(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘historiography

“The writing of history reflects the interests, predilections, and even prejudices of a given generation”*…

 

archive

History, as a discipline, comes out of the archive. The archive is not the library, but something else entirely. Libraries spread knowledge that’s been compressed into books and other media. Archives are where collections of papers are stored, usually within a library’s inner sanctum: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s papers, say, at the New York Public Library. Or Record Group 31 at the National Archives—a set of Federal Housing Administration documents from the 1930s to the ’70s. Usually, an archive contains materials from the people and institutions near it. So, the Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford contains everything from Atari’s business plans to HP co-founder William Hewlett’s correspondence.

While libraries have become central actors in the digitization of knowledge, archives have generally resisted this trend. They are still almost overwhelmingly paper. Traditionally, you’d go to a place like this and sit there, day after day, “turning every page,” as the master biographer Robert Caro put it. You might spend weeks, months, or, like Caro, years working through all the boxes, taking extensive notes and making some (relatively expensive) photocopies. Fewer and fewer people have the time, money, or patience to do that. (If they ever did.)

Enter the smartphone, and cheap digital photography. Instead of reading papers during an archival visit, historians can snap pictures of the documents and then look at them later. Ian Milligan, a historian at the University of Waterloo, noticed the trend among his colleagues and surveyed 250 historians, about half of them tenured or tenure-track, and half in other positions, about their work in the archives. The results quantified the new normal. While a subset of researchers (about 23 percent) took few (fewer than 200) photos, the plurality (about 40 percent) took more than 2,000 photographs for their “last substantive project.”

The driving force here is simple enough. Digital photos drive down the cost of archival research, allowing an individual to capture far more documents per hour. So an archival visit becomes a process of standing over documents, snapping pictures as quickly as possible. Some researchers organize their photos swiping on an iPhone, or with an open-source tool named Tropy; some, like Alex Wellerstein, a historian at Stevens Institute of Technology, have special digital-camera setups, and a standardized method. In my own work, I used Dropbox’s photo tools, which I used to output PDFs, which I dropped into Scrivener, my preferred writing software.

These practices might seem like a subtle shift—researchers are still going to collections and requesting boxes and reading papers—but the ways that information is collected and managed transmute what historians can learn from it. There has been, as Milligan put it, a “dramatic reshaping of historical practice.” Different histories will be written because the tools of the discipline are changing…

Alexis Madrigal takes a deep dive into how archives– and the ways that we use them– are morphing: “The Way We Write History Has Changed.”

* John Hope Franklin

###

As we “turn every page,” we might recall that it was on this date in 1812 that Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry signed the redistricting legislation that led to his being accused of the first instance of “gerrymandering” in the U.S.

In 1812 the state adopted new constitutionally-mandated electoral district boundaries. The Republican-controlled legislature had created district boundaries designed to enhance their party’s control over state and national offices, leading to some oddly shaped legislative districts. Although Gerry was unhappy about the highly partisan districting (according to his son-in-law, he thought it “highly disagreeable”), he signed the legislation. The shape of one of the state senate districts in Essex County was compared to a salamander by a local Federalist newspaper in a political cartoon, calling it a “Gerry-mander.” Ever since, the creation of such districts has been called gerrymandering. [source]

220px-The_Gerry-Mander_Edit

The word “gerrymander” (originally written “Gerry-mander”) was used for the first time in the Boston Gazette newspaper on March 26, 1812.[78] Appearing with the term, and helping spread and sustain its popularity, was this political cartoon, which depicts a state senate district in Essex County as a strange salamander-shaped animal with claws, wings and a dragon-type head, satirizing the district’s odd shape.

source

 

“X marks the spot”*…

 

xerxes

The Lu Lu Alphabet (1867) by Pamela Atkins Colman [source]

In 1895, the physicist Wilhelm Röntgen discovered x-rays, a groundbreaking moment in medical history that would lead to myriad improvements to people’s health. Perhaps one overlooked benefit though was in relation to mental health, specifically of those tasked with making alphabet books. What did they do before X-rays? Xylophones, which have also been a popular choice through the twentieth century to today, are mysteriously absent in older works. Perhaps explained by the fact that, although around for millennia, the instrument didn’t gain popularity in the West (with the name of “xylophone”) until the early twentieth century. So to what solutions did our industrious publishers turn?…

A collection of historical figures, plants, animals, and more: “X is for…

* an old saying of manifold derivation.  One origin story references pirate maps, where “x” marked the location of buried treasure (and of other maps, where “x” marked less dramatic locations); another cites the British army practice of marking a piece of paper with a black “x” and pinning it on the heart of someone sentenced to death-by-firing-squad.  The presiding officer would say “X marks the spot” and the firing squad would aim for the “x.”

###

As we examine exemplary examples, we might send thoughtful birthday greetings to Giambattista Vico; he was born on this date in 1668.  A political philosopher, rhetorician, historian, and jurist, Vico was one of the greatest Enlightenment thinkers.  Best known for the Scienza Nuova (1725, often published in English as New Science), he famously criticized the expansion and development of modern rationalism and was an apologist for classical antiquity.

He was an important precursor of systemic and complexity thinking (as opposed to Cartesian analysis and other kinds of reductionism); and he can be credited with the first exposition of the fundamental aspects of social science, though his views did not necessarily influence the first social scientists.  Vico is often claimed to have fathered modern philosophy of history (although the term is not found in his text; Vico speaks of a “history of philosophy narrated philosophically”). While he was not strictly speaking a historicist, interest in him has been driven by historicists (like Isaiah Berlin).

 source

 

 

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”*…

 

baptism

The baptism of Christ, from The Chronology of Ancient Nations, 1307

 

Today, it is taken for granted that ‘World History’ exists. Muslims, Jews and Chinese each have their own calendars and celebrate their own New Year’s Day. But for most practical matters, including government, commerce and science, the world employs a single common calendar. Thanks to this, it is possible to readily translate dates from the Chinese calendar, or from the Roman, Greek or Mayan, into the same chronological system that underlies the histories of, say, Vietnam or Australia.

This single global calendar enables us to place events everywhere on a single timeline. Without it, temporal comparisons across cultures and traditions would be impossible. It is no exaggeration to say that this common understanding of time and our common calendar system are the keys to world history.

It was not always the case…

For most of history, different peoples, cultures and religious groups have lived according to their own calendars. Then, in the 11th century, a Persian scholar attempted to create a single, universal timeline for all humanity: “The Invention of World History.”

Then visit “the Wiki History of the Universe in 200 Words or Less.”

* L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between

###

As we look to the past, we might recall that it was on this date in 1864 that Oxford mathematician and amateur photographer Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson– aka Lewis Carroll– delivered a handwritten and hand-illustrated manuscript called “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground” to 10-year-old Alice Liddell.  The original (on display at the British Library) was the basis of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland… which was published exactly one year later, on this date in 1865.

 source

 

“Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us”*…

 

On the occasion of Cyber Monday…

Science fiction writer William Gibson coined the phrase, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” It’s a well-known and oft-repeated line.

I’m proposing a slight variation, or perhaps a corollary principle: The dystopia is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed…

From Michael Sacasas, a run-down of (some of) the signs of trouble in our times: “The Dystopia Is Already Here.”

Lest we descend into despair, we should remember that there are things we can do to stem the dark tide…  we just have to do them.  For example, we can use the resources of groups like Common Sense Media; we can support the work of EFF and other privacy and rights groups; we can switch to the tools of open makers like Mozilla; we can contribute to open knowledge resources like the Internet Archive and Wikimedia

Oh, and just in case our resolve begins to slip, we can revisit Sacasas’ page, as he’s keeping it open add to the list of grim symptoms as more emerge…

* Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

###

As we hang onto the baby as we ditch the bath water, we might spare a thought for Fernand Braudel; he died on this date in 1985.  An accomplished historian, he is probably best remembered as the leader of the Annales School of historiography.  His scholarship focused on three main projects: The Mediterranean (1923–49, then 1949–66), the remarkable Civilization and Capitalism (1955–79), and the unfinished Identity of France (1970–85)– in all of which he set the bar for Annales practitioners by using deep and comprehensive research into the minute particulars of everyday life to illustrate broad, sweeping socio-economic trends.

 source

 

Written by LW

November 27, 2017 at 1:01 am

A(nother) matter of perspective…

 

Yesterday’s post located our moment in the larger sweep of time; today’s locates our experience– the things we can touch and see– in the larger hierarchy of scale.

Readers may recall Cary and Michael Huang’s “The Scale of the Universe”— in the spirit of xkcd’s nifty toon, a wonderful Flash re-do of Charles and Ray Eames’ classic Powers of Ten: an animation that lets one scroll through the orders of magnitude of existence.  Not content with “pretty terrific,” the Brothers Huang have revised and improved their tour of the universe…  Ladies and Gentlemen, “The Scale of the Universe 2“:

[TotH to friend CE]

###

As we ruminate with reverence on our place in the scheme of things, we might spare a thought for Bede (or as he is more frequently remembered, Venerable Bede); he died on this date in 735.  An English monk, Bede studied and wrote widely on scientific, historical and theological topics, ranging from music and metrics to exegetical Scripture commentaries. He was an accomplished translator (Pliny the Elder, Virgil, Lucretius, Ovid, Horace, and other classical writers in both Greek and Hebrew).  His  Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People) has earned him the title “The Father of English History.” Indeed, it was in this work that Bede established as common practice the use of “BC” and “AD” with dates.

Bede as depicted in the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

source

 

%d bloggers like this: