In which I make an embarrassing admission.

10 11 2013

I bought a Kindle. A Kindle Paperwhite, to be specific.

Now you may not think that this is an embarrassing admission, but then you’re not the author of posts like “Kindles are for suckers,” “Kindles are still for suckers,” and much more along these lines. To summarize, I went from wanting a Kindle desperately, to hating them horribly, to buying one anyway.

The weird thing is that I still believe almost all the awful stuff I wrote about the Kindle. For example, you really do have to be incredibly careful of how much Amazon is charging you for a Kindle edition because they are perfectly willing still actually make you pay for the “privilege” of using the device they sold you. I haven’t found another David McCullough example again, but the experience is more common if you expand beyond the Amazon universe.

Just to pick one of the first books I got for my Kindle, Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, is, as I write, $9.99 for Kindle. It’s $7.89 used. What about shipping? On Abebooks, it’s only $4.84. I actually paid $.99 for a Kindle version of Alice in Wonderland because I wanted to show it to my son and see how the illustrations looked. I could get that (like every other pre-1923 book) for free on Google Books without even breaking a sweat.

Another one of my old excuses for hating Kindles was that you can’t take notes on them. It turns out you can, but it’s so awkward! Just highlighting is practically impossible because of my fingers are so much fatter than the default print size. Yes, I can increase the print size, find the passage I was looking for, then switch back, but that’s such a huge hassle to just highlight. The beautiful thing about writing over my books, especially the books I use in class, is that all my discussion questions are right there on the first page and that usually saves me the need to go back and re-read an entire book every time I teach it. [My usual target is re-reading every third time I teach a book.] if putting notes into a Kindle is this hard, I shudder to think how hard it is to get them out.

And everything certainly still goes for my hatred of Kindle books’ lack of page numbers. Yes, I understand now that they have to do it that way in order to make the print size adjustable and I’ll be very grateful for that sometime in the future, but this makes it absolutely impossible to teach a book in class the way I usually do, calling out page numbers, asking to students to read passages and then asking questions about that passage. Indeed, if there is even the remotest chance that I might teach a book in a class someday, I couldn’t possibly buy it for Kindle first as that would be a huge waste of effort translating whatever Kindle notes I wrote into a paperback edition. So the Kindle is just going to be for fiction, journalism and all the stuff that’s not work-related. I might even lend it to the kid to see if it encourages him to read more.

On a related note, the inability to tell when a Kindle book is going to end is incredibly annoying. The first book I bought after Alice, Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion, ended when the Kindle indicator said I had finished just 71%. Why? Because of all the footnotes. That wouldn’t have been a problem with a physical book.

So why did I buy a Kindle? In a word: clutter, or clutter avoidance to be exact. You have no idea how many books I have lying around at home that I read once years and years ago and have no intention of ever getting back to again. Sure, I enjoyed Eric Alterman’s What Liberal Media? and Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon and even The Da Vinci Code*, but now they’re just taking up space in my house. With the used book market having fallen through the floor, they’ll do nothing but collect dust and make it harder for me to move someday. At least the history books cluttering my office still serve a function, even if some of them are only useful very rarely.

There’s one more advantage to a Kindle that I didn’t anticipate. There is now a big market for short works in e-book only editions. One of these is Beyond the MOOC Hype by the Chronicle‘s Jeffrey R. Young, which I bought on Friday. It’s actually not nearly as bad as that Matt Damon quote you read last week suggests. Ordinarily, I’d share parts of it in subsequent posts, but I’m so sick to death of MOOC-blogging that I don’t feel like it. However, if somebody out there edits a publication that actually pays authors, I’d be delighted to review it for you. Just drop me a line. My e-mail is on the right. I could make it into a kind of MOOC status report or something.

Please understand though that when I quote the book, I can’t cite page numbers.

* I had to admit to at least one actually embarrassing thing with the title for this post being what is, didn’t I?


Everyone their own professor (w/ apologies to Carl Becker).

3 04 2013

I. Everyone Their Own Sushi Chef.

Last summer, I tried sushi for the first time. I was in Korea at the Noryangjin Fish Market in Seoul and I went into a restaurant with a big banner in English that said, “Tourists welcome.” To that point in time, I had been one of those people who said smarmy things like, “I prefer my dead fish cooked, thank you.” However, having fallen under the spell of Andrew Zimmern [“If it looks good, eat it.”], I thought it was time to give sushi a try.

Some of it was wonderful. I particularly remember the octopus sashimi because it was easily identifiable, and thanks to this scene from “No Reservations,” octopus had become the ultimate in creative Korean dining in my narrow American mind. Inevitably, some of the rest of the sushi I had there tasted awful to me. Unfortunately, the woman who served me there spoke very little English so I had no way to identify which kinds of sushi I liked, and which kinds I didn’t. I lacked guidance.

If I hadn’t had sushi, I never would have rented the film “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” on Netflix last week. That documentary about an 85-year-old sushi master, Jiro Ono, was simultaneously boring and riveting. [My wife lasted with it for only 45 minutes, but later she said to me, “I couldn’t stop thinking about him [meaning Jiro] all day.”] Perhaps the most obvious takeaway from the film for a sushi novice like me is that preparing great sushi is a lot more complicated than it looks.

Towards the end of the movie, a food critic explains that eating at Jiro’s restaurant is a bit like listening to a symphony. The “performance” has movements and is scripted to the last detail. Patrons get one piece a time in a particular order to heighten taste sensations. The pieces that women receive are slightly smaller than those going to men so that their smaller mouths won’t slow down the production. The chefs are trained to see which hand each patron favors so that the pieces can be put on the side of the plate that each person favors too.

Why should anyone care about this? Sure, you can just eat sushi like I did, but don’t you want to make the most out of a new experience? If you understand sushi the way that Jiro does, you can learn more than you ever thought possible. The film (and this is what got my wife thinking so hard) even tells you something really special about the nature of work.

In order to see this subculture in all its glory, you have to have a guide. You have to get a sushi education.

II. Everyone Their Own Librarian.

When I was in graduate school, I used to play a game I called “Stump the Government Docs Librarian.” While I don’t think my dissertation was particularly good, it was well-researched in large part because I managed to find all sorts of extremely obscure reports that weren’t even in the US Government Serial Set thanks to the wonderful help I got at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

Obviously, Google Books and other such databases now make finding these kinds of obscure sources rather easy. One click, and all the greatest libraries of the world are at your fingertips. In the future, as these resources become even more powerful, they could actually put libraries and librarians out of business. As Nick Carr recognizes, this has created a certain amount of tension between the good folks putting together the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) and local institutions:

The DPLA leadership is sensitive to this tension, sometimes to the point of defensiveness. In announcing his appointment, [DPLA Director Dan] Cohen wrote, “The DPLA will in no way replace the thousands of public libraries that are at the heart of so many communities across this country.” Yet the first sentence of the DPLA charter reads, “The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) will make the cultural and scientific heritage of humanity available, free of charge, to all.” It’s hard to see how the DPLA will be able to fulfill such a broad mission without treading on the turf of local public libraries.

In this environment, librarians will have to provide a different kind of guidance. While we may no longer need them to help us find particular books, librarians can still help researchers figure out how to find needles in a series of gigantic haystacks. For example, what search term should you put in that database?

Besides interlibrary loan, I rely on local librarians to tell me what databases are available to me at our institution. I also need help learning how to improve my searches. As almost any history professor knows, students generally know almost nothing about how to search the web when a Google search of a single word or phrase does not yield usable results. That’s why I include lots of librarian time in every class I teach which requires a research paper. In fact, as the tech has gotten better, I’ve expanded that time rather than cut it back.

III. Everyone Their Own Historian.

In 1931, Carl Becker gave what may be the most famous presidential speech in the history of the American Historical Association. He called it “Everyman His Own Historian.” Sexist language aside, Becker’s speech was a poignant call for historians to recognize that academic history only has a purpose when it meets the needs of the public:

Berate him as we will for not reading our books, Mr. Everyman is stronger than we are, and sooner or later we must adapt our knowledge to his necessities. Otherwise he will leave us to our own devices, leave us it may be to cultivate a species of dry professional arrogance growing out of the thin soil of antiquarian research. Such research, valuable not in itself but for some ulterior purpose, will be of little import except in so far as it is transmuted into common knowledge. The history that lies inert in unread books does no work in the world. The history that does work in the world, the history that influences the course of history, is living history, that pattern of remembered events, whether true or false, that enlarges and enriches the collective specious present, the specious present of Mr. Everyman. It is for this reason that the history of history is a record of the “new history” that in every age rises to confound and supplant the old.

I tend to think of Becker’s speech most often during the periodic “Why can’t we all write like David McCulloch?” dust-ups that periodically echo through my profession. Nevertheless, Becker was no anarchist. He still envisioned a role for professional historians in a world where one did not have to have a Ph.D. in order to write good history:

[The history profession’s] proper function is not to repeat the past but to make use of it, to correct and rationalize for common use Mr. Everyman’s mythological adaptation of what actually happened. We are surely under bond to be as honest and as intelligent as human frailty permits; but the secret of our success in the long run is in conforming to the temper of Mr. Everyman, which we seem to guide only because we are so sure, eventually, to follow it.

We historians, in other words, should provide guidance to people trying to come to grips with their own pasts. After all, nobody has the time to research everything they need to tell their own stories. Professional historians can provide the kind of analysis and perspective that amateur historians cannot or choose not to offer.

Without that perspective and analysis, not even David McCullough could write like David McCullough.

IV. Everyone Their Own Professor.

If nothing else, MOOCs [You just knew I’d get to them eventually, didn’t you?] have brought the “Everyman His Own Historian” problem to every discipline in Academia. After all, why should I pay to go to college if I can listen to all the best professors in the world do their thing for free? In fact, if I run their lectures on 150% speed, I can learn everything I need to know in less time that it actually took for them to tell their stories in the first place! And I can do it at home in my pajamas! How can that not be progress?

Not so fast MOOC maniacs. Even the author of DIY U has noted that MOOCs aren’t an education by themselves. Take it away, Anya Kamenetz:

But I have something to say about MOOCs. Specifically about the quality of pedagogy in MOOCs as offered by platforms like Coursera and Udacity and edX. David Wiley, who has taught me a lot of stuff, said this at least five years ago, actually. MOOCs are content. Content is infrastructure. Infrastructure is just the first step.

MOOCs are content = a MOOC is not a course.

I suspect she and I would differ greatly on how much guidance a student needs after the MOOC starts, but isn’t it better to have more guidance rather than less? What too many people don’t understand is that the inevitable effect of MOOCs will be to take that guidance away entirely for most students.

This is what makes members of the MOOC Suicide Squad members of the MOOC Suicide Squad. When I read this post by Mark McDayter, I said to myself, “He’s solved the Cathy Davidson problem!,” namely how to deal with an educator whose goals you embrace, but whose methods will make those goals harder to achieve. You explain the political context in which those methods must inescapably operate:

Davidson, I am reasonably confident, does not support the gutting of Humanities departments and the replacement of teaching faculty with MOOCs. Indeed, she explicitly says as much. But her adoption of the language of the techno-enthusiasts is not nearly nuanced or critical enough to avoid giving aid and comfort to The Enemy.

Who is the Enemy? There are people who are enemies of higher education in general and people who are enemies of professors in particular. We will never win over enemies of higher education in general, who are often very conservative people who think that students can learn anything worth learning all by themselves with no access to professors at all. However, the enemies of professors in particular don’t always recognize that they are enemies of professors. Our job is to show them the light of reason.

If we professors can’t explain why the guidance we provide is an essential part of the college experience, we deserve the fate that inevitably awaits us.*

* That last link is to a Chronicle of Higher Ed article that’s subscription only as I write this, but you can still see my point here just by reading the headline.

A dull, wonkish post about technology and historical research.

10 09 2012

Today I’m starting the second (and last) week of my research trip in and around DC. Last week I was at the Library of Congress. After I leave this Panera, I start in at Archives II, assuming I can figure out the bus schedule.

Most of the papers that I’ve been looking at have turned out to be obscure published speeches and government reports. As I don’t have much time here in the great scheme of things, I’ve found myself checking Google Books to see if everything in front of me was already there. Some of it was. Some of it wasn’t.

I can’t tell you what an enormous change this has been for me. Normally, I’d be taking everything I’m sure I’d use eventually up to the copier and copying like crazy. Now, the LOC has put in the best book scanners that I’ve ever seen (both in the Manuscript Reading Room and in Adams) which you can use for free as long as you have a thumb drive to store your results. Free stuff from the government! Somebody tell Paul Ryan!

I scanned a few pamphlets, but for visual material it’s just priceless. Indeed, I’m also deep in the throes of picking pictures for this book and I’ve basically had to go by memory. Next time it’s going to be different. Of course, this is all to save the spines of the books, but I still feel like I hit the lottery.

I may be alone in this feeling because it seems that most people have gone entirely to cameras. I’ve seen some mounted on tripods, while some people it seems just bring in the same $90 Samsungs that they use on their vacations and snap away. I even saw one woman snapping pictures of her microfilm reader. [It may sound logical, but it sure looks funny.]

I was prepared to start using a camera and a tripod before this sabbatical started, but a few weeks back I changed my mind. Most of the sources I’m using using are pre-1923 and published. Indeed, I really can download most of them for free with a lot less hassle.

For the one-of-a-kind published and archival material (and you know, as more books are becoming available to everyone this is what will set great works of history apart in the future) I’ve got Zotero, which still beats the heck out of note cards. This is going to be my first all Zotero book, and I’m certain it’s going to take months off the writing process. After all, it’s having intellectual control of your research that’s most important when technology makes it easy to flood you with material.

Perhaps it’s a sign of my advanced age that I’ve chosen to avoid swimming in document snap shots. When I do research, I actually enjoy reading what I find in folders rather than just snapping them or even trying to copy it all. In fact, I think I do some of my best thinking that way. And in case you didn’t notice, I hate reading off a computer screen when it can be easily avoided.

Is it any wonder then why I don’t want my entire job to turn out that way?

Nobody wants to read an entire book on a computer screen.

9 12 2011

This starts off as another grading story, but doesn’t stay that way. Google Books has not only been a Godsend for my own work, it has substantially improved the quality of the research papers I have to read at this time of the semester. So many excellent pre-1923 sources are so readily available that I can be certain that any student with a topic before that date who doesn’t have at least five primary sources in their bibliography wasn’t trying very hard.

However, there’s sources they read, and sources they don’t. By way of illustration, a really good student of mine cited Frederick Douglass’ second autobiography twice in her paper for my grad class on slavery. Once the citation came from the book itself, the other time it was as a quote excerpted in a secondary source. To me, this is a pretty good indication that she didn’t read the entire book.

More obviously, I’m pretty sure this is the same reason why two different students both told me that Theodore Dwight Weld was a slave. They didn’t look beyond whichever page of American Slavery As It Is that Google led them to in order to see that its subtitle is “testimony of a thousand witnesses.” I can’t say I blame any of them though as nobody wants to read an entire book on a computer screen.

When I was an undergrad, one of my TAs told us that the key to success in history was not knowing what to read, but knowing what not to read. In other words, he was advocating skimming. By giving us the ability to search whole texts by the word, Google Books eliminates the need to do precisely the kind of single subject-centered skimming that my old TA was recommending. The problem with this new ability though is that it means that students (or historians for that matter) citing out of Google Books risk losing the context for their quotes unless they read the whole thing and the interface in Google Books is not exactly reader friendly. It’s bad enough having to page back through a scan of a late-nineteenth century magazine to get the volume number for the citation you need. Who wants to read an entire book that way as long as theirs a paper alternative?

Maybe using an e-reader might make this process easier, but most students don’t have Kindles or Nooks…at least not yet. They access their electronic sources mostly through laptops and the desktops in the university library. I suspect they’d often be better off getting the paper copy of the book and taking it home. After all, contextual knowledge is often more useful than any particular quote they might find, but then again sustained, critical reading is so Twentieth Century.

Larry McMurty has a short review of a book about in the new Harper’s that I think is highly relevant here. As I write this, it’s not even on the Harper’s subscribers-only web site yet, so you’ll have to trust my transcription from the paper magazine that arrived in my soon-to-be-extinct mailbox yesterday afternoon:

“Jeff Bezos and his colleagues are free to make and sell as many Kindles as they can, but Bezos shouldn’t be persuaded that our Gutenberg days are over, at least not from where I sit. One thing we offer [at McMurtry’s gigantic used bookstore in Texas] that he can’t is serendipity – a book browser’s serendipity, the thrill of the accidental find. Stirring the curiosity of readers is a vital part of bookselling; skimming a few strange pages is surely as important as making one click.”

Serendipity is also an important part of historical research. I still remember the thrill of the first time I went downstairs into the stacks at the Hagley when I got my first fellowship there. I just pulled stuff off the shelves and browsed for hours, counting only on the titles on spines and the proximity of Library of Congress numbers to guide my wandering. I can’t tell you how much great stuff I found that day for my dissertation that I wouldn’t have found otherwise, but I’m sure it was a lot.

To play off McMurtry some more here, stirring the curiosity of students is an important part of any history professor’s job. I certainly hope our apparent post-Gutenberg future doesn’t kill that feeling entirely. I am certain of this though: Jeff Bezos doesn’t care one way or the other as he’s only in it for the money.

Samuel Bowles, Our New West, 1869.

23 09 2011

I picked this off the shelves of the Western Museum of Mining and Industry last night before I heard a talk by Philip Dray about his excellent history of American labor, There Is Power in a Union, newly out in paperback. I can’t wait to give it a closer look.

By the way, if you’re in Colorado, you can here me talk about another book I kind of like at the WMMI, which is just north of Colorado Springs, on November 3rd at 7PM.

Einstein’s chalkboard or why you don’t need to buy a Kindle.

6 08 2011

That photograph comes from Keith Erekson of the University of Texas – El Paso. He took it at a museum in Oxford, UK. Apparently, Einstein was visiting at some point during the Thirties. He worked a bunch of equations out on a chalkboard and they immediately whisked the chalkboard away to a museum, hanging it high enough so that nobody would ever accidentally erase the great man’s handiwork.

Keith uses this to illustrate the importance of ideas relative to the technology by which they are conveyed. After all, if Einstein could convey such complicated ideas on a mere chalkboard, his choice of technology did not stifle his genius. [Did I mention that Keith was serving as the technology specialist during our teacher colloquium last week?]

While I may seem obsessed with online education these days, the first thing that I thought of after seeing Keith’s picture and hearing his interpretation of it was the Kindle. I still think Kindles are for suckers, but besides the reasons I gave in that post I also think they are also a very complex technology where a simple one will do just fine.

I have come to this conclusion despite knowing that the future seems to be entirely against me. This was in the Telegraph under the headline, “The printed book is doomed”:

A couple of weeks ago I spoke to a senior executive from a big Silicon Valley company. We talked about digital media and in passing he mentioned digital books. “I doubt that my daughter will ever buy a physical book,” he said. His daughter is nine.

Why exactly is the printed book doomed? Apparently because Silicon Valley executives say so and because Telegraph reporters don’t read very well:

I’ve noticed that I’m increasingly frustrated when reading printed books because they don’t have a search function. With an ebook I can quickly search the text to remind myself who a character is or to re-read a particular passage.

Ever heard of reading slowly or (God forbid) an index? With reading skills like that he’ll never make it in the All-England Summarize Proust Competition? [Come to think of it, reading Remembrance of Things Past on a Kindle might explain why all the participants at the All-England Summarize Proust competition did so badly at it.]

I also hear that Kindles are much better than iPads in direct sunlight. Well I’ll bet good money that neither one of them is better than an actual book (unless, perhaps, the words are written in invisible ink). Seriously, can’t Amazon come up with a better marketing hook than that?

If there’s anything good about all this e-book stuff, it would have to be that it’s focused attention on the fact that books are really the physical manifestations of ideas rather than objects for people to simply buy and covet. Unfortunately, if you let one company gather a monopoly on distributing all those ideas, it’s not exactly going to serve the cause of universal enlightenment. This is from the Guardian:

It’s still early days in the ebook story, and no doubt there’ll be many disputes and disruptions along these lines in the future. But here’s a final thought for now. Was it wise to allow a situation in which a single company – Amazon – became market leader in terms of both a digital product (the ebook) and the hardware through which it’s delivered?

Luckily, we can still turn to physical books to read the same content that Amazon wants to monopolize. While it may difficult to impress your friends with a paperback in your lap, an awful lot of ingenius ideas have been conveyed that way over the last five or six hundred years. I’m guessing, against all odds, the book will survive five or six hundred more. Despite competition from those dry-erase monstrosities, I bet even the chalkboard has a few more decades in it.

After all, aren’t the simplest solutions to complex problems often the best?

The future of footnotes.

27 12 2010

I got my wife an iPad for Christmas, with the understanding that it would double as an ebook reader for me as long as she’s not using it. I downloaded my first book yesterday, Jonathan Bloom’s American Wasteland, thinking it would be the perfect example of something I would blow through quickly and not need again. It’s actually much more useful for someone writing a history of refrigeration in America than I thought, so I’m stuck on the horns of a dilemma: How do you cite an e-book?

Naive person that I am, I think I expected e-books to look something like the screen on Google Books: All the pages are intact, but they’re electronic. At worst, I might have expected that a complete e-book would look like the old scans over at Documenting the American South: The text is different than as it was originally published, but there are red lines where the original page breaks occurred. In fact, at least when using the Kindle for iPad app, there are no page numbers at all. There are these long 4+ digit location numbers, but they don’t precisely match the words on the page and I don’t see any way to use them to locate particular snippets of text. I suspect this is because page numbers would differ depending upon what device you read the e-book on or even at what magnification you set your own device. While this is perfectly fine for reading a novel that you’ll never open again, for historians this ought to pose a problem. How can we tell people where we found what we found?

What’s equally annoying to me is that the hyperlinks for Bloom’s footnotes don’t work on our iPad when I touch them. The hyperlinks to other sites work find and are kind of cool (albeit distracting), but it’s clear that I’m not going to be able to read about Bloom’s sources until I’m done with the whole thing unless I want to lose my place every time I look. As I wrote the last time I pondered the subject of footnotes, what bothers me the most about this is that publishers and perhaps readers probably don’t care. Historians should though as footnotes are an absolutely vital element of the research process. They’re certainly the best way to understand the historiography of anything and are practically what make any well-researched book possible. What’s going to happen if libraries disappear and footnotes become impossible? Will there be anything left to do for research besides Googling your topic?

By coincidence, there’s a very nice post on footnotes up today over at the Historical Society blog. The author, Lisa Clark Diller, quotes Anthony Grafton* on this subject:

Grafton reminds us that “in documenting the thought and research that underpin the narrative above them, footnotes prove that it is a historically contingent product, dependent on the forms of research, opportunities, and states of particular questions that existed when the historian went to work” (23).

That’s obviously true in the sense that historians did not always have as high standards about what constitutes a footnote as they did today, but I always figured todays standards are pretty clear: 1) Give enough information so that future researchers (or your suspicious professor) can trace precisely where you got your information if they are so inclined. 2) Use the same citation style, throughout the entire text. Am I missing something?

As far as I can tell, any changes to this historical contingency in the future could only loosen those standards. Maybe the change would be cultural, but more likely it would involve a significant change in the nature of texts. Replacing paper with pixels would be such a change, and I’m increasingly convinced that that’s not a good thing. I’m still planning on downloading new novels and political tracts at half the price of the hardback copies, but it looks like all my history texts are going to have to be delivered to me the old-fashioned way in the future if there’s any chance I might want to cite them some time.

* Note to self: Read Grafton’s footnote book ASAP. Remember to order used paperback copy so that I can quote it later.

Update: Greetings AHA Today readers! If anyone cares, I managed to get the footnote links to work before I finished the book. To get the page numbers I need to cite, I’m now thinking I’ll go to the free preview on

The future of the historical research process.

1 12 2010

Last night, at the end of my graduate research seminar on slavery I asked the class about what they had learned about the research process in general rather than slavery in particular. All the answers tended to boil down to how to cope with information overload.

ProfHacker linked to a pretty good post that covers precisely this subject this morning:

Keeping your work organized is a valuable skill, but at some point in your research, you are working on a project that is too large to hold in your head. There are too many citations, too many ideas for chapters, too many subtle differences in arguments. If you have been tagging information all along the way, then you have a way to search through your own stuff.

Or to put it another way, echoing something I’ve written before, I will never be impressed by the size of anyone’s bibliography again. When 8th graders have access to the world’s best research library through Google Books, finding cool stuff will not differentiate your work. What matters will be finding the right stuff and you’ll only know if you’ve found the right stuff AFTER you started writing. You’ll have to collect more, in order to be able to do better filtering. [Luckily, Zotero makes that collecting process so much easier.]

That’s takes me back to one of the things I’ve been stressing this semester in both my research classes: something you found that’s really cool doesn’t necessarily belong in your research paper. You want to make an argument. That argument should serve as a filter for all the stuff you have at your fingertips. If it doesn’t, your paper will be a disorganized miss even if it’s well-researched. Necessary background and evidence for your argument: those are the two things that belong in the body of a good research paper. Nothing more.

I heard lots of bellyaching last night about how hard it is to cut something you thought would go into your paper, particularly after you’ve written it up. I feel your pain, I told them. However, when everyone is drinking through a fire hose, the best writers have to know when to take their mouth away.

The best source is the one that fits your argument.

20 10 2010

There is an article in this month’s AHA Perspectives which got me thinking about the research process yet again. Here’s David Ransel from Indiana:

The Australian anthropologist-historian Greg Dening observed that the perceived value of a source increases in proportion to the difficulty of gaining access to it. He demonstrated this effect in a delightful story of his search for the letters of William Gooch, a young Englishman who had traveled in 1792 to the South Pacific as an astronomer on a supply ship and met a violent end at the hands of Hawaiian natives. Dening traveled to England and had to overcome a number of obstacles before obtaining permission to read the letters—and, accordingly, attached great importance to their contents. The story has a powerful resonance for those of us who work in far-off lands where library and archive access is even more difficult than in the United Kingdom. We are indeed apt to attach excessive importance to materials for which permission to read or copy requires lengthy battles with bureaucrats and archivists. By the same logic, we can easily undervalue sources that fall into our laps. I once acquired—in a casual trade with an illegal book trader in the Soviet Union—an 18th-century Russian letter-writer’s guide. It struck me as a quaint souvenir and possible reference for official titles and forms of address. It was only when I showed it to a senior colleague and heard him exclaim that the book contained a capsule social history that I realized how useful it could be in reinforcing the arguments of my first monograph on the importance of patronage and personal clienteles in Russian politics. This book of model letters constituted a primer in how to initiate, reestablish, nourish, or end a patron or client relationship. I soon produced a couple of articles based on the letter-writer.

Despite the fact that I’m an American historian and I don’t (usually) go off to far-off lands to find my sources, I do identify with the point. I remember way back in ancient history (before Google Books) when I would play stump the librarian with the government documents guy at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin or keep going back to the Library of Congress with two pages of requests because I wanted to track down a particular obscure source in order to make my point.

However, it’s not often like that for me anymore. I still go to archives. [In fact, I’ve been trying to arrange an upcoming archives trip most of today.] With respect to published sources though, almost everything I’d ever want seems to be available online. While I might have said that doesn’t fly for stuff published after 1923, the more I explore HathiTrust, the more good stuff I find published after 1923 in full view format. [How is that possible anyway? Anybody out there understand copyright law?]

After spending ten years or so in various libraries looking at refrigerating equipment manuals, I found one on Hathitrust published in 1933 on Monday that I had never seen before. This made me very happy. It’s going to get cited in the book manuscript in five or six places. I didn’t have to travel outside my office to find it.

So while having to scour the ends of the earth to find something certainly makes that something appear important, and (as Ransel suggests) reading easy to reach sources in new ways can also be very interesting, I think what really matters is whether any source helps you make your point effectively. And thanks to technology, that’s easier to do than ever.

Google Books doesn’t have everything.

13 10 2010

Score another one for ProfHacker. The day after I recommended it for discussing blogging as a course activity, there’s a post up that has yet more links specific to posts dealing with WordPress specifically for class. Looks like I’m going to have to try a class blog for labor history next semester!

But that’s not the most important post there from the last two days. This is. The author here recommends Mirlyn, the University of Michigan’s web portal, as a way to get around the metadata troubles in Google Books. The other suggestion was to use Mirlyn to get at digital material stored at a project that I had never heard of before: HathiTrust. Here’s the crucial part:

HathiTrust serves as a shared repository for digitized items from the member institutions. Many of these items are also included in Google Books, but some are not, such as rare items not held by a Google Library partner.

I spent a good chunk of yesterday testing that point, and yup I’m pretty sure it’s true. There is out of copyright stuff stuff on HathiTrust that you can get in full view which you can’t get on GoogleBooks. Furthermore, the Mirlyn interface is indeed a good way to find it because it will include links to the GoogleBooks and HathiTrust versions of such things when they exist. Oftentimes HathiTrust or even the Making of America are the only links to digital material there.

It feels like I just discovered a new potential treasure trove and I didn’t even have to leave my office! I’d write more, but I have a lot more searching to do.

%d bloggers like this: