? Isn’t this yet another reason why we should have these sources in full text, so we can perform the same analysis on any number of sources?

So read up.


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One response to “Keeping tabs on the discipline”

  1. Jur says :

    thanks. Excellent suggestions. I’ll have a look at the argument maps

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