About ten thousand years ago, we were introduced to the phrase “time shifting” by a decade-long lawsuit over the right to use VCRs to tape TV shows for later viewing. Today’s DVR has of course made this process far easier and probably more widespread, but the idea remains the same: rather than watch something right now, with no snack breaks, we instead put it off until some later time. Other than the occasionally self-serving gripe about having “a lot of TiVo to catch up on,” time shifting is a settled and dead issue, a non-story. Or it would be, if it were not for the troubling case of historical research.
As a historian I like to think that I’m comfortable with the idea of fields dying. Maybe they’re reborn and live to fight another day (like diplomatic history, or so we all keep hearing), and maybe they never really die at all (like quantitative history, safely entrenched at Paris 1-Sorbonne).
But what about the old workhorse geographic fields like, say, French history? Unless you are Natalie Davis, being a French historian over the last five decades or more probably meant that you, well, went to France to do your research. And why did you go? You told your department chair and your grant funders and your colleagues that you had to get to the archives and the libraries, of course. But let’s be honest here: French historians don’t go to France to get to the documents. Instead we wed ourselves to documents that just so happen to be found only in France, “forcing” us to go there, usually when the weather there is super great, or at least super crappy at home. That’s why we became French historians in the first place. There are a few exceptions to this rule: the handful of self-loathing sad sacks we all know who hate wine and cheese and cigarettes, but this is no time to be cruel. Continue reading
My colleague Mike O’Malley recently wrote an excellent blog post on rethinking historians’ use of evidence in the digital age. In an era where digitization and search tools have largely erased the evidentiary constraints that defined earlier scholarship, how should historical practices change?
Mike argues that digital abundance has rendered obsolete the litany of superfluous evidence that historians often deploy to bolster their arguments. Just a few years ago, limitations of of time, evidence, and access drove historians to lard their work with as many examples as possible, a “parade” that “demonstrated the historian’s triumph over scarcity.” Mike suggests that in the future, a historian might spend more time describing her “information architecture” than stacking up evidence like so much cordwood.
Although I am entirely guilty of the crimes Mike describes, I’ll plead for leniency by fully agreeing that more does not necessarily mean better. Moreover, I’ll add my worry that the new environment of abundance might actually compound the problem that Mike describes, rather than relieve it.