Icebox w/ circulation arrows.

26 07 2010

Yes, I know you don’t care, but posting this here is the best way that I’ll be able to find this again.

My little piece of women’s history.

18 07 2010

In honor of a very nice link from Historiann*, I thought I’d share what I’m doing tonight. I’m reading domestic science manuals on Google Books, looking for references to iceboxes to help me finish my chapter on that lovely obsolete appliance.

The first thing you should know about iceboxes is that before there were electric household refrigerators, iceboxes were called refrigerators and despite their seeming simplicity they were, to quote the title of a favorite book of mine along these lines, more work for mother. A lot more work. As an illustration, here is the complete list of rules from D. Eddy & Sons’ 1894 model:

New refrigerators should stand from twelve to twenty-four hours after the ice box is filled before replacing articles of food in the provisioning chamber.

The ice should be washed and put in carefully. It should not be thrown in, and it should never be wrapped in anything, as that prevents the circulation of cold air. In getting Ice from the refrigerator for table use, be careful not to pick off more than is needed, as the ice will melt more rapidly in small pieces.

The ice apartment of a new Refrigerator, or of an old one at the beginning of a new season, should be entirely filled with ice, in order that it may become thoroughly cooled. Never let the ice get wholly out before replenishing.

The strainer should be constantly kept over the water outlet inside the Refrigerator, so as to prevent the escape of cold air through the waste pipe.

The covers and doors must be kept shut. They should never be left open, and never slightly ajar, as is very often the case.

The zinc lining should occasionally be washed with soap, and warm water, and then wiped perfectly dry. This will keep the Refrigerator clean and free from odor.

The food should never be placed in the Refrigerator in a warm state; for anything warm will cause dampness and moisture.

Just in case you feel like reading other domestic manuals from the 1800-1920 era, there are more than a score of them available on Google Books. Run a full-view search on the phrase “domestic economy” and you’ll find a ton, with Catharine Beecher’s 1856 version of her 1841 classic, A Treatise on Domestic Economy, coming first. Interestingly enough, she recommended keeping your icebox in the cellar, which indicates just how often people reached for it in those days.

* Should you be able check your blog from your wilderness retreat, Historiann, thank you so much for that vote of confidence.

The right way to use research databases.

16 07 2010

This essay by Keith Thomas in the London Review of Books (via the Guardian) is absolutely the best description of someone’s research method that I have ever read. Go read the whole thing and come back here.

Seriously, go click that link. If you don’t, you’ll be sorry. The rest of this post can wait.

It’s not that I agree with the way Thomas does his thing, it’s his remarkable self-awareness of his method along with the beauty of the prose that really strikes me. Take this, bit for example:

[It won't hurt you to read this again. This is that good.]

When I go to libraries or archives, I make notes in a continuous form on sheets of paper, entering the page number and abbreviated title of the source opposite each excerpted passage. When I get home, I copy the bibliographical details of the works I have consulted into an alphabeticised index book, so that I can cite them in my footnotes. I then cut up each sheet with a pair of scissors. The resulting fragments are of varying size, depending on the length of the passage transcribed. These sliced-up pieces of paper pile up on the floor. Periodically, I file them away in old envelopes, devoting a separate envelope to each topic. Along with them go newspaper cuttings, lists of relevant books and articles yet to be read, and notes on anything else which might be helpful when it comes to thinking about the topic more analytically. If the notes on a particular topic are especially voluminous, I put them in a box file or a cardboard container or a drawer in a desk. I also keep an index of the topics on which I have an envelope or a file. The envelopes run into thousands.

This procedure is a great deal less meticulous than it sounds. Filing is a tedious activity and bundles of unsorted notes accumulate. Some of them get loose and blow around the house, turning up months later under a carpet or a cushion. A few of my most valued envelopes have disappeared altogether. I strongly suspect that they fell into the large basket at the side of my desk full of the waste paper with which they are only too easily confused. My handwriting is increasingly illegible and I am sometimes unable to identify the source on which I have drawn. Would that I had paid more heed to the salutary advice offered in another long forgotten manual for students, History and Historical Research (1928) by C.G. Crump of the Public Record Office: ‘Never make a note for future use in such a form … that even you yourself will not know what it means, when you come across it some months later.’

My notes are voluminous because my interests have never been very narrowly focused. My subject is what I think of as the historical ethnography of early modern England. Equipped with questions posed by anthropologists, sociologists and philosophers, as well as by other historians, I try to look at virtually all aspects of early modern life, from the physical environment to the values and mental outlook of people at all social levels. Unfortunately, such diverse topics as literacy, numeracy, gestures, jokes, sexual morality, personal cleanliness or the treatment of animals, though central to my concerns, are hard to pursue systematically. They can’t be investigated in a single archive or repository of information. Progress depends on building up a picture from a mass of casual and unpredictable references accumulated over a long period. That makes them unsuitable subjects for a doctoral thesis, which has to be completed in a few years. But they are just the thing for a lifetime’s reading. So when I read, I am looking out for material relating to several hundred different topics. Even so, I find that, as my interests change, I have to go back to sources I read long ago, with my new preoccupations in mind.

Now that’s thorough! And speaking of self-awareness, Thomas recognizes how old-fashioned this sounds:

The truth is that I have become something of a dinosaur. Nowadays, researchers don’t need to read early printed books laboriously from cover to cover. They have only to type a chosen word into the appropriate database to discover all the references to the topic they are pursuing. I try to console myself with the reflection that they will be less sensitive to the context of what they find and that they will certainly not make the unexpected discoveries which come from serendipity. But the sad truth is that much of what it has taken me a lifetime to build up by painful accumulation can now be achieved by a moderately diligent student in the course of a morning. Moreover, today’s historians don’t make notes on pieces of paper. They have computer programs for filing and indexing. Even as I write, an email message informs me that ‘wiki software can be used to develop a personal research knowledge base.’ My methods are in no way an advance on those of Burckhardt and now appear impossibly archaic. But it is far too late to think of transferring this accumulation onto some electronic database. When I look at my cellar, stuffed with cardboard boxes and dog-eared folders, and littered with loose slips which have broken free from overstuffed envelopes, I envy my colleagues who travel light, with their laptops and digital cameras. But, as Gibbon said, where error is irreparable, repentance is useless.

As I explained in my Lovesong to Zotero, this attitude is still quite common in people who are probably much younger than Thomas is. I say it’s their loss. Database programs like Zotero are fantastic, particularly for people who don’t file well, because they can help you find stuff in your notes that you might not remember. You can write books much, much faster if you have better intellectual control of your own work. And best of all, there is no sacrifice to the quality of your research. It’s simply that you can simply sort through it faster. Much, much faster.

More importantly, I agree with Thomas that something is lost in using databases the way most people (and certainly most undergraduates do). However, it doesn’t have to be this way. I’ve been working on the same ice and refrigeration project for ten years now (in fairness, I did write another book in the interim). I started in the pre-Google Books era and have taken the project into the era of having seemingly everything in my fingertips.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this (as I’m finishing the first draft before schools starts) and I now believe that had I started this project in say – 2007 – I’d be totally lost. The reason I like all these databases is that I started by immersing myself in the primary sources, mostly trade journals (since so few secondary sources are available on my topic) and expanded outward only when I felt I had a pretty good idea of what the outline of the book would be.

Thanks to that earlier research, I can clearly see the forest through the trees. What I mean by this is had I began my research punching terms into Google Books and other sites like it, I would have had way too much information. Do you know how many hits you get on Chronicling America, for example, if you just type in “ice?” But now, I know how to limit the dates and, more importantly, what qualifying terms to through in so that I can get exactly what I want. I would never get the kind of details I want for my manuscript in the pre-database era because newspapers and pre-1923 books were totally inaccessible to me, especially living as I do in Pueblo, Colorado.

So what’s the right way to use research databases? I think it’s to start with primary sources (especially archives) and then move onto the new technology from there.

You almost certainly have no interest in this…

31 05 2010

…but I need it as a placeholder. It’s for the chapter on cold storage in my ice and refrigeration book and the source is Louis M. Schmidt, Principles and Practice of Artificial Ice-Making and Refrigeration, 3rd Edition, Philadelphia: Philadelphia Book Company, 1908:

A lovesong to Zotero.

21 04 2010

In a world in which the Supreme Court doesn’t understand texting, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that there are historians out there who don’t understand notes programs. Nevertheless, I was still shocked when I asked two historians whose work I respect tremendously at different times in the last few weeks what notes program they use and got blank stares in return.

I wrote my dissertation (and by extension my first book) using note cards and Xerox copies. This was way I learned to do research as a high school debater and it worked fine getting me through grad school. While I sometimes had trouble finding quotations I remembered, since all my sources were in a finite set of boxes or the books that were clogging my carrel I always found what I needed eventually.

That’s why I was so intrigued with the idea of note-taking programs. In 2000, I got one called Papyrus, loaded it on my laptop and started typing research cards on the history of ice and refrigeration into it. Ten years later I have 2000 cards and my new laptop can’t even run the old operating system that Papyrus requires. [No laptop recycling yet for me!]

This summer, I’m finally going to start writing that manuscript in earnest, but in the course of writing three articles from that research I can’t tell you how much time I’ve saved by the ability to do keyword searches on those cards to find information that I knew was there somewhere even faster.

But now there’s Zotero, an add on that goes with the Firefox browser. I started adding new ice and refrigeration cards in Zotero only a few months ago as practice for my next project, but I’m already stunned by what I can do using this program. Here, take a look yourself [I think this video's out of date now, but it still serves my purposes.]:

The folks at Zotero make a big deal about its web friendliness, and they should. You can download attachments from databases or the web or even take a screen shot. Nevertheless, you can still manually download information and group it with the bibliography cards describing the source from which it came (solving a problem I remember from my index card days). It’s also preset to allow entry of archival information.

What won my heart to Zotero though is the searchability of texts inside the notes or attachments. Using Papyrus, I was basically stuck finding things with keywords or a few other fields. Zotero works like Google in the sense that I can find everything by the word.

Yes, your research is going to be in the cloud, but you can download it onto your computer for safekeeping. Yes, it takes time to learn the ins and outs of the program (and I’ll be the first to admit that I still don’t have it all down). Nevertheless, considering the length of any book project, you’ll figure it out over time.

In fact, next semester, I’m going to start training my students to use Zotero. Here at my underfunded state university with a tiny library databases and Google Books are our most important resources, and I doubt anything could be better for managing that kind of information. No more writing down URLs. No more stacks of copies from newspaper databases. They can even start a new library for every research paper.

In short, if you aren’t using Zotero, your research is taking too long. And did I mention that Zotero is free?

Online collections at the Hagley Museum and Library.

12 04 2010

It’s sort of funny, really. I’m speaking at the Hagley Museum and Library in Delaware on Thursday night, but it took a web site review in the JAH for me to realize just how much material they have put online. The grocer’s refrigerator above is just the first thing I’ve found that’s right up my alley, but there seems to be a ton of useful literature from other industries too.

And for those of you who don’t like business history, they’ve digitized all the programs from the Miss America Pageant between 1945 and 1967. Think how much fun you can have with those!

Every issue of Popular Science online.

7 03 2010

You really are missing a lot if you don’t read Boing Boing. Today, they just made my refrigerator research much easier by informing me that the entire archives of the magazine Popular Science are now online thanks to Google Books. That’s 137 years worth of issues, including the post-1923 copyrighted stuff. What makes this particularly useful is that currently you can hardly get anything from Scientific American online, even the pre-1923 stuff is blocked on Google Books.

At the moment, all you can do on their site is browse by keyword. However, following the advice of the commentators there, I started browsing by issue straight from Google Books and found refrigerators galore, like the one above.

More ice tools.

13 10 2009

Scenes from the ice harvesting process.

13 10 2009

From Popular Electricity and the World’s Advance for my Pittsburgh presentation:

Machine which shaves the surface of the cake:

Floating towards the ice elevator:

Ice elevator:

“Where are the originals?”

12 10 2009

By now, all you Google Books fans out there have probably read Google co-founder Sergey Brin’s defense of the project from Friday’s NYT. I won’t come to late to analyzing that party, but I do think it’s striking that he began the piece with a quote from Electrical World, a trade journal. I’ve been a fan of trade journals practically since I started graduate school because they’re wonderful sources for industrial history of all kinds. I used Iron Age (pictured above) for huge sections of my dissertation as I could get copies both at the University of Wisconsin – Madison engineering library and at the Hagley Museum and Library in Delaware. Therefore, I was amazed to find that Google Books has an excellent run of it from before 1923. It’s almost like going home again!

Talking with probably the only other business historian at the Western History Association Conference in Denver over the weekend, I got the feeling most scholars don’t realize just how many pre-1923 specimens of these journals are up on Google Books. Maybe they don’t expect journals to be part of a book project, but since they’re bound in many of the world’s greatest libraries they’re there and therefore searchable (which is no small convenience in books the size of a volume of Iron Age).

Ice and Refrigeration, for example, the journal I’ve been using for ten years on my ice and refrigeration project, is almost all there. [Almost makes me wish I started my research during the Google era. It would have saved a lot of time.] On the other hand, Electrical World, the journal Brin used, only goes back to 1913 and that’s Volume 41.

Seeing that reminded me of Nicholson Baker’s now dated but still useful book Doublefold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper from 2001. It’s basically about the destruction of newspapers and trade journals like these in the wake of new technologies. From p. 253:

“At some point, maybe not so long from now, a company such as Octavo may want to scan a volume of newspapers, at high resolution, nondestructively, as if it were a fragile sixteenth-century folio. the president of the company will make inquiries at a library or historical society in the city. He will be led into a room that holds four gray cabinets of microfilm. “But we need the originals,” the company will say. “Where are the originals?”

Let’s hope someone, somewhere has the originals of the early issues of Electrical World so that Google can get to them eventually.


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