The Archive, Navigability, and the Sum of Historiographical Knowledge November 13, 2010Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Historians owe a great deal to librarians and archivists, as well as to those who have preserved their own papers. However, “the archive” — referring broadly to books, journals, papers, artifacts, etc. — is pointless if it is not used. We can scarcely claim to know about history if all we have done is preserve it rather than read it, publish it, and talk about it. This post is a meditation about how it can be claimed that history is known, and how this relates to the use of the archive.
Publication, in itself, cannot be strictly identified with use. Publication is perhaps a step above reading the archive — it is an essentially personal act that is more or less pointless unless the publication is read. If the publication is not read, then it sits on a shelf (and maybe a server), which means that it has essentially become part of the archive itself. Perhaps the archive has been made more accessible, but this point is moot if it is not accessed.
So, quality of use must in some way define historiographical knowledge. One sign of quality of use is circulation: the work must be used, and if it itself is not used multiple times, the thing that uses it must be used. Another sign of quality of use is constructiveness: the use has to make a difference in how one presents a related topic. Citations that suggest some generic stylistic inspiration (“Bruno Latour has pointed out that scientific work must move around; this piece contains depictions of scientific work moving around”) or acknowledgment that others have worked in a vaguely related area (“this piece is about molecular biology; Angela Creager has also written about molecular biology, read her book on the Tobacco Mosaic Virus…”) do not count.
I believe that constructive use comes primarily through what I like to call “hooks”. Hooks are something that can be in footnotes, but should really be in the main text, which allow readers to ascertain what concrete connections existed between the topic under discussion and related topics, as well as how the piece at hand works within some sort of problematic established by other pieces. Hooks place pieces within contexts that are defined not by the broad cultural, economic, and political milieu in which the history takes place, but within the context of comparable activities (i.e., institutions among other institutions, ideas among other ideas related to the same problem, individuals among a community).
The ability to hook one’s specific work into such contexts, I think, defines whether work is competent, or merely impersonating competence by telling a coherent narrative isolated from any obligation to relate it in coherent and specific ways to adjacent narratives. I refer to this as an impersonation, because it is often the case that the context of adjacent narratives can make significant differences to the meaning of the contents of the primary narrative.
Hooking to adjacent narratives places the scale of the significance of primary narratives in perspective; it enumerates possible competitors, allies, and resources; it provides sets of specific things to which actors in the primary narrative were reacting. Without understanding these things one’s knowledge of the primary narrative is, at best, superficial, and very likely misleading. For a nice illustration of this point, see Thony C’s new post on the importance of seeing Galileo’s cosmological arguments in the Dialogo in the context of the breadth of astronomical-cosomological thought in the early 1600s.
The ability to connect a primary narrative to any number of adjacent narratives defines the navigability of a historiography. I would put forward the tentative thesis that it is navigability that ultimately defines what aspects of the archive are in circulation, and thus allows us to establish what can really be said to constitute the sum of current historiographical knowledge.
Bibliographies provide the most rudimentary tools of historiographical navigation, and the one that is probably most common in history-writing today. The idea behind a bibliography is that if you read the works listed therein, you will know what “the historiography” knows. Having bibliographies is certainly better than not having bibliographies, but they remain an extremely cumbersome method of navigation. Small bibliographies have the disadvantage of not being inclusive, particularly of information contained in older literature (thus sending large chunks of literature straight back to the archive), while large bibliographies are simply unwieldy (thus making a visit to the archive shelves roughly as constructive as trying to wade through the literature contained in the large bibliography).
Simply having a list, then, of what people have written about the archive is insufficient: to be considered in circulation, the contents of the literature must transcend texts and inform others’ writing, or else what Chris (a long time ago) called historiographical atavism sets in as the nuances of texts are lost. Tools that augment historiographical navigation allow the content of works to achieve that transcendence. The aforementioned hooks are one such tool; they allow one to survey areas immediately adjacent to the primary narrative. Although they only allow you to see what is immediately around the primary narrative, making navigation into a rather ad hoc process, they nevertheless provide an important way of navigating through complicated historical terrains.
It is unrealistic to suppose that knowledge can stay in circulation all the time. Therefore, it is also important to inquire as to how knowledge is stored without having it return to the archive. Where the sciences have a rich network of textbooks, review articles, and references, in the history of science these tools are underdeveloped. Recent textbooks and cumulative reviews (I’m thinking mainly of the ongoing Cambridge series) tend to be sparsely detailed collections of impressionistic essays; meanwhile, most references (guides such as John Heilbron’s Oxford Guide to the History of Physics and Astronomy or the Sciences of the Earth encyclopedia edited by my former supervisor Greg Good) are alphabetical lists of people and topics, making them most useful if you already know what you’re looking for, though it is possible, albeit difficult, to use them to learn about history flipping back and forth through entries.
Historians seem to have a weird faith in the richness, reliability, and accessibility of private knowledge. Historical writing tends to see the published presentation as a final product of research, and the goal of this presentation is not to convey knowledge gained in research. It is not meant to be useful: it is meant to convey a particular argument, or a historical set-piece, which is meant to stand-in as an exemplar of some broader historical trend, cultural idea, research style, etc., which is thought to be the important subjects garnering broad interest.
Further, because presentation rather than information is the goal of the work, hooks are few and far between, leading to a literature plagued by what I refer to as the “new internalism” — the isolation of the coherence of individual narratives from reliance on integration with the rest of the literature.
Thus all the research that goes into the final presentation is pared down and rearranged. As a consequence, reading works produced by the history of science community turns out to be a remarkably frustrating way to learn about the history of science. Scholars wishing to place the work in context or to challenge the argument or the presentation of the set-piece will have to dip into the footnote grab bag and essentially redo all the author’s work to assemble a useful picture of the past, leading to the tiny islands of interactive scholarship we see today. In fact, in my experience, scholars are more likely to take it on faith that other scholars have accurately represented what is important in the archive in their digestion of it rather than to engage in any disputes over details.
The implication of all of this is that the sum of knowledge about history of science that allows us to write about history of science exists out in the void, and that individual scholars will all have a private appreciation of this knowledge, which will be conveyed in part through the writing, but mainly (if at all) in private pedagogy and exchanges. For those wishing to gain access to this appreciation, what is then necessary is to gain an appreciation of who is an expert in what, and then, either to synthesize one’s own private interpretation of their works, or to gain personal access to them through workshops or similar (usually ephemeral) enclaves where people with experience can work together to develop knowledge about the past.
All of this seems like a very elaborate and cumbersome way of gaining and spreading knowledge about history. Rather than have a patchwork of scholarship vulnerable to dissolution through idiosyncratic workings of networks of knowledge, it seems preferable to find some systematic way of enumerating and consolidating historiographical gains (one of this blog’s older warhorses), which gathers and reconciles basic information that scholars might need to do detailed research to uncover, but which should be readily available once this work is done rather than making others pass the same hurdles; historians could also use this framework to point to more detailed accounts and to scholars who have personal experience in a specific area.
This represents an opportunity for online communities, as blogs can represent a place for talking about what is known about history (this post at Whewell’s Ghost sparked a brief but educational conversation) or even presenting “news flashes”, while other websites (I have my ACAP resource in mind, as usual) are places for organizing and storing what has been found out. Having a historiography that is easily navigable might contribute to what could be considered a stable and growing network of knowledge, rather than pumping it out of the archive in ever-greater quantities, only to have it fall straight back in.