Friday, June 4, 2010

The Historian's Envelopes

Historian Keith Thomas has a fantastic essay in the LRB, on his research methods.

In the library, he takes notes on important passages, references or facts, writing on loose sheets of paper. When he gets home, he cuts them up, and places each note in an envelope, along with clippings, and lists of relevant books - one envelope per theme. As 'the envelopes run into thousands,' Thomas also keeps an index of the themes. I'll quote him at length here:
When the time comes to start writing, I go through my envelopes, pick out a fat one and empty it out onto the table, to see what I have got. At this point a pattern usually forms. As Beatrice Webb rightly said, the very process of shuffling notes can be intellectually fertile. It helps one to make new connections and it raises questions to which one must try to find the answer. So after scrutinising my scraps of paper, I set about reading more systematically, often discovering in the process that somebody somewhere has already said most of what I thought I had found out for myself. If not too discouraged, I add my new notes to the old ones and try to create some coherence out of these hundreds of pieces of paper. This involves dividing the topic into a great many subheadings, writing each subheading at the top of a page of A4, stapling the relevant slips onto the appropriate page, and arranging the sheets in a consecutive order. Only then do I start writing.
In other words, Thomas builds himself a thematically-arranged, analogue database. It is a painstaking, finicky job, and one more quickly achieved nowadays on computer, with digitized manuscripts.

Is his old method somehow more efficient, or expansive? Not really, reflects Thomas. 'I try to console myself with the reflection that they will be less sensitive to the context of what they find,' he writes on his digital colleagues, '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.'

I've never taken, cut and filed notes with Thomas' precision and patience. This is partly my discipline - philosophy, as I know it, doesn't make use of massed primary historical documents. I don't have to piece together an era, in other words. It's also because I'm younger: my postgraduate years coincided with the move to digital journals, manuscripts, and the like.

Nonetheless, I'm not that old. While I don't have anything stuffed in envelopes (except old tax receipts), I do have fond memories of the large journal repository at the Baillieu - flitting from shelf to shelf, looking for one issue and finding another inches away. I'd hit upon unexpected arguments, facts, theories. I'd insert new passages in my own work, provoked by happenstance: someone left an interesting journal open on the table; someone put a post-it note in a bound journal collection nearby; someone cute in the next aisle wearing an asymmetrical woollen skirt and blue blouse was reading an essay I just had to pick up after she left. (Behold the rigours of academic scholarship.)

In short, I share Thomas' happy recollection of 'the unexpected discoveries which come from serendipity' - it's something I don't encounter in keyword searches, or the immediate access of online journals. Sometimes technology can be too precise or swift; sometimes the search paramaters work a little too well.

I also esteem the rhythms of handwritten research: the memories evoked by coffee-cup rings, specific ink colours, and the marginal notes scribbled as I researched (phone numbers, aphorisms, grumpy asides). From my old red-and-black notebooks, to Moleskines, to my ringbound Clairefontaines, is a Proustian history of my psyche's adventures. It's something not quite captured by tabbing through Microsoft Excel.

As I said, Thomas' cut-out collections are beyond my methods. But I suspect we share an interest in analogue research and filing that goes beyond nostalgia, archaism or the search for some missing authenticity. It's a commitment to the unpredictable world of the tactile and the resonant - and their contributions to the life of the mind.

9 comments:

Elisabeth said...

I love this method of research. It's not so different from my own, though I am far less orderly in my collection of quotes references and themes. This method also involves some degree of serendipity. The happy stuff that brings ideas together.

genevieve said...

It's definitely a database he's creating, isn't it?
If you use something like Database Textworks (which costs about 2 grand and has to be customised to your needs, by someone who knows what they are doing), then, yes, theoretically a well-created DB can do something like this.
I doubt Excel could, quite frankly, or Access, because they are not what is known as fulltext databases. DB Text is beautiful, and so is your historian's mind and method.

Damon Young said...

The serendipity quotient is very important. At the very least, it can be a great morale lifter - the small thrill of unexpected discoveries.

Genevieve, DB Text sounds impressive, but can it really replicate the kinds of unpredictable stumblings or resonances I'm describing?

Peter Fyfe said...

I find myself wondering if there isn't something different in the way Imagination interacts with tangible analogue systems as distinct from the abstracted digital systems? If there is, I suspect it's something rather subtle and steeped in poesis, like the almost imperceivable difference in that which is written by hand with ink compared to that which is typed. I'm sure any difference would be all too easily reduced by thought and pragmatism, but I'm repeatedly drawn to the Romance of it...

genevieve said...

Sorry to be late back to this - I think something like DB Text would be quite effective - its browsing capacity is far more powerful than relational databases because it is full text and provides as many entry points as you index it for (which is what your historian is doing with his subheadings and envelopes, isn't it) - it's used to build catalogues in special libraries, and can be customised to whatever is required.
Of course, I don't think it would assist serendipity if a research assistant had built your database for you - in this context, I would have the historian do the indexing and the database design, then let him play around in it when he was ready to rewrite.

Searching on keywords in something like this is akin to throwing the scraps of paper on the desk, if you've forgotten what you put in each file in the first place. And if it's your research, not the citation-driven findings of a commercial database, then, yes, I think it's quite similar. He's only restricted by the screen, of course (bastard screens...!!)

Damon Young said...

Not at all, Genevieve. Thanks for taking the trouble.

I'll have a sniff online for DB Text, just out of curiosity.

genevieve said...

Thinking about it some more. The screens are a pest, when I think about it - yet without computers and searchability, I doubt I would let my mind wander as easily as it does now.
I used to be overwhelmed by paper...

Christine said...

In a way the arranging and re arranging of notes is a kind of 'interaction' with the text. Why we see what we see, find what we do when we do is endlessly to me. I love discovering the result as it emerges from the bits of paper. It makes me think that History happens in the space between time past and time present but is always about the present.

Damon Young said...

Thanks, Christine. Yes, if I remember rightly, your last point was also EH Carr's: history is inescapably anchored in the present.