Academic History Writing and its Disconnects by Tim Hitchcock

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This is the rough text of a short talk I am scheduled to deliver at a symposium on ‘Future Directions in Book History’ at Cambridge on the 24th of November 2011.

I am on the programme as talking briefly about the ‘OldBailey Online and other resources’ (by which I assume is meant London Lives, Connected Histories, and Locating London’s Past, and the other websites I have helped to create over the last ten or twelve years). But I am afraid I have no interest whatsoever in discussing the Old Bailey or the other websites. The hard intellectual work that went in to their creation was done between 1999 and 2010, and for the most part they have found an audience and a user base and will have their own impact, without me having to discuss them any further. We know how to do this stuff, and anyone can read the technical literature, and I very much encourage you to do so.

Instead, I want to talk about how the evolution of the forms of delivery and analysis of text inherent in the creation of the online, problematizes and historicises the notion of the book as an object, and as a technology; and in the process problematizes the discipline of history itself as we practise it in the digital present.

The project of putting billions of words of keyword searchable stuff out there is now nearing completion. We are within sight of that moment when all printed text produced between 1455 and 1923 (when the Disney Corporation has determined that the needs of modern corporate capitalism trumped the Enlightenment ideal), will be available online for you to search and read. The vast majority of that text is currently configured to pretend to be made up of ‘books’ and other print artefacts, But, of course, it is not. At some level it is just text – the difference between one book and the next a single line of metadata. The hard leather covers that used to divide one group of words from another are gone; and every time you choose to sit comfortably in your office reading a screen, instead of going to a library or an archive, while kidding yourself that you are still reading a ‘book’, you are in fact participating in a charade. We are swimming in deracinated, Google-ised, Wikipedia-ised text.

In other words, and let’s face it: 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.

If this all sounds rather doom laden and apocalyptic – and no doubt we could argue about the rosy future and romantic appeal of the hard copy book – it shouldn’t. At least as far as the ‘history of the book’ is concerned these developments have been entirely positive

First, it has allowed us to begin to escape the intellectual shackles that the book as a form of delivery, imposed upon us. 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, actually 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 artefact 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, we can see it more clearly for what it was. And to this extent, the death of the book is a fantastic and liberating thing – the fascism of the format is beaten.

At the same time, I think 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 we do more generally as ‘historians’. When you start 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. Our footnotes, our post-Rankean cross referencing and practises of textual analysis are embedded within the technology of the book, and its library.

Equally, our technology of authority – all the visual and textual clues that separate a CUP monograph from the irresponsible musings of a know-nothing prose merchant – are slipping away. While our professional identity – the titles, positions and honorifics – built again on the supposedly secure foundations of book publishing – is ever less compelling. So the question then becomes, is history – particularly in its post-Rankean, professional and academic form – dead? Are we losing that beautiful disciplinary character that allows us to think beyond the surface, and makes possible complex analyses that transcend mere cleverness?

And on the face of it, the answer is yes – the renewed role of the popular block buster, and an every growing and insecure emphasis on readership over scholarship, would suggest that it is. In Britain we shy away from the metrics that would demonstrate ‘impact’ primarily because we fear that we may not have any.

Collectively we have put our heads in the sands, and our arses in the air, and seemingly invited the world to take a shot. A single and self-evident instance that evidences a deeper malaise is our current failure to bother citing 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 ofeighteenth-century newspapers are correctly transcribed as a result of poor OCR. 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%. My colleague 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 – not even bothering 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, we have abandoned the rigour of traditional scholarship. Provenance, edition, transcription, editorial practise, readership, authorship, reception – the things we query issues in relation to books, are left unexplored in relation to the online text we actually read.

And as importantly, the way we promulgate our ‘history’ has not kept up either. I want television programmes with footnotes, and graphs with underlying spreadsheets and sliders. Yes, I want narrative and analysis, structure, point and purpose. I want to continue to be able to engage in the grand conversation that is history; but it cannot continue to be produced as a ragged and impotent ghost of a fifteenth century technology; and if we don’t do something about it, we might as well all go off and figure out how to write titillating tales of eighteenth-century sex scandals, because at least they sell.

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, as historians, we are to avoid going the way of the book, we need to separate out what we 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.’
Lewis Mumford, “The Sky Line “Mother Jacobs Home Remedies”,” The New Yorker, December 1, 1962, p. 148

I am afraid that 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 about time we found out if a critical and self-consciously scholarly engagement with computers might not now allow us to more effectively address the ‘human contents’ of the past.

Responses to Academic History Writing and its Disconnects at


ESanders, October 23, 2011

  • Whilst I agree that to some extent digitised resources are drawing people away from using traditional resources, I feel that there are two arguments against the points you made. Firstly, I feel that anything to sate the appetites of the general public and history is ultimately a good thing. It encourages a more broad narrative.
    Also, it is possible for digital resources and traditional literature to be used concomitantly. As a student used to the archives as well as the eighteenth-century collections online, I recognise that each resource brings its own uses and evokes differing emotions. Whilst the digital resources allow fast searches and easy open access, nothing can beat finding a primary source in its original form. Perhaps these two media complement research when used together rather than being seen as stultifying.

Tim Hitchcock, October 23, 2011

  • The issue is not that these different forms of evidence and research experience militate against writing good history; but that we do not have a system to critically engage with the online, in the way that we do for hard copy books and archives. I know how to cite a medieval manuscript (wherever it is); but I don’t know how to cite (and replicate) a Google search.

inconspicuous, October 23, 2011

  • Might screen grabs work as citations for Google searches? Doesn’t deal with replication issues…

Laura Stevens, October 23, 2011

  • Tim, I liked your piece, but I don’t feel ready yet to bury the book. One reason is that I’m not yet satisfied with how electronic interfaces allow me to read books actively: i.e., mark them up, write marginalia, insert post-it notes. It may be that I just haven’t transitioned yet to the new media, but I also don’t feel that the new media yet gives me the opportunities I need to interact in a more dialogic form with what I’m reading. I wanted to ask if you really think that you can electronic forms of reading really is where it needs to be right now.

    Also, loved the comments on the Burney collection. What’s the solution?

Adam Crymble, October 23, 2011

  • Laura, try writing marginalia in a British Library book. These online resources are borrowed from a repository and have the same practical restrictions as library books.

    If you need a tool that can help you take notes, I’d suggest Zotero.

Tim Hitchcock, October 24, 2011

  • Dear Laura – I agree with you about the current crop of book simulators. They are rather stupid, and don’t let me have the kind of dialogic relationship with text that I want. Why shouldn’t my ‘reader’ know what I am working on, and privilege that subject in the text (perhaps emboldening passages it thinks are relevant). Why shouldn’t I be able to create a hierarchy of notation, that reflects how I read and re-use text? Why shouldn’t each note I make be embedded within a map of what I have been reading on that day, or week, or for that project? I want all the things a book can deliver, and I want a shed load more. But, one way or another, the evolution of e-texts throws in to ever sharper relief the limitations of the book as a technology.

John Levin, October 24, 2011

  • “In Britain we shy away from the metrics that would demonstrate ‘impact’ primarily because we fear that we may not have any.”

    Is this really so? Isn’t the problem that the REF & RAE measure impact through a narrow selection of metrics, and a set that is heavily weighted towards ‘old school’ scholarship, discounting much of the digital?

    And doesn’t ‘impact’ have an ideological aspect, favouring the established publishing system and usefulness for government and business?

    I’ve heard ‘public engagement’ counterposed to it as a different way, wider in medium and audience, of thinking about these matters.

Tim Hitchcock, October 24, 2011

  • Dear John, There are all sorts of problems with ‘impact’ – both methodological, and idealogical, but no one ever spent a dull life of lonely scholarship because they believed it had no impact. The only real question is how you want to describe the sort of ‘impact’ you think is important, and then what metrics you want to use to measure it. I believe academic history is important as a basis for an informed national political discussion – so let’s find ways of measuring this (or whatever aspect of history writing you think we should value). Unfortunately, what most academics who oppose impact are currently doing, is claiming to be above the necessity of actually examining and justifying what is important about what they contribute.