Sunday, April 20, 2014

Archive is in the Eye of the Beholder?

In a University of Cambridge post, "Q & A: how archives make history," (7 April 2014) researchers at a recent conference meta-cogitate on the relation between archives and the early modern period. My image on the archive then and now (ok, crowdsourcing, electronic artifacts, editing in the cloud, etc., make it a little different in the 21st century) is Richard Burton looking for a file in the Registry in "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold" (ok, this is more recent version of "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy," but stills of archives on film are hard to find). The file is not there, and there lies the rub. I must admit students beginning their foray into the history profession are less likely to see the romance of a system of organization, less likely to ask, why are the sources where they are, organized the way they are, and who decided to keep them like that. How wonderful, then, to have the brief answers to question such as who created archives, what do the silences or lapses tell us, provided in this run-up to "Transforming Information: Record Keeping in the Early Modern World."

Q&A: how archives make history
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earlymodernengland by Newton Key.

Friday, September 27, 2013

I'm Not Looking for New England...

A recent article maps the major American ancestry by county, and, if ancestry is the reason why folks study a particular type of history, the future of British Studies doesn't look good anywhere in the USA except New England (Jessica Jerreat, “The Map That Shows Where America Came from,” Mail Online, 1 September 2013). And by "British," that mainly means Irish in Massachusetts and Eastern New York. (It doesn't show what is the second largest ancestry claimed in each county, but it is still interesting in terms of identity.) The Appalachians largely think they are American, which might be a political statement, but probably means they are unsure of the background. What might be interesting is to map waves of immigrants over time onto the whole map. Does "English," mean pre-1800 immigration never followed by a significant wave into that area (New Hampshire, Maine) thereafter? (Apologies to the great social history, Kirsty MacColl for use of the title.)

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earlymodernengland by Newton Key.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Dating Historical Interests: The Little England of the 1930s

Larger version of whole chart here

This is a portion of a 1931 chart encompassing the entire history of the world. “The Entire History of the World—Really, All of It—Distilled Into a Single Gorgeous Chart” (The Vault, Rebecca Onion, Aug. 12, 2013) Europe and especially England and the British Isles dominated the 17th-19th centuries. Few of the rulers or events in England, however, have any link to world affairs: England driven out of France (1453, if one overlooks Calais), defeat of the Spanish Armada, East India Company, Pilgrim Fathers, War with Holland, Unite with Holland, Penn, "Marlborough Wars Against Spain" (not France?), and Gibraltar.

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earlymodernengland by Newton Key.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Romancing the Stuarts

The 3 May 2013 issue of TLS has an intriguing detail of a Restoration-era beaded basket of Charles II and Catherine of Braganza.  The Holburne Museum of Bath, is seeking to acquire the basket, and a brief video of the Holburne's Direction, Alexander Sturgis being interviewed by the National Funding Scheme, provides a better view of the whole basket.

The Holburne Museum seems to be a deserving resting place for the basket, as they already have an embroidery or "stumpwork" of the story of Charles from hiding in the "Royal Oak," and his flight in disguise to his accession to the throne. Both pieces are intricate. And their existence perhaps suggest some contemporaries' dedicated devotion not so much to the sacrality but to the romance of kingship.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Samuel Pepys, blogger: Happy Birthday

"23 February 1659/60. Thursday, my birthday, now twenty-seven years." I almost missed the birthday of Samuel Pepys. Pepys, as you probably know, blogged his Diary from January 2003 until May 2012, and his site is maintained by Phil Gyford. Gyford began the whole thing again, with new software, in January 2013, as he explains in a posting on his own site. We wish Pepys and Gyford well.

Pepys, App
Yesterday, I began a (very) brief talk to our department Careers Day about blogging in the 17th and 21st centuries, with "What News?": Pepys’s repeated query to acquaintances and bystanders as he walked daily between the City of London and the court of Whitehall in Westminster, according to his diary from the 1660s. (I should note that Pepys is not only a blog, but also an app, reviewed here.) What was Pepys seeking? I suggested that what he was after was not facts, not history, but rumor/gossip. If it was nailed down, it was not au courant, and of less interest to him. Anyway, Pepys would have made a good blogger (and I guess he does).

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Reading in Parts: Thinking, Speaking, and Writing with Partial Knowledge

I bought a copy of More Baths Less Talking (2012), the latest volume of a selection of Nick Hornby's "Stuff I've been Reading" columns for The Believer for someone else and read the entire book over a short train ride. Hornby begins each column with a list of "Books Bought" and then a list of "Books Read" over the last month. There was rarely much overlap. I wonder if academics should do the same?

We could include in the first list books bought, checked out of the library, ordered through inter-library loan; articles downloaded, printed. I suppose journals subscribed to wouldn't count because then the "unread" would be too overwhelming. In the second list we would list books and articles actually read during the same period (those purchased or downloaded years ago, those re-read, etc.). Perhaps there needs to be a third list, books/articles used/cited/quoted in our own work, but not actually read much beyond the cite/quote for which we dutifully provide a reference. The literature review can seem overwhelming because of the many related works out there for any historiographical problem. We seem to find more and more works that fall within Francis Bacon's category, "to be read only in parts."

It turns out, that Bacon's era was quite familiar with the sense of being overwhelmed with "the multitude of books which grows every day in a prodigious fashion" (Adrien Baillet, 1685, trans.). Ann Blair (the source of the two quotes above) shows how some early modern writers attempted to manage information by injunctions to read selectively in her survey of their various note-taking and categorization schemes (“Reading Strategies for Coping with Information Overload Ca. 1550-1700,” Journal of the History of Ideas 64, no. 1, January 2003: 11-28). And Thomas N. Corns indicates how the early modern writers and publishers offered their own version of random access now more ubiquitously found in the hypertext link (“The Early Modern Search Engine: Indices, Title Pages, Marginalia and Contents”, in The Renaissance Computer: Knowledge technology in the first age of print, ed. Neil Rhodes and Jonathan Sawday, London: Routledge, 2000, 95-105).

Just as early modern readers have been offered a way out, so too have we. I have not read Pierre Bayard, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (Bloomsbury, 2009), but I am going to discuss its main point. Perhaps I feel empowered to do so because I have read and recommend Jacob Halford’s “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read,” a post in Early Modern Dialogues (15 July 2010). Halford, and, I presume, Bayard, notes that “[t]his is a skill I think that is valuable for anyone who works with lots of books.” It is valuable in thinking about research, in working in classrooms and seminars on either side of the desk. Halford/Bayard lists five points that explain the non-reading method. I offer my, even briefer reading of these points (as shared with my graduate students).
  1. Remember that most people can’t remember most of what they have read.” From this my take-away is to go with what you have read/do know, and in what you are most interested. The point is not that you will never have to read again (what a sad life), but you don’t need to read everything, all of a book, even all of a chapter, to get something out of it. If you remember something about a book, that might put you at the forefront of your audience/group. It certainly puts you in the discussion.
  2. Know the Book’s Location.” Is it more difficult when the modern reader does not have Library of Congress classification memorized and finds a source through a random search online? Perhaps. But the injunction to “situat[e] the text amongst [certain] books” is still vital. Not just in relation to a debate, a dialog, or a wikipedia-type subject, but physically/geographically (examples: this is a long, long novel, and, thus, almost certainly a product of the 19th-century three-decker genre; this is a rare religious text found mainly in New England seminaries and colleges). All this knowledge allows you to state with confidence, “books like this tend to...."
  3. Know what others have said about the book.” And, even better, be able to situate those who have reviewed or commented about the book. You now can speak knowledgeably about the debates in which the book does or does not engage.
  4. Know the basic content.” Oh, dear, you are thinking, why not just read the book? For one, if you are reading the book without doing these steps, you are unlikely to remember much because you have not created a place for your memories of reading it. Halford/Bayard suggests looking at the table of contents (TOC). In addition to the TOC, I’d suggest a glance at the index and paratext (lists of illustrations, prologue, etc.). Does the author state why s/he is writing? Does s/he state when and where the problem first arose? Does s/he thank specific people that you can situate themselves?
  5. Don’t be ashamed.” Here we are in the realm of confident bluffing. But what about truth? A confident statement based on nothing more than a hunch (and informed hunch, based on nos. 1-4 above) is an important step in constructing a hypothesis in early stages in research, or in initiating dialog with fellow students/professors/researchers. Of course, you are using it to facilitate inquiry, not holding it against all comers. If presented with additional information (Dickens did not state X; the war actually caused Y), you must be willing to modify your position.
After a while (as I advise my students), books fit more easily into patterns. One should be able to construct a mental picture of a book from the information you do have. Halford/Bayard gives the interesting example of Jorge Luis Borges, who once said writing a long book that can be summed up in a few minutes is counter-productive and tedious. It is better “to pretend that those books already exist and to offer a summary, a commentary.” Next time you need to write a longish work, imagine it is already written, think about what it really says, and then write/imagine a commentary on that imaginary work. You’ll probably be farther along to what is really interesting/vital. And then your work is more likely to end up on our personal version of Hornby's second list.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Early Modern Blogosphere: Update

A second batch of references to "Crowdsourcing the early modern blogosphere" features considered analyses and considerations. "The echoes of cyberspace," by tympanandfrisket (22 November 2012) references my open review draft article on the early modern blogosphere, and finds affirmation of my argument in Leah Marcus’s "The Silence of the Archive and the Noise of Cyberspace" (in The Renaissance Computer: Knowledge Technology in the First Age of Print, ed. Neil Rhodes and Jonathan Sawday, London: Routledge, 2000). Tympan and Frisket also refers to an extended post on the early modern blogosphere at Mercurius Politicus ("Crowdsourcing the early modern blogosphere," 19 November 2012), which prompted me to comment on anonymity and the role of recycling at Mercurius. Here, I will only underscore his comments on the impermanency of blogging: "bloggers stop blogging, sites get closed down or pulled." Indeed, one blog that I planned to include in my network analysis retreated behind an invitation wall on the very day I devoted to analyzing it. Matthew Simmermon-Gomes over at the Molinist also limns both my blogosphere piece and the Mercurius post ("Crowdsourcing," 20 November 2012). Fashioning the Early Modern: Creativity and Innovation in Europe, 1500-1800 references "Crowdsourcing" on its FB page and quotes from my historiographical section on the usage of the term early modern on its blog ("Blogs on the early modern – Newton Key: Crowdsourcing the Early Modern Blogosphere," Fashioning the Early Modern," November 23, 2012, by Jasmina Bolfek-Radovani). [Update: "What’s This 'Early Modern' of Which You Speak?," in the SMH (Society for Military History) Blog, November 9, 2012, by Jamel Ostwald, delves into the periodization question (referencing my discussion of the usage of "early modern," but also considering the various usages of other terms).]

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