Academic History Writing and its Disconnects

The last ten years have seen the development of what looks like a coherent format for the publication of inherited texts online – in particular, ‘books’. The project of putting billions of words of keyword searchable text is now nearing completion (at least in a Western context); and the hard intellectual work that went into this project is now done. We are within sight of that moment when all printed text produced between 1455 and 1923 (when US copyright provisions mean that the needs of modern corporations and IP owners outweigh those of simple scholarship), will be available online to search and to read. The vast majority of this digital text is currently configured to pretend to be made up of ‘books’ and other print artifacts. But, of course, it is not books. At some level it is just text – the difference between one book and the next is a single line of metadata. The hard leather covers that traditionally divided one group of words from another are gone; and while scholars continue to pretend to be reading books, even when seated comfortably in front of their office computer, this is a charade. Modern humanities scholarship is a direct engagement with a deracinated, Google-ised, Wikipedia-ised, electronic text.

For the historian, this development has two significant repercussions. First, the evolution of new forms of delivery and analysis of inherited text problematizes and historicizes the notion of the book as an object, and as a technology. And second, in the process problematizing the ‘book’, it also impacts the discipline of history as it is practiced in the digital present. Because history has been organised to be written from ‘books’, found in hard copy libraries, the transformation of books to texts forces us to question the methodologies of modern history writing.

In other words, the book as a technology for packaging and delivery, storing, and finding text is now redundant. The underpinning mechanics that determined its shape and form are as antiquated as moveable type. And in the process of moving beyond the book, we have also abandoned the whole post-enlightenment infrastructure of libraries and card catalogues (or even OPACS), of concordances, and indexes, and tables of contents. They are all built around the book, and the book is dead.

To many this will appear mere overstatement; just another apocalyptic pronouncement of radical change of the sort digital humanists specialize in. And there is no question but that ‘books’ will continue to be published for the foreseeable future. Just as manuscripts continued to be written through all the centuries of the book, so the hard copy volume will survive the development of the online and the digital. But, the transition is nevertheless important and transformational; and for a start allows us to interrogate the ‘history of the book’ in new ways.

First, it allows us to begin to escape the intellectual shackles that the book as a form of delivery imposed upon us. That chapters still tend to come out at a length just suited to a quire of paper, is a commonplace instance of a wider phenomenon. If we can escape the self-delusion that we are reading ‘books’, the development of the infinite archive, and the creation of a new technology of distribution allows us to move beyond the linear and episodic structures the book demands, to something different and more complex. It also allows us to more effectively view the book as an historical artifact and now redundant form of controlling technology. The ‘book’ is newly available for analysis.

The absence of books makes their study more important, more innovative, and more interesting. It also makes their study much more relevant to the present – a present in which we are confronted by a new, but equally controlling and limiting technology for transmitting ideas. By mentally escaping the ‘book’ as a normal form and format, scholars can see it more clearly for what it was. To this extent, the death of the book is a liberating thing – the fascist authority of the format is beaten.

At the same time we are confronted by a profound intellectual challenge that addresses the very nature of the historical discipline. This transition from the ‘book’ to something new fundamentally undercuts what historians do more generally. When one starts to unpick the nature of the historical discipline it is tied up with the technologies of the printed page and the book in ways that are powerful and determining. Footnotes, post-Rankean cross referencing, and the practises of textual analysis are embedded within the technology of the book, and its library.

Equally, the technology of authority – all the visual and textual clues that separate a Cambridge University Press monograph from the irresponsible musings of a know-nothing prose merchant – are slipping away. At the same time, the currency of professional identity – the titles, positions, and honorifics – built again on the supposedly secure foundations of book publishing – seems ever more debased. The question becomes:  is history, like the book – particularly in its post-Rankean, professional, and academic form – dead? Are we losing the distinctive disciplinary character that allows us to think beyond the surface and makes possible complex analyses that transcend mere cleverness and aspires to explanation?

On the face of it, the answer is yes – the renewed role of the popular blockbuster, and an ever growing and insecure emphasis on readership over scholarship, would suggest as much. In Britain, humanist scholars shy away from the metrics that would demonstrate the ‘impact’ of their work primarily from fear that it may not have any. A single and self-evident instance that evidences a deeper malaise is the failure to cite what we read. We read online journal articles, but cite the hard copy edition; we do keywords searches, while pretending to undertake immersive reading. We search ‘Google Books’, and pretend we are not.

But even more importantly, we ignore the critical impact of digitisation on our intellectual praxis. Only 48% of the significant words in the Burney collection of eighteenth-century newspapers are correctly transcribed as a result of poor OCR.[1] This makes the other 52% completely un-findable. And of course, from the perspective of the relationship between scholarship and sources, it is always the same 52%. Bill Turkel describes this as the Las Vegas effect – all bright lights, and an invitation to instant scholarly riches, but with no indication of the odds, and no exit signs. We use the Burney collection regardless – entirely failing to apply the kind of critical approach that historians have built their professional authority upon. This is roulette dressed up as scholarship.

In other words, historians and other humanists have abandoned the rigour of traditional scholarship. Provenance, edition, transcription, editorial practise, readership, authorship, reception – the things academics have traditionally queried in relation to books, are left unexplored in relation to the online text which now forms the basis of most published history.

As importantly, the way ‘history’ is promulgated has not kept up either. Why have historians failed to create television programmes with footnotes, and graphs with underlying spreadsheets and sliders? History is part of a grand conversation between the present and the past, played out in extended narrative and analysis, with structure, point, and purpose; but it will be increasingly impoverished if it continues to be produced as a ragged and impotent ghost of a fifteenth century technology. The book had a wonderful 1200 odd year history, which is certainly worth exploring. Its form self-evidently controlled and informed significant aspects of cultural and intellectual change in the West (and through the impositions of Empire, the rest of the world as well); but if historians are to avoid going the way of the book, they need to separate out what they think history is designed to achieve, and to create a scholarly technology that delivers it.

In a rather intemperate attack on the work of Jane Jacobs, published in 1962, Louis Mumford observed that:

… minds unduly fascinated by computers carefully confine themselves to asking only the kind of question that computers can answer and are completely negligent of the human contents or the human results.[2]

In the last couple of decades, historians who are unduly fascinated by books, have restricted themselves to asking only the kind of questions books can answer. Fifty years is a long time in computer science. It is time to find out if a critical and self-consciously scholarly engagement with computers might not now allow the ‘human contents’ of the past to be more effectively addressed.

A post-endum

This piece was adapted from the rough text of a short talk delivered to a symposium on ‘Future Directions in Book History’ held at Cambridge University on the 24th of November 2011.  It then had an extended afterlife both as a post on my own blog, Historyonics, and in the Open Peer Review section of Digitalhumanitiesnow.org in preparation for the Journal of Digital Humanities. I then revised it for re-publication in a post-peer review format. The comments were useful, and I am particularly grateful to John Levin, Adam Crymble, Alycia Sellie, Joe Grobelny, and Lisa Spiro for their willingness to engage critically with it. I have tried to incorporate some of their views within the text. But, I also wanted to take this opportunity to record my own feelings about the process.

The text was originally written in my normal ‘ranting’ voice, with all the freedom that implies to overstate and shock. The tone is perhaps slightly adolescent, but it is a style that works in the intimate atmosphere of an academic venue, and embeds all the pastiche rhythms and rhetorical ticks I have collected over thirty years of academic writing and lecturing. Its subsequent publication as a blog post was flagged as a text intended for personal, verbal presentation. First person pronouns were retained and the imagined gestures and pauses left to do their work. But in revising it for this post-peer review re-publication I found myself automatically changing it in to a different form, speaking in a different voice – more distant, more careful, more ‘academic’ for lack of a better word. I have also toned down some (though not all) of the overstatement and hyperbole.

This revision has been an enjoyable process, and I have particularly benefited from the direct engagement with the comments posted, but I am left with yet another conundrum. I like overstatement and hyperbole. I find them intellectually useful, and the form of an un-reviewed blog and ranty presentation gave me real freedom to indulge in them. The original text reflected all the joys of composing in high voice; and all the freedoms of being an unconstrained publisher of one’s own thoughts. In other words, as an author, I was gifted the joy of a blogger, and found that responding to peer review (open or otherwise) merely tarnished and dulled my own pleasure in the product.

Of course, prose is intended for an audience, and preferably an audience that extends beyond the author alone. But this experience makes me wonder if we need to rethink peer review even more fundamentally than the move from closed to open formulae implies. Perhaps we need to recognise that reconstructing a process of selection and revision (of re-creating the scholarly journal online with knobs on) achieves only half the objective. Perhaps we also need to recognise the value of the draft, and the talk; the prose written for an audience of one, and shared only because it can be. Perhaps we need to worry less about the forms and process of generating authority and get on with the work of engaging with a wider world of ideas.

As you will have guessed, I have suddenly moved into blog mode – and it is simply more fun than academic writing.

 

Originally published by Tim Hitchcock on October 23, 2011. Revised March 2012.

  1. [1] Simon Tanner, Trevor Muñoz, and Pich Hemy Ros, “Measuring Mass Text Digitization Quality and Usefulness Lessons Learned from Assessing the OCR Accuracy of the British Library’s 19th Century Online Newspaper Archive,” D-Lib Magazine 15, no. 7/8 (2009), http://www.dlib.org/dlib/july09/munoz/07munoz.html.
  2. [2] Lewis Mumford, “The Sky Line ‘Mother Jacobs Home Remedies’,” The New Yorker (December 1, 1962), 148.

About Tim Hitchcock

Tim Hitchcock is Professor of Eighteenth-Century History at the University of Hertfordshire. In collaboration with Robert Shoemaker and others he has created a series of digital resources providing scholarly and public access to the sources that underpin the history of eighteenth-century London, including the Old Bailey Online, London Lives, Connected Histories, and most recently Locating London’s Past. Together, these sites make available some 12 billion words of digitized content. With a range of collaborators including Bill Turkel at the University of Western Ontario, he has also been at the forefront of the process of applying the tools of digital humanities, of text and data mining, to the analysis of these new resources. The author of ten books on the histories of eighteenth-century poverty, sexuality and masculinity, Hitchcock has degrees from the University of California at Berkeley, and Oxford University. He blogs at Historyonics, and as @TimHitchcock on Twitter.