On historians’ electronic ‘papers’

[This post was written for inclusion in the blog of the Institute of Historical Research's winter conference on History and Biography]

I should say straight away that I am neither an archivist, nor a specialist in digital preservation (in its strict sense.) But I am an historian, and professionally interested in the impact of the digital on our working practices; and during the working day I am on the staff of one of the UK’s main memory institutions. And I’m pleased to have been asked to write this piece by my former colleagues at the IHR, as while there is much going on at present relating to the management of research data, there is much less (that I know of) about the private papers of scholars. What is the infrastructure for preserving these materials, of historians, for historians? Is there even an infrastructure worth the name?

Straight away, there is a problem of definition – of distinguishing between what we might call research data and private papers. In the physical sciences, it is easier to spot the data; lots of numbers in tables, on computers, as opposed to the reams of transcribed or part-transcribed primary sources that I still have from my own Ph.D. And in the physical sciences there has been a much stronger culture of the re-use of data by other scholars. In order to test and refine a hypothesis, it helps to be able to repeat experiments, and for that you need the data. And so that data tends to be ‘cleaner’ – well-defined and structured, with appropriate documentation – and thus easier to share. And so there are services such as Dryad, a discipline-specific data repository designed for specifically this purpose.

Historians have been much less accustomed to this way of working. This is partly because our ‘data’ tends to be angular, asymmetric texts that resist being squashed into anything so restrictive as a table. And there is an attachment among many to the thick description of each source and all its meaning, particular to a time, a place and an individual, and a resistance to abstraction. (To paraphrase J. H. Hexter, the splitters tend to dominate the lumpers.) There are exceptions, but the cliometric urge is not as strong as once it was.

This attachment to the particular is something to be cherished, but I would argue that there is yet more scope for historians to think of their working materials as data, and thus as something that may be shared and re-used. The Old Bailey Proceedings Online is a fine example of a corpus of freely composed texts that has within it a dataset. Not all sources have the degree of regularity of structure that a set of court records has; but there is still much material that languishes on desktop machines that might be set free. But it would require us to think about reuse at the beginning of a project, rather than at the end.

And as well as primary sources that might be shared and reused, there is the question of an historian’s intermediate working materials, that mark the stages by which primary sources are digested and turned into writing. The London Review of Books recently published Keith Thomas’ account of his own working method, thousands of bulging white envelopes full of notes; Christopher Hill was famous for his system of index cards. As evidence of the working practices of a discipline, these paper systems are an artefact to be preserved. As scholars increasingly move to digital systems of managing notes and bibliography, some using proprietary software and some the cloud, we also need to think about how these are best preserved as evidence of how the discipline worked at a particular point in time.
And finally, there is writing. Historians of a certain age will remember a device commonly known as a ‘typewriter’ which impressed characters on a sheet of paper, by a mechanism operated by the pressing of keys. (You can see examples in museums sometimes.) And the use of the typewriter meant that, for every iteration of a piece of writing, there was a physical record. (The typewriter was, as it were, sub-optimally featured for corrections.) The ease of emendation of a word-processed document probably means that these intermediate versions no longer exist. But where they do (and I myself tend to keep numbered versions of articles to reflect each revision), they are a valuable record of the evolution of a piece of writing and the thinking that supports it, and part of intellectual biography.

But who should be preserving these materials? In the past, for the most prominent, an existing connection with an institution tended to lead to their papers being held there: the papers of Noel Annan now reside at King’s College, Cambridge, of which he was Fellow and later Provost; those of E. H. Gombrich at the Warburg Institute at which he spent most of his career. The British Library also receives a certain number of digital archives, but mostly from prominent literary figures, such as the recent deposit from the poet Wendy Cope. But there is a need for a more scaleable solution. Part of this is certainly the recent ventures in services that enable personal digital archiving. But these tend to require a certain level of skill in the issues involved (and for one to be not yet dead) and so there is a place in this new ecology of preservation for organisations, such as the IHR, with an established presence as a repository and clearing-house for a discipline. And as collections of discipline-specific materials grow over time, those collections would become in themselves more than the sum of their parts – part of the stuff of a laboratory for the history of history.

[Picture via matthewtlynch on Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA]

On passing the General Reader Test

Once a week I stay away from home with two very good (and perhaps long-suffering) friends. They have looked after me this way for over three years; and over that sort of time it is hard to avoid the topic of one’s research in general conversation. And so, in a moment of weakness late at night, one of my friends expressed an interest in reading a draft article that we had talked about a little. It helped that the paper is about the recent history of a part of British Christianity of which both they and I have lived experience. And so, after some hesitation, I sent them a copy.

Slightly to my surprise, not just one but both took time to read it. And the best part is that, when we later fell to talking about it, they had understood it. Granted, much of the detail passed them by. But the argument they repeated back to me over a glass of wine was the one I hoped I had written. They had also been struck by some of the broader parallels with more recent events, which were implicit in it. It made my day.

Should this have been a surprise ? After all, writing is meant to be read, is it not ? But I wouldn’t be the first to note that not all academic writing is easy to read, even for specialists, let along the ‘general reader’. Indeed, some have suggested that there are perverse incentives for academics to be intentionally opaque.

I don’t tell this story in order to suggest that my writing is particularly clear; I’ve turned out my fair share of clunky writing built on muddled thinking. But it does suggest that a ‘General Reader Test’ might be one worth applying to more of our writing, particularly if you expect any non-specialist readers to stumble across it once it is released into the wild. I shall be doing so; although I might spare these particular friends too much of it, as I want them to keep them as friends.

More writing, less publishing ?

It was Stefan Collini, in what now reads as an early and prescient exposure of the problematic language of productivity in humanities research, that suggested as an aside that we might all of us be better off if there were much more writing, and rather less publishing.(1) And if you’ll excuse the fact of a blog post about writing not to be published, I rather think that his point is as relevant now, if not more so.

But (you may ask) who has time to write for the sake of it ? When under pressure to produce for research assessment, and then some more for our blogs and for the media to increase our ‘impact’, isn’t writing not to be published simply wasteful of time, an inefficiency to be overcome ? In my own case, I can recognise the train of thought, which is made more pressing still since all my writing happens outside work time. Why write that paper if there is not a conference at which to deliver it ? And, why speak at that conference if there isn’t to be a volume of papers to follow ? And if a paper is turned down for publication, can I not get it placed somewhere else, or (failing that) recycle it for blog posts or as part of a larger piece some other time ? (By extension, there have been times when I seem only to have read books if I was reviewing them.) When writing time is so precious and, for some, the act of writing itself often such a trial, ‘waste not, want not’ seems to be the motto.

But I’m beginning to find that the act of writing for the eyes of no reader has its benefits. I have recently found out something which (for complex reasons) I cannot contemplate ever writing up for publication, or at least not while some people are still alive. But I need to make sense of it, because it is materially important for my thinking on other matters; and I need some way of dealing with it in a safe way, to allow it to have its impact on the things I can publish. And so I’m beginning to write it up as a means of clarifying what it means, even it then remains in the metaphorical bottom drawer.

More generally, Paul J. Silvia has suggested that the more prolific published authors tend also to produce the highest rated work, suggesting a positive correlation between quality and quantity in published work, rather the negative correlation one might expect. And if Collini was right, then we might extend this principle to suggest that the more unpublished writing one does, the better will be the words that do eventually escape into the wild. I tried to suggest in an earlier post that every act of writing for publication has some place in the development of one’s thinking, even if this or that sentence is deleted or revised to the point of being unrecognisable at one’s next sitting. If the same applies to whole pieces written not to be published, then I need simply to write, as much and as often as possible, since in ways that are hard to document, it will make me both a better writer, and a writer who writes better history.

(1) Stefan Collini ‘Against Prodspeak: “Research” in the Humanities’, in his English Pasts (OUP, 1999), p.236.

Reflections on Academic Writing Month 2012

As AcWRiMo draws to a close, I thought it worth reflecting on, both about my own participation, and what it might tell us about the enterprise of academic writing more generally.

As it happened, on November 1st I was already in something of a purple patch with regard to my own book. I had tried a new approach (which I blogged about here) which was working very well indeed. It still is, and I don’t think I have written many more words this month than I would have otherwise. But I do think AcWRiMo has helped, in that there has been much and surprising mutual support via Twitter, as I and others have checked in to report progress day by day.

More broadly, AcWriMo has prompted much and interesting reflection on good practice for writing. Valuable posts for me included these from ThesisWhisperer and US Intellectual History, and several others that stressed the formation of a writing habit, by small daily steps. If AcWriMo becomes an annual fixture (which I hope it does), then it could hold open a space each year not only to make a determined effort at actual writing, but also to step back and think about what we do as academic authors, and how.

Two broader thoughts also present themselves. Firstly, as @jfwinters observed, AcWriMo has shown up a gap in general training provision for new graduate students. I remember a rather perfunctory graduate training course on how to structure a piece of work, but little on the day-to-day to discipline of getting words on paper. My strong impression is that if graduate students get any guidance at all, it is by the happy accident of having a supervisor who thinks it a priority, rather than because it is an integral part of learning the academic life.

Also, if we have AcWriMo, how about Friendly Peer Review Month (FrPeReMo) ? There have been a number of interesting ventures recently in Open Peer Review, in which peer review becomes an iterative process conducted in the open, as prelude (or even substitute) for formalised and anonymous peer review as managed by publishers. Part of the success of AcWriMo is that it makes one accountable to others. Why not extend the principle to some kind of mutual critique of written work (as writing) – the deal being “I’ll comment constructively on your writing if you will on mine” ? Thinking back, I don’t think anyone at all (apart from my supervisor) read my thesis before it reached proof-reading stage, and I’m sure it would have been better if they had. I need not be able to comment on the content of your writing, but I can surely come to it purely as a reader, and a fellow writer.