Sunrise on Methodology and Radical Transparency of Sources in Historical Writing

hip twotone nixon pictureEarlier this week Tom Scheinfeldt, of Found History suggested that the historical profession could well be moving in a new direction. For quite sometime historians have been concerned with questions of ideology, arguments about which historical-isms are the best for a given task. Tom, suggests that new media tools (like text mining) challenge historians to consider methodological questions anew.

I think there is a great example of one of these new methodological conversations that could be emerging in the way we work with source material. Consider historian Jeremy Suri‘s article in this months Wired magazine, a brief 4 page adaptation of a paper he coauthored with political scientist Scott Sagan. Beyond being a bit pithier and coming with hip twotone images of Nixon I would imagine that most historians would suspect that the brief wired article is simply a derivative from the original 33 page article published in International Security. But Suri’s article in Wired gives the historian something very valuable that the original paper does not.

When you read the Wired article online you are only a click away from scans of many of the declassified primary sources Suri used to develop his argument. This gives the reader a radically transparent view into the source material supporting the case Suri argues. Imagine what this kind of source transparency could do if it became standard practice for historical journals.

As a thought experiment consider the implications of the David Abraham Affair. When several historians rigorously fact checked Abraham’s footnotes and turned up a host of inconsistencies he was drummed out of the historical profession. In analysis of the incident in That Noble Dream Peter Novik suggested that Abraham’s sloppiness was not a isolated case, but instead one of the only times a historians footnotes were so rigorously fact checked. This kind of double checking doesn’t happen that often largely because it is so time consuming. How many people would retrace a historians footsteps through archives scattered around the world to double check each citation? But when checking sources becomes as simple as clicking a link what do we think will turn up everyone else’s footnotes?

You might think the linked citations I just mentioned are something that will never happen. Or that this kind of change is twenty years out. But, just last week Jstor started to implement new features that bring this kind of linked connection to secondary literature and <shamelessplug> on a very basic level our work on Zotero’s ability to create smart bibliographies allows authors the ability to put their bibliographies upfront for others to quickly grab. Beyond these two projects however, our plan for the Zotero Commons will facilitate exactly this kind of radical transparency for primary source material in historical scholarship. Through a collaboration with the internet archive any author will be able to stick permanent URI’s on their cache of scanned source material. Allowing anyone to link out to an author’s primary sources.</shamelessplug>

With the commons, every professional and amature historian will be able to end their papers with. “You can find the documents cited in this paper @ Zotero Commons.” So, the question is, when it takes 15 seconds instead of 15 hours to fact check a source do we think historians will start to write differently, or otherwise change how they do their work?