Evidence and Abundance

6 minute read

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.

When historians had to visit archives and libraries and handle physical objects to gain any access to meaningful source material, it was tacitly understood that the laws of time and space (and dollars) limited what a researcher could reasonably expect to accomplish while progressing to a degree or teaching courses or both. For researchers working in foreign archives, anything beyond twelve months was (and is) unusual. As a result, the bar was if anything inevitably set at a lower level that it would be in an environment offering unfettered access to sources.

Like Mike, I also work on the kind cultural history that digitization promises (or threatens) to transform. Although Mike works on nineteenth-century America and I do eighteenth-century France, we share an interest in identifying tricky historical problems (often structured around language) and then attacking them from a variety of angles to see what sticks. When researching the servant cooks of Old Regime France, I was faced with an exciting (for me, anyway) challenge: how to write a history of a group which was widely perceived as culturally important (if socially threatening) but which left behind almost no direct evidence?

In 2002, I had to think strategically about where I might find cooks — in medical treatises? theatrical plays? classified advertisements? — and then pore over those documents scanning for relevant content. I trained my eyeballs to look for anything related to “cooks” and then ran thousands of pages of newspapers past them. Only unlike Mike with his luxurious microfilm reader, I had to turn actual paper pages. Uphill both ways. Once I felt I had amassed enough evidence to feel confident about how one aspect of cooks’ work operated — how’s that for qualitative research? — I moved on to another area. The entire process felt like a race against the clock.

Of course, this being France, that clock was hardly 24 hours in nature. The archives were only open 40 hours per week. Only a few cartons could be viewed per day. Entire series of documents were arbitrarily marked out of service. And then there were the inevitable closures (asbestos abatement, strikes, flooding). And what to do if while perusing a manuscript one suddenly wanted to consult a relevant book? Close up shop and head across town to the library where it was housed? Even once situated overseas, historical evidence remained frustratingly siloed. A year thus translated into a disturbingly small number of working hours. And I was one of the very luckiest ones: generously funded, well-fed, and with reasonably good prospects of getting back to do follow-up work.

One aspect of my research focused on how servants tangled with medical authorities in their efforts to professionalize cooking. I found a lot of debate between cooks and physicians over whether cooking was really a “science” with fairly predictable battle lines drawn. But what did the vast majority of people who were not cooks or doctors think? Surprisingly, many of them sided with cooks, and one tiny corner where I found evidence of this belief was in the practice of including cookbooks along with works on chemistry and medicine when private libraries were liquidated at estate sales.

In 2002, locating this kind of evidence was exciting, but it was also a potential nightmare. I had found the first document through serendipity. Gathering more proved painful, but probably not impossible. Would I now need to sift through hundreds of other book sales to see if this was part of a broader pattern? As it turned out, I had a lot of other evidence by now saying the same kind of thing (and nothing contradicting it), so I decided to cut bait and move on, especially since I was writing about cooks and not booksellers or dead book owners. All historians face these moments, and these are among the most important research decisions we make.

When revising my dissertation into a book manuscript a few years later, I was playing around with Gallica, the French National Library’s incredibly ambitious digitization project. During my dissertation research I had been limited to looking for things like “cook” and “cuisine” in titles (via a digitized catalog), but now I could search inside the full text of a massive (and growing) corpus of eighteenth-century documents. To my great surprise, I immediately found more evidence of private library sales that matched what I had discovered in 2002. In a matter of seconds I had accomplished what would once have taken days or weeks.

And yet. Now that I could effortlessly search thousands of sources, shouldn’t my own research reflect that mountain of evidence? Where in years past dissertation committees and peer reviewers might have been impressed by scholars teasing out two or three powerful documents “by hand,” what would stop them from demanding more now that we all have orders of magnitude more available at our fingertips? Indeed, one reader report for the book that resulted from my research suggested that expectations were raised in this new environment (meanwhile also questioning the ability of cultural history to address social questions). In particular it lamented that my book’s evidentiary basis — “scraps of evidence,” to be precise — was too fragmentary. Suggested solution: go back to the archives for more examples.

I am the first to admit that my evidence was in some areas fragmentary — that’s what made the topic fascinating to research in the first place — but I also knew that this particular project was well past the point of sharply diminishing returns from further time spent in the archives. More important, I had seen no sign that documents remained lurking in the wings which might undermine or otherwise substantially alter my conclusions. To what end then, more research? Shouldn’t historians be judged more by the quality than quantity of their findings?

Rather than simply reduce the evidentiary burden, what digital content and tools promise to me is that we can begin put some aspects of historical “finding” into concrete and replicable terms. Historians have always had strategies for formulating searches and assembling evidence, but we now have unprecedented opportunities to share those methodologies more transparently and even repeat (and refine) their results. Like Mike, I’m very much looking forward to opening the black box of historical practice to see and contribute more of the information architecture that structures our research.

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