The purpose of measurement is to abstract a complex thing into a series of figures that can be arranged and rearranged. Despite the fundamentally flawed nature of some processes of abstraction, and irrespective of decades of furious chest beating on the subject, most of us in HE have become habituated to classification and ranking: our universities and departments are ranked, research productivity and teaching is measured, journals and presses compared and tiered, engagement is quantified, article re-tweets and Facebook shares are tracked, and so on. While often promoted as benign and objective, these evaluative measures are consequential: they impact student enrollment, funding allocation, as well as tenure and promotion. As Espeland and Sauder write, “The proliferation of quantitative measures of performance is a significant social trend that is fundamental to accountability and governance; it can initiate sweeping changes in status systems, work relations, and the reproduction of inequality.” And so, given their pervasive nature and ability “to foster broad changes, both intended and unintended, in the activities that they monitor, social measures deserve closer scholarly attention.” It seems that we have embraced, albeit to different degrees, the practice of ranking institutional repositories. I find this development problematic because it extends the language and logic of markets to an initiative that has heretofore been fueled by magnanimity, author rights, and social justice, first, and capital, second.

The Ranking Web of Institutional Repositories (RWIR), an initiative out of the Cybermetrics Lab at the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas (Madrid), seeks to “to support Open Access initiatives and therefore the free access to scientific publications in an electronic form and to other academic material. The web indicators are used here to measure the global visibility and impact of the scientific repositories.” A standard opening. Subsequently, the RWIR’s mission statement devolves into a discourse embedded in market logic: “If the web performance of an institution is below the expected position according to their academic excellence, institution authorities should reconsider their web policy, promoting substantial increases of the volume and quality of their electronic publications.” The logic here is that once we have established benchmarks with which to judge whether an institution is “picking up the OA slack” via their institutional repositories, we can effectively guilt them into action. In contrast, the institutions that are knocking it out of the park can display another shiny accolade on the proverbial mantle. For those lagging behind, RWIR provides a “Decalogue of good practices” to boost the “position” of the institutional repository, which is ostensibly nothing more than a SEO brochure.

Rankings only work in a state of competition where decisions are predicated on quality indicators (for students, research funding, scholars, and accolades). After all, university administrators anticipate the yearly QS and THE results with baited breath not because of general interest, but because these social statistic mean something to consumers. One must only look at the reactions of high-ranking administrators in the wake of a new set of rankings – in the press and elsewhere – to get a sense of their value. If we focus on publishing, slightly more complicated market forces are at work. The relationship between “top ranked journals” and tenure and promotion committees has engendered a system where authors are competing for coveted real-estate in particular journals. Journal impact factors act as the quality indicator in some fields, whilst in others, formal or informal acknowledgements between peers denote which journals are worth pursuing; in both cases, some form of ranking dictates behaviour.

All of this is moot in the context of institutional repositories. Institutional repositories do not compete against one another for pre- and post-prints, and authors do not deliberate between different institutional repositories for two reasons. First, there’s no incentive to archive one’s work in one institutional repository over another; the oft publicized benefits of making one’s work available in an institutional repository (for instance, citation benefits) is cemented in the act of uploading, not the venue where it makes an appearance. Second, even if research that suggests some institutional repositories are indexed more regularly than others exists, institutional repositories, by their very nature, only support the work of scholars affiliated to that institution. The question, then, is not, “should I archive my research in X or Y repository?”, but simply, “should I make my research available?”.

On one hand I’m delighted to see that Western University’s Scholarship@Western and the University of Waterloo’s UWSpace – I am currently enrolled and working as a repository manager at Western, and working in the HSS library at Waterloo – are ranked 124th and 134th in the world, and 51st and 57th in North America, respectively. Setting aside the opaque nature of RWIR indicators, these rankings suggest that these institutions are committed to open scholarship. That’s great. I’m also not surprised that the University of Toronto’s TSpace and the University of British Columbia’s (beautiful) Open Collections are the top ranked Canadian institutions.

On the other hand, I can imagine a world where institutional repository rankings are used by institutional strategists to market a university’s level of “openness.” National funding bodies, like the RCUK, the Tri-Agencies, and the NSF are already trying to measure the incalculable, like impact, innovation, engagement, and reach: why not add another to the list? The byproduct of this tack would be a renewed sense of urgency in populating respective institutional repositories. To maximize rankings universities will subscribe to three well-known strategies: reallocate funds and resources, develop new policies that mandate certain outcomes, and identify ways of “gaming” the numbers. This would likely result in an increase in the absolute volume of scholarship available in institutional repositories; yet, the end-goal will not be informed by the moral values that we currently purport to uphold, but by a brazen profit motive.

‡A note about this post: it starts off slow, but it picks up towards the end. Much like Labour’s showing in the most recent general election.

The first Strategic Mandate Agreement (SMA) between the government of Ontario and its universities and colleges, which was introduced by the Liberal government not without criticism in 2014, concluded in March 2017. The purpose of the SMA was to establish certain metrics for higher education at the provincial level (meaning metrics that would blanket and apply to all colleges and universities in the province), as well as specific institutional metrics that focus on particular strengths. At my current university (University of Waterloo), institutional metrics include things like, “Cumulative total of individuals employed by Waterloo’s start-ups created in the last three years,” “Average research funding received by tenure and tenure-track faculty members from non-Tri-Council sources over a three-year period,” and “Average number of research-funded collaborations/partnerships with industry, government, and NGOs over the last three years.” There’s talk of including these in the next iteration of the SMA (SMA 2), in addition to developing new ones. At first glance, these metrics are innocuous. In an increasingly austere environment, measurement and quantitative evaluation have become part and parcel of the machinery of academia at all levels, normalized for provosts, students, and everyone in between. However, having given this a little more thought, I think that the most sinister thing about these metrics is that they’re increasingly being self-imposed; that is, governments, in an act of ‘magnanimity’, are encouraging institutions to identify which measures they’d like to be held to account on. Having received the proverbial carrot, we seem to have shifted the conversation away from ‘why must we measure?’ to ‘fine, which measures shall we highlight?’ I’d like to concentrate on the third aforementioned metric (“Average number of research-funded collaborations/partnerships with industry, government, and NGOs”) for the remainder of this post, and approach it from a perspective informed by my experience in History and my current job as a librarian working in bibliometrics and research impact.

We all want to present the best version of ourselves, especially when funding is on the line; institutions of higher learning are no exception. As a result, when the onus of choosing which metrics should be highlighted falls on institutional shoulders, the natural inclination is to choose the ones that are most flattering. My institution is a world-class institution in STEM research and education (I throw around words like ‘Quantum’ and ‘Nano’ a few dozen times a day). The publishing culture in STEM fields embraced co-authorship and multi-author publications as the modus operandi decades ago. In most cases, the very nature of the research requires teams consisting of dozens of researchers, from across the world, doing a variety of tasks that I can’t begin to explain. In other cases, individuals are included as authors as a token of gratitude for reading early manuscripts or as a showing of respect. It, therefore, makes sense that they’d highlight international collaboration as a worthwhile measure. The problem is that at some point, co-authorship alone became the standard way of measuring collaborative scholarship, international or otherwise (for studies on co-authorship in STEM see this  and this).

A quick look at Web of Science data (I know this is an imperfect source, but just bear with me) illustrates how standardized measures of collaboration explicitly underprivileged those working in the Arts and Humanities, specifically History.

Nuclear Physics, 30.45% international collaboration

Engineering, E&E 13.2% international collaboration

History, 0.72% international collaboration

These numbers should not be surprising. They represent two different cultures of publishing that I need not describe here. The problem is that, if we begin to subscribe to self-imposed institutional metrics that overwhelmingly privilege one publishing culture over another, what’s to say that those metrics won’t facilitate disproportionate or inequitable incentive structures at the faculty level? Again, the most sinister part of this scenario is that we’d be doing it to ourselves. I’m not blind to the realities of academia; measuring research impact and productivity are not capricious trends. We have two options, as I see it: we could dig our feet in the ground and rage against the dying of the light, choosing instead to not engage with metrics in any fashion; or, we could start to think of ways to express to administrators, librarians*, analysts and governments that the work we do is profoundly collaborative.

So, are historians collaborative? I turned to “Acknowledgements” in research articles published in Gender & History and the Journal of Modern History to find out. I’ve always been interested in acknowledgement texts. Whether in books or research articles, I find that I learn a lot about the person whose work I’m about to engage with from the way that they express gratitude to young graduate students and colleagues (international or otherwise), show humility (or not), and communicate their love to their children and partners. This article in Applied Linguistics by Davide Simone Giannoni breaks apart “acknowledgement texts” into constitutive parts. As Giannoni writes, “acknowledgements are staged texts with a coherent rationale governing their rhetorical construction.” In general, through a “socially-accepted communicative framework,” authors articulate their debts “with enough ambiguity to reconcile the public and private realms of discourse.” Ultimately, “if acknowledgements have been discounted as an exercise in flattery, this is largely due to their misuse and exclusion from the peer review process.” This is a shame, given that “the genre’s formulaic, inventory-like appearance conceals a carefully worded rhetoric emphasizing academia’s most prized values: cumulative knowledge and intellectual integrity” [pg. 23-4]. Can you have these two things without collaboration?

My rushed analysis of an (admittedly anemic) sample of 33 articles published in the last year or so reveals that historians publishing in those journals are surprisingly collaborative, despite publishing as single authors. In G&H, 61% of authors acknowledged that their article would not have been possible were it not for significant edits, comments, and criticisms from at least one colleague at an institution in a country different from their own (in some cases the author referenced three or more international collaborators).† In JMH, a similar result: 64% expressed that they were extremely grateful for suggestions, comments, and edits on early drafts of their articles from colleagues abroad. Here’s what these acknowledgements, illustrated as lines or edges, look like on a map:

Obviously, I can’t confirm just how extensive these collaborations ran, or if they are just “exercises in flattery”; nonetheless, I would ask the authors the following question: if the publishing culture in the humanities mirrored that of STEM fields, would you feel comfortable listing the colleague to which you expressed your gratitude as a secondary author?‡

I’m not suggesting that we crowd our acknowledgement texts with collaborators (though, I wonder if we should begin a process of reconceptualizing ‘authorship’ in the humanities, to something like Blaise Cronin and others’ idea of associated ‘contributorship’). Not only are acknowledgements not a metadata field in most commercial databases, but it would lead to the very same problem that we’re seeing in STEM author fields. All of this is to say that we should not clock out at the very mention of measurement: we should pay close attention to the metrics that are chosen for us, and be present when given the chance to choose for ourselves. 

 


* Librarians working in bibliometrics are generally sympathetic and well-informed on the issue.

† It might not surprise you to know that Antoinette Burton came up again and again in the sample.

PostScript

‡ Since writing this post I stumbled across Nadine Desrochers, Adele Paul-Hus, and Vincent Lariviere’s chapter, “The Angle Sum Theory: Exploring the Literature on Acknowledgements in Scholarly Communication,” (http://crctcs.openum.ca/files/sites/60/2016/05/Desrochers_Paul-Hus_Lariviere_2016.pdf) in Cassidy Sugimoto’s (ed)Theories of Informetrics and Scholarly Communications (2016). They do a much better job explaining acknowledgement texts than I could ever hope to do.

 

This post was originally published as a MediaCommons Field Guide. You can read the original, along with other responses on the question of the future of the archive, here.

 

I’ll start off by disclosing that I am not an archivist; my perspective is informed by the time I’ve spent in archives as a researcher, and the work that I’ve been doing recently on digital historiography. In a way, I’m an outsider looking in. That being said, historians are introduced to and respect deeply the elements of archival theory that make their work possible, including provenance, authority, and context. I’m also aware that digital technologies have profoundly impacted the way that historians search for, perform, and disseminate research. In particular, historians are increasingly expecting, on one hand, to find primary sources on the web, and on the other, are encouraged, by funding bodies and institutions, to make material available online. This, in turn, has placed added pressure on archivists to allocate increased resources to improving catalogues and item descriptions, and provide full-text documents or high-resolution images whenever possible. The relationship is reciprocal. Practicing digital humanists have taken it upon themselves to develop curated online repositories using a variety of platforms to meet this demand and to support open access initiatives. While this practice is generally positive, I believe that considering an online repository as tantamount to an archive — gestured by our use of the “digital” qualifier — requires some critical attention.

In the most recent edition of the Debates in the Digital Humanities (available online), Jentery Sayers published a thought provoking piece titled “Dropping the Digital.”  In short, Sayers “ruins” the digital humanities through ruination, a technique whereby a text is manipulated and subsequently compared to the original text to identify differences and confirm or refute previous assumptions. Sayers “drops the digital” from a corpus, and combs through the product in order “to examine how its absence shapes meaning and interpretation.” Ultimately, Sayers’ essay encourages us to be reflexive about how and why we append “digital” in qualifying research. The way I see it, a comparable act of uncritical qualification is occurring on the web with the recent explosion of so-called “digital archives.”

The proliferation of low-barrier of entry and low cost digital repository and content management systems, like Omeka and DSpace, has led to the creation of hundreds (if not thousands) of online repositories housing digital artifacts. Artifacts are digital copies of analog materials, or repositories of borne digital documents, or both. Importantly, non-archivists often create these repositoriesthey are open access, and are sometimes referred to as “digital archives.” The final point requires attention. How does “dropping the digital” from “digital archives” inform our understanding of these online repositories? How are they different from the “physical” archive that we are so familiar with?

Perhaps this is all just a natural shift in what the word “archive” means to people, prompted by digital methodologies and tools. However, I’m in agreement with Kate Theimer as she argues that the colloquial use of the term “archive” to denote simply “a purposeful collection of surrogates” is problematic due to “the potential for a loss of understanding and appreciation of the historical context that archives preserve in their collections, and the unique role that archives play as custodians of materials in this context.” Indeed, the act of archiving is not simply an arrangement of curated artifacts; materials undergo a strict process of appraisal according to principles of provenance, among others. And while archival institutions are not without criticism*, I think it’s important that we remind ourselves of what we’re overlooking when we co-opt the term “archive”, a term laden with symbolic meaning, for our digital repositories. Without a doubt, the digitization work that we undertake in cooperation with institutional libraries and community organizations is significant and worthwhile; however, the very act of attempting to create a “digital archive” is deeply informed by a value system embedded in Western ways of knowing. Ultimately, the creation of digital collections will continue, as it is a trend fueled mainly by principles of accessibility and is therefore commendable and much needed. However, humanities scholars that are turning to and creating these digital resources must think critically about why and how they are created, and how they might affect new scholarship and knowledge.

* See, for example, Wood, Stacy, et al. “Mobilizing records: Re-framing archival description to support human rights.” Archival Science 14 (2014): 397-419.

This is a draft of a paper that I submitted during my coursework at McGill. The prompt was something like, “What is the purpose of history?” I recently rediscovered it whilst organizing my files and thought I would share. 

 

“Most of all,” writes John Demos in his preface to The Unredeemed Captive, “I wanted to write a story.” Demos certainly succeeds in his objective, as he interweaves segments of thick description with his own considerations of past traces to form a coherent story about cultural intersections in colonial America. But Demos’ opening statement serves as more than just a notice of the strong narrative elements that follow. Demos’ reflection indicates a break from the traditional mode of historical writing, suggesting, perhaps, that all histories are not created equal. As a result, Demos’ statement functions as a starting point that frames a discussion regarding the purpose of history. I argue here that there is an innate plurality to writing and reading history that deserves attention. Histories can fulfill pragmatic and political means by legitimating nation states through national Whig histories, or by legitimating a particular community of people. Alternatively, histories can fulfil the humanistic goal of understanding past human struggle and experiences. In either case, storytelling functions as the vehicle for comprehending the intersections of diverse social categories that together explain lived experiences. But as storytellers and readers, we must be cognizant of our own interests in shaping the interpretive contexts from which we approach historical scholarship; the sharpness of this historical awareness is what separates professional and amateur historians. The purpose of history is to make available “truthful” interpretations of lived experiences, so that our collective understanding of human existence is not limited to a set of generalizations dependent on our own knowledge of the immediate past. But, in addition to this educational function, history must entertain and, at its very best, inspire.

We started this course with Caspar David Friedrich’s The Wanderer above a Sea of Fog, and I would like to recall the celebrated painting for one final metaphor. The wanderer looks out across the valley and is only able to make out certain features of the landscape as dense fog restricts his view. He knows the valley is there (he had just climbed the mountain and he recalls the unstable soil) but he can only see the immediate foreground and the most distinct background features. John Gaddis interprets Friedrich’s painting as demonstrative of a historian and “historical consciousness” — looking back towards the past, eager to understand. But what if another wanderer were standing atop the mountain directly opposite. He, too, would peer across the valley and discern only what was in the foreground. Both wanderers would know that one valley exists, but they would have two distinct interpretations of the same landscape; fused together, their experiences would dissipate the fog. Perhaps Friedrich’s painting is as much a metaphor for “historical consciousness” as it is one fitting “historical purpose.”

Caspar David Friedrich — Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog

How and why do we attempt to dissipate this fog? As writers we gather evidence, we rehearse it in a particular order, and then tell the whole tale as we see it; effectively, we turn a “possible” into one instance of the “actual” story. By “thinking historically,” we identify the relationships between the past and present and we see “the simultaneous sense of significance and insignificance, of detachment and engagement, of mastery and humility, of adventure and danger.”[1] Storytelling is the vehicle that enables us to go beyond just listing the historical importance of analytical categories — like race, class, religion, and nationality — by allowing us to show how each reciprocally inflect each other in specific situations. In other words, narratives enable us to write intersectional stories. As Peter Burke suggests, “all written history…necessarily takes some kind of narrative form,” because “historians have come to see their sources as stories, rather than as objective reflections of the past.”[2] Indeed, this reflexive understanding of historical sources has engendered a return of the narrative mode. Ultimately, I think the purpose of historical narrative is twofold: to seize the reader’s attention with vivid language, while imparting an intimate understanding by means of sharp analysis.

As we have seen throughout this course, history manifests itself in many forms. There are sweeping narratives that describe grand theories and offer universal speculations in the Braudelian Annales mode. In Guns, Germs, and Steel, for example, Jared Diamond synthesizes 13,000 years of human history in his attempt to explain the totality of human development via environmentalist arguments. Put simply, Diamond’s focus is on large-scale historical processes. Adversely, there are small stories, limited in scope and period, which provide a profound intimacy with the subject matter.[3] Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms, for example, tells the story of a seemingly inconsequential 15th century miller. Ginzburg’s narrative demonstrates that Menochio constructed his own unique understanding of cosmology in direct opposition to that of the Catholic Church. Ginzburg’s analysis of minimal trial records, coupled with scholarly speculation and colourful language rescued an inconsequential miller from the ‘obscurity engendered by posterity.’ Similarly, Jonathan Spence’s The Question of Hu tells the tale of an 18th century Chinese man, John Hu, and his experiences amid a period of increasing cross-cultural contact. Spence’s simple narrative reconstructs Hu’s struggles as an assistant to a French Jesuit on the open sea, in France, and back in Canton as they might have been. In fact, Burke alludes to the cinematographical nature of Spence’s use of narrative as a “language of montage.”[4]  The reduction in scale to the micro has enabled historians to explain the impact of structures on the daily lives of particular individuals and communities. One consequence of this style, however, is that specific narratives are tacitly regarded as representative of the general. Franco Venturi underlined this problematic with particular inflection as he said: “to study the chronicles of villages is completely meaningless. The historian’s duty is to study the origins of ideas that shape our lives, not to write novels.”[5]

The claims of authority by practitioners of didactic historiography — popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — have been debased by postmodernist critiques of historical narratives.[6] Theoretical frameworks and evidentiary sources work to separate historical narrative from fictional stories. Storytelling in itself offers no practical resolution; as a result, history cannot be isolated from theory. Giovanni Levi suggests that theoretical frameworks enable historians to develop “an ever expanding repertoire of thickly described material, rendered intelligible by thick contextualization,” which works to broaden our understanding of past human conditions.[7] The expansion of theoretical approaches since Ranke’s historicism has been fundamentally beneficial to the discipline. The content of historical study has been extended, ranging from studies of social structures to mentalities, gender, and identity. An alternative interpretation of these developments, however, suggests that the enlargement in subject and theory has weakened the integrity of the discipline. As the lines demarcating the boundaries between disciplines have become increasingly faint, especially since the turn to social and cultural history in the 1970s, a distinct purpose — and method — has become difficult to define. The jury is still out.

A discussion about the purpose of history inevitably leads to the discussion of whose history are we writing. Feminist, postcolonial and subaltern scholars have draw attention to the inherent power-dynamic that permeates historical writing.  Ultimately, these critiques draw attention to the epistemology of social science and humanist knowledge defined by modern universities. For example, Dipesh Chakrabarty argues that Eurocentric historians have crafted Indian history specifically “to look like yet another episode in the universal and…march of citizenship, of the nation state, of themes of human emancipation spelled out in the course of the European Enlightenment.”[8] As a result, Indian history will continue to “remain a mimicry of a certain ‘modern’ subject of European history” and much like African history, “is bound to represent a sad figure of lack and failure.”[9] Similarly, John Demos’ The Unredeemed Captive attempts to right an analogous wrong, as he notes, “I made a second resolution…[that] I would try to confront [the aboriginals]. It seemed astonishing how completely I had missed (ignored? discounted? Avoided?) the various host-groups.”[10] Thus, it becomes critical that we take into account the political circumstances within the academy, the archives, and general society in which history is written and read. Antoinette Burton makes this point clear, as she draws attention to the physicality of archives. According to Burton archives “set up boundaries, guard against intruders, recognize only some expertise, and privilege credentials over others” in an attempt to control matrices of power.[11] In this broader sense, doing history becomes less the domain of any one group of people, and the historical narrative less a finished story, than an endeavour that comprises both the production and reception of intersecting, contradictory, gendered, and politicized accounts of the past.

As long as historians and readers continue to show interest in human nature and the human condition, they will recognize that studying the past is a fundamental part of the puzzle. I do not think I am in the minority in believing that a virtue of historical narratives is that in reconstructing the emotions and intellect of people living in conditions very different from our own, we further our understanding of what it means to be human. Yet the practical belief that history can offer much needed guidance and perspective to contemporary society still exists. This conviction influences research priorities even if the results are rarely communicated effectively to lay readers. Contemporary political and socio-cultural realities influence the subject matter and the approach to doing history. For example, the sense of crisis about environmental management has prompted a growth in environmental history, and the comparatively recent emergence of Africa in the international scene has directed attention to African history. Uncertainties about the present are grafted onto the past, in an effort, perhaps, to find perspective on the most pressing problems of our time. But despite these new and exciting fields, the ivory-tower mentality still afflicts historical writing and audience reception. The act of historical re-creation is an inherently creative one, unbound by the pedantic conventions of “hard” social sciences, like economics and political science. Yet some continue to construct narratives in an academic language that is bereft of literary expression. To effectively stimulate a reader’s imagination historical narratives must use accessible language to its fullest extent. Ultimately, history is as much a medium for placating contemporary anxieties, as it is a vehicle for entertainment and inspiration.

In crafting their narratives some historians have an abundance of traces, whilst others deal with scarcity. Regardless of the quality and quantity of sources, historical narratives, unlike the certainty of mathematics, cannot provide a conclusive picture of past human experiences. But this is all the more reason for assiduous care, an open mind, and for the acceptance of the inherent uncertainties of historical conclusions. Disorderly, fragmentary traces leave room for diverse participation by individuals with different interpretive skills. Ultimately, the answer to “what is the purpose of history” is as multifaceted as the discipline is in framework and approach. The purpose of history should not be to impart a list of facts, or delineate one historical explanation, nor explain an assortment of “good” or “bad” examples. Instead, the purpose of history is to describe and analyze episodes of judgement, caution, and human struggle. Furthermore, the purpose of history is to promote the virtues of thinking historically — Gaddis suggests the term “historical consciousness.” In effect, thinking historically enables us to understand the present diachronically, and in relation to causation. But most of all, the creative element of historical writing empowers us to tell vivid stories of the struggles of those who have lived, loved, and thought. Whether it is a poignant story of an Argentinian woman who defined her identity around union activism, or an imaginative narrative of cross-cultural contact in colonial New England, our innate human desire to know why and how is the engine that powers historical inquiry. Finally, with all pretences for historical objectivity and “truth” dispelled I, too, must admit that above all, I want to write stories.

Notes

[1] John Gaddis, The Landscape of History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004): 129.

[2] Peter Burke, “History of Events and the Revival of Narrative,” in New Perspectives on Historical Writing, ed. Peter Burke (University Park, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001): 284.

[3] I would consider my work to be microhistorical.

[4] Burke, “History of Events,” 297.

[5] Quoted in Giovanni Levi, “On Microhistory,” in New Perspectives on Historical Writing, ed. Peter Burke (University Park, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001): 100.

[6] The idea that there is a prescribed, authoritative history of something has long passed. This approach has been debased by postmodernists critiquing the fictitious nature of historical narratives.

[7] Levi, “On Microhistory,” 104.

[8] Dipesh Chakrabarty, “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for “Indian” Pasts?” Representations 37 (Winter, 1992): 17.

[9] Ibid., 18.

[10] John Demos, The Unredeemed Captive (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1994): preface.

[11] Antoinette Burton, “Archive Stories: Gender in the Making of Imperial Colonial Histories,” in Gender and Empire, ed. Philippa Levine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004): 282-3.

When I was about 8 or 9 I renounced Romanian and began to think and dream exclusively in English. To renounce my mother tongue was an active decision. I remember the day that I said to myself, “English is my language now and I must learn it and embrace it.” I said this immediately following a spelling test in which I misspelled “Dad”; I wrote down “Dod.” I had just started school. What was I thinking? I was overthinking, in the wrong language. For me North America was a new world—and in this new world English was the key: the key to community, the key to networks, the key to sociality, the key to friendship, the key to culture, the key to citizenship, the key to everything.

And besides, I could not write well in Romanian; I struggled with grammar and felt as though I was always behind. I was only 7. People would tell me that Romanian “is an easy language because it’s phonetic and it has very strict rules. You just need to memorize the rules.” I could not memorize the rules. Nevertheless, I could speak it fairly well and it was the language I used to think and articulate my thoughts. I recall taking private English lessons with a pleasant man sporting a Tom Selleck moustache. He would have me watch cartoons and we would translate words together and my parents would pay him and I gather they thought I was well on my way to mastering the language; they did not know at the time that I would go on to misspell “Dad.”

I embraced English as the language of my thoughts and dreams, but there are times when English continues to be a foreign language to me. Sometimes, when I sit down to write, I feel as though we are completely estranged. It is often a bitter struggle and it’s why this blog exist (but if my publishing rate is any indication…) Why is every paragraph a fight, every essay an internal scrap? Would I have a mastery of the metaphor had English been my mother tongue? Would I still need thesaurus.com and Google tabs at the ready to help me find the correct word to articulate a thought? Would I still consider my prose prosaic and flat, neither elegant nor sophisticated?

There is another consequence to abandoning a mother tongue. Yiyun Li recently wrote a moving personal history for the New Yorker titled “To Speak is to Blunder.” It’s beautiful and delicate, and you should read it. In it she describes what it was like to abandon Chinese and embrace English as  her “public and private language.” The following excerpt struck me: “Over the years, my brain has banished Chinese. I dream in English. I talk to myself in English. And memories—not only those about America but also those about China—are sorted in English.” Renouncing a language affects the way that you recall memories. What does that mean? When I recall a memory I build the scene in English. There was a chair and a table and he was there and she was sitting and they were talking and music was playing. Romanian memories should be remembered in Romanian but I build them in English, too. “When one remembers in an adopted language,” writes Li, “there is a dividing line in the remembrance. What came before could be someone else’s life; it might as well be fiction.” What happened before, then, is mediated by this other language that is at once mine and not mine. I’ll let Li have the last words because they are perfect, and I wish I had written them: “One’s relationship with the native language is similar to that with the past. Rarely does a story start where we wish it had, or end where we wish it would.”

 

About three weeks ago, back when the world made sense and talk of Donald Trump in the Oval Office was almost exclusively preceded by a “wouldn’t it be hilarious if,” Robert Darnton, Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and  University Librarian Emeritus at Harvard, mused about the future of the Library of Congress in a Clinton administration. “When the new president, if she is Hillary Clinton, moves into the White House,” asks Darnton, “will she unpack her library in the spirit of Walter Benjamin—releasing memories of adventures attached to books? Not likely.” A sensible conclusion. Darnton continues, undeterred: “the arrival of a new president at this moment, not long after the dawn of the digital age, could open an opportunity to reorient literature and learning in a way that was envisioned by the Founders of our country, one that would bring books within the reach of the entire citizenry.” This in the wake of President Obama’s precedent-setting appointment of an African-American woman, Dr. Carla Hayden, as the Librarian of Congress. (Hayden’s defence of patron privacy in the wake of the Patriot Act is the stuff of legend in library circles). Darnton must have thought the time ripe: “Two powerful women located at opposite ends of the axis between Capitol Hill and the White House could revive cultural institutions, restore the public domain, and repair the fault lines that run through our information system. More power to them.”

Having reread Darnton’s hopeful article I cannot help but feel a sense of dread. In the piece, Darnton outlines three specific points where Hayden should make ground: support open-access publishing and challenge publisher oligopolies; team up with Google, the Internet Archive, and HathiTrust to kick digitization initiatives into overdrive and broaden access; and, undermine lobbying efforts to extend copyright while bolstering the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR). For after-all, “Her library is like no other in the country,” writes Darnton, “It is a national institution, the main repository of our country’s culture.” A tall order, no doubt, but it is likely that Clinton would have supported Hayden in these endeavours — not out of pure altruism, but out of her proven commitment to public goods, like education and health, and her stance on copyright restructuring.

What will the Trump library look like as of January? Impossible to tell at the moment, mainly because he hasn’t been forthright about any of these issues. Nevertheless we can tease bits out of his demagoguery.  His market-driven approach to public goods makes everyone that works or thinks about public institutions, like universities and public libraries, quiver; one thing is for certain, Trump will not be the second Carnegie. His open critique of the TPP puts him, strangely enough, on the side of copyright reform; but this is a red-herring. He doesn’t so much care about the absurd copyright agreements proposed by the TPP but the jobs of American workers that would be jeopardized. While he hasn’t gestured to FASRT directly, Trump’s general stance on broadening information access is disquieting. First, it’s clear that Trump has no idea how the internet functions. “We have to go see Bill Gates and a lot of different people that really understand what’s happening,” he shouted. “We have to talk to them maybe in certain areas closing that internet up in some way.” Second, Trump’s disdain of journalism is well-documented, time and time suggesting that he’d like to see libel laws extended to curtail free-speech. And finally, given his criticism of bloated government, it’s possible that Trump will support having the Copyright Office become an independent organization outside the purview of the Library of Congress, opening it up to concentrated lobbying.

Carla Hayden is the most influential information professional in America, but the Librarian of Congress’ voice could not be heard amidst the cacophony following Tuesday’s election. This is telling, I think. I only hope that in the months to come she restates her commitment to fulfilling the mission of the Library of Congress—that is, to broaden access to information for all citizens. Yes, Hayden’s appointment is barrier-breaking. But going forward she has an opportunity to set a precedent for the entire profession. Now is not the time for stereotypical meekness and neutrality: she must be loud, boisterous, and political.

A reviewer recently suggested that I include more content about the Dublin Castle and Cleveland Street scandals in an article that I’ve been working on. Seeing as it’s been about 7 months since the last time I thought about Victorian sex scandals, I welcomed the opportunity to revisit old scholarship and acquaint myself with new work. Together with the Boulton and Park scandal and Oscar Wilde’s fall in 1895, Dublin Castle and Cleveland Street stand as the go-to episodes of Victorian queer subculture. Katie Hindmarch-Watson’s recent History Compass article was the first result. In it, Hindmarch-Watson revisits the Cleveland Street scandal and concentrates on two unique elements: the way that bureaucratic mechanisms enabled the GPO to discover the scandal, and the contributions made by telegraph boys to the scandal itself—the information they provided— and London homoerotic markets more generally.

Boulton and Park (Fanny and Stella)

Boulton and Park (Fanny and Stella)

Hindmarch-Watson’s article got me thinking about the work that I’m doing now as a graduate student in information science, and what I’ve been writing, thinking, and ranting about for the better part of two years, the De Cobain scandal. Moreover, since reading Matt Houlbrook’s new book, I’ve been thinking more about the way we frame the stories that we tell. With these things in mind, I would like to redirect the spotlight away from my lead actor and onto my supporting cast, and in the process share with you some of the ideas I’ve been entertaining.

Informants are constitutive elements of scandals—sexual, or otherwise. Essentially, informants bridge the gap between the private and the public, the bedroom and the court. Yet, despite their importance, we know so very little about them. So little, in fact, that we often refer to them in the abstract. Many explain this away by citing an overall absence of sources. I’m trying to avoid that refrain.

On separate days in 1893 John Gamble, William Allen, Robert McCullough, Benjamin Rosemond, Charles Thomas, John Arlow, John Alexander Orr, and John Reilly sat across from a Belfast court official and articulated the various ways in which a former Member of Parliament sexually assaulted them. These young men, varying in age from 16 to 23, were general labourers: some worked at the docks while others collected rent, delivered mail or indexed ledgers. Their statements are vivid and rich with detail; one can imagine how difficult it must have been to articulate.Before the assault Robert McCullough had been working as a telegraph messenger. He had visited De Cobain’s home to acquire a nomination for a promotion to postman. Here’s how he described the encounter:

I went into his house. I was taken into a room to the right of the hall. There was no one in the room but the two of us. After talking about the nomination he said something to me… he put his hands on my leg and my private parts. He just kissed me once. That was all that took place. When leaving the house he said not to make mention of anything. I got the nomination I was seeking.

Another informant, Benjamin Rosemond, had been working as a postal rural messenger in the area around Belfast when he heard of McCullough’s promotion. Keen to get ahead, Rosemond decided to request a nomination from De Cobain as well. Here are his words:

He brought me round to the back of the house and into the conservatory. He loosed the buttons of my gallows behind. My trousers were down. I did not pull my trousers down he pulled them down… When I pulled up my trousers I told him I was not a boy of that sort, that there was a boy waiting on me at the courier and I wanted away. I then came round to the front of the house to leave. He told me not to mention it or the peril of my life and that he would nominate me there and then.

These are just two examples of how some of these informants understood their experiences vis-a-vis De Cobain’s actions. As is often the case these traces leave me with more questions than answers. For instance, to what lengths would men go to gain nominations for employment? What were the limits? Yet the very nature of depositions only allows for a glimpse of the informant; as a result, these traces work to redirect the spotlight back onto the lead.

I mentioned before that those who’ve tried to tell the history of informants cite a lack of sources as a main impediment; I might have to use that refrain after all.

After the body of his three-year old son was discovered on a Turkish beach (what is now an iconic image), Abdullah Kurdi’s fears were realized; his entire family, including his two sons and wife had drowned after their boat had capsized whilst on the Aegean. Abdullah then had to make an unimaginably difficult telephone call to the relatives that he was ultimately trying to reach in Vancouver, Canada. Abdullah’s sister, Teema, had tried desperately to sponsor the Kurdi family, but her efforts could not sway Chris Alexander’s Ministry of Immigration. Following these events, sources described Teema as “completely upset and heartbroken.” At once an understatement and curiously accurate; yes, perhaps imagining a heart literally tearing in half — one made of fibrous tissue, not of paper, and gushing blood — is the only way to go about imagining what Teema must have felt. 9,993 kilometers of land and sea separated her from her family — the moon seems closer at night.

Regardless of their country of origin (im)migrants face an array of challenges. Complex bureaucratic measures impede their movement across borders while precarious travel arrangements across seas and war-zones put their lives in serious danger. Other elements, like language and ethnicity, erect barriers that require time and patience to hurdle. Despite these challenges (im)migrants continue to leave, hopeful to find greener pastures. I’d like to suggest by way of vignette that we consider long distance grieving as another one of these challenges.

More common: I found out that my grandmother passed away through a Facebook message on 12 February 2014, an hour before an exam. “My condolences. I feel awful, and I’m beside you.” I answered with, “What? What happened?” A lull, but I knew. By then bunica, the woman that raised me until the age of 8, had been battling with pancreatic cancer for almost a decade. I could not make the funeral, but these things happen. What I didn’t think about then, and am most certainly thinking about now, is how difficult it must have been for my mother to deal with it all from a distance of 7,840 kilometers, rooted in place. Her support network made up of only a son and husband. How can we possibly apply theories of bereavement to these scenarios, where traditional family structures and support networks are anemic at best or non-existent, and immense distances deny the immediate closure that we so desperately seek? How do we mitigate the guilt that one might feel for missing births, baptisms, weddings, and funerals, or the beautiful minutia of everyday life?

I’ve framed this in the context of (im)migration, but ex-pats, and those otherwise estranged from their family deal with this form of grief, too. This post was inspired by a colleague’s telling of her father’s experience with long distance grieving, as well as my recent return ‘home.’ It was not until I walked into my late grandmother’s bedroom that I began to feel comfortable without her. A two year delay engendered by circumstances and decisions, largely out of my control, that will continue to ripple, always.

In a few days, on 13 June 2016, I’ll be traveling back to Romania for a three week stint. But one cannot return if one has not first left a place.

Here’s what I can recall:

The soundtrack to the memories of when my family and I emigrated from Romania is overpowered by four repeating bars of weeping. A nondescript white sprinter van, already filled to capacity with other destined emigres, pulled up to the apartment building where my family and I were waiting. We were overwhelmed by bittersweet nervousness. Two honks. I was weeping in the lap of my weeping mother. My grandmothers weeped as they embraced their children and their grandchild; my grandfathers shook my father’s hand and wished him “noroc.” They did not know if they’d ever get to see us again. They never would see us again; not those versions of us. Those versions, when asked “what is your citizenship?” would only have answered with, “Romanian.” Those versions, when asked “where do you live?” would only have answered with, “Suceava.” Those versions of us said goodbye to their families and travelled eight taxing hours  to Bucharest— one final tour of Romanian infrastructure — only to die in an Henri Coandā International Airport terminal.

993030_10151900090610759_902436840_nIs it coincidental (or serendipitous? What say you, John Cusack?) that in the summer that I decide to return to Romania the Romanian national football team decides to get it’s act together and qualify for Euro 2016? You see, for as long as I can remember the Romanians have not been able to qualify for any serious international competition. As a result, I’ve rooted for the English, and the Dutch, and then the English again, before giving up all hope; at every pub I went to I was an imposter, and everyone could tell. What is the point of nationalism if you can’t perform it every once in a little while?  I will perform this coming summer.

We jettison versions of ourselves. Some experiences, like emigration, trigger the process and force a refashioning of the self. But I expect that when I land at Henri Coandā on June 14, I will be greeted by a version of myself and I will welcome his warm embrace. I will ask him if he’d like to join me on my vacation, and if he’d like to root for the tricolorii together.

Jesus Christ, is Lake Como ever beautiful.

In late February a colleague of mine asked me if I’d be interested in attending a week-long conference on humanities data visualization in Como, Italy. The answer was an immediate and resounding “yes,” for who turns down such an invitation? I’d never been to Italy, and I had started to develop keen interest in data science and information visualization (despite not knowing exactly how these fields interacted with the humanities). We rallied to transform our unstructured data (Word and Excel files, loose-leaf notes) into structured spreadsheets, and we made a case for why our project was vitally important to Renaissance historiography, information visualization theory, our parents, the world, and the galaxy. The application was thorough enough to warrant an invitation.

In trying to articulate Como’s appeal and charm I’ve realized that I’m awful at describing beautiful places. But I will try. Como is an old-new place, and it depends on it’s old-newness for survival. Old buildings and less-old buildings serve as orientation points throughout the narrow streets of Como’s city center. “Turn left at the old house. Yes, the 13th century one that’s now a bookstore.” New money walks its cobblestone streets; new boutiques sell new, expensive articles of clothing to newcomers; new cars squeeze through tight cobblestone roads interrupting everything. Outside the city center – and you know it’s the city center because the original walls still stand to remind you – Como is rather pedestrian. It could be any place, so long as that place was surrounded by picturesque mountain ranges and was adjacent to a lake.

In retrospect, Como was a perfect location for a conference that brought together data visualization and the humanities. An old-new place hosting a conference on old-new things. The conference itself was not really a conference but a workshop. After a few hours of preliminary talks to set the pace, we were divided into groups of humanists, designers, and programmers. We were given five days (9am – 6pm, with intermittent coffee breaks and a prolonged lunch ‘hour’) to develop a proof-of-concept for a tool that would visualize the data that we had provided. At the end of the week historians were capable of asking critical questions about design theory, and designers and programmers could ask questions that were influenced by historical thought; in other words, each group became literate and could “read” each others’ discipline. It was an absolute blast, and a perfect example of how fruitful interdisciplinary cooperation can be.

image2Despite all of the talk of interdisciplinary in the humanities we have yet to really immerse ourselves in it: What is interdisciplinary about a group of scholars that subscribe to disparate disciplines getting together and feigning interest? What is interdisciplinary about embedding the word “interdisciplinary” in your funding application just because? Since attending this conference I’ve grown ever skeptical of “interdisciplinary work” in the humanities, and I encourage you to think critically about your own work, and the work of your colleagues, as well.

But for this early career researcher, the most striking result of the workshop is that it demonstrated, categorically, that the humanities and information science/design and technology could collaborate and produce remarkable things. And as I awkwardly navigate the liminal space between history and information science, knowing that there are groups that respect this type of work to such a degree is refreshing and inspiring.