Friday, July 09, 2010

Notes on notes

There is an essay by historian Sir Keith Thomas at the London Review of Books on the subject of note-taking, and -- as unlikely as this may sound, given the topic -- it is delightful.

Although, I'm aware that its appeal may be limited to those who spend their days keeping track of obscure bits of information in the hopes of turning them (someday, maybe, fate willing) into a coherent historical narrative.

In any case, Thomas (now 77) is definitely old-school when it comes to methodology:

When I go to libraries or archives, I make notes in a continuous form on sheets of paper, entering the page number and abbreviated title of the source opposite each excerpted passage. When I get home, I copy the bibliographical details of the works I have consulted into an alphabeticised index book, so that I can cite them in my footnotes. I then cut up each sheet with a pair of scissors. The resulting fragments are of varying size, depending on the length of the passage transcribed. These sliced-up pieces of paper pile up on the floor. Periodically, I file them away in old envelopes, devoting a separate envelope to each topic. Along with them go newspaper cuttings, lists of relevant books and articles yet to be read, and notes on anything else which might be helpful when it comes to thinking about the topic more analytically. If the notes on a particular topic are especially voluminous, I put them in a box file or a cardboard container or a drawer in a desk. I also keep an index of the topics on which I have an envelope or a file. The envelopes run into thousands.

And then he has a passage that sounds, a bit painfully, familiar:

This procedure is a great deal less meticulous than it sounds. Filing is a tedious activity and bundles of unsorted notes accumulate. Some of them get loose and blow around the house, turning up months later under a carpet or a cushion. A few of my most valued envelopes have disappeared altogether. I strongly suspect that they fell into the large basket at the side of my desk full of the waste paper with which they are only too easily confused.

I myself struggle with keeping track of everything I run across and am constantly haunted by the fear of forgetting something and not having it to hand when I need it. Indeed, I've often had the experience of finding ideal pieces of evidence for a particular argument shortly after the relevant article has gone into print; more worryingly, I sometimes come across extensive notes on something that I have forgotten taking.

These problems have only become worse as my research interests have diversified, perhaps particularly so since I've begun to delve into the history of the press in the 1920s. Exploring a period's culture via newspapers is tremendously rewarding and interesting (as I hope my historical bycatch series shows); however, it's also a terribly bitty process, with short passages from here or there needing to be organised into ever-larger agglomerations to actually mean something. (This is not unlike other kinds of sources, but my own experience has been that focusing on newspapers -- at least if you're going to do it across several papers, which you should -- compounds the problem, especially as you have to take into account, say, each paper's target audience and editorial line.)  

My academic training stretches back far enough to a time when notecards and typewriters were still the standard tools of the trade; of course, the computer has been playing an ever-larger role in my work: accompanying the piles of paper that infest my shelves and a goodly portion of my office's floorspace, I have (like most younger historians I know) gigabytes of notes, articles as PDFs and digital photographs accumulated in the archives. The facility to word-search within documents has saved me from suicidal despondency on many occasions, as I've desperately tried to track down something that I know I have read (or even written) somewhere.

Despite our age difference, though, I'm relieved, somehow, to read that Thomas developed his historical methodology haphazardly, as I could say something similar (and, in a different context, have). It's even more encouraging, since he writes such excellent books.

But I recognise that there are some passages that I feel can only have been written by a historian of an earlier generation:
Christopher Hill believed in reading everything written during the period (provided it wasn’t in manuscript), and everything subsequently written about it. He used to buy every remotely relevant monograph when it came out, gut it and then sell it. 
So: read everything written during the period and everything subsequently written about it. The former maybe works for periods when less was written, though even here the expansion of social and cultural history has meant that ever more things can now be counted as 'sources'. And by the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the potential source base for this style of broad-brush cultural history becomes incomprehensibly vast.

Moreover, the latter suggestion (reading 'everything written about' a period) is, I think, no longer really a serious option for a historian, unless you're going to limit yourself to a very narrow period and topic indeed. The expansion of the production of history is in large measure a good thing: but it's meant that things are very difficult to keep up with: I find it impossible to entirely keep up with what's being written in British crime and justice history, though the publication of some new (or re-issued) synthetic overviews certainly helps.

Nonetheless, Thomas's method ('soak[ing] myself in the writings of the time') and advocacy of G.M. Young's advice to 'go on reading until I can hear the people talking' remains a valid description of what cultural history, essentially, boils down to. As does this:

Even when all the necessary precautions have been taken, the result will still lack anything approaching scientific precision. For what my method yields is a broad-brush impression of beliefs and behaviour over long periods of time. I am a lumper, not a splitter. I admire those who write tightly focused micro-studies of episodes or individuals, and am impressed by the kind of quantitative history, usually on demographic or economic topics, which aspires to the purity of physics or mathematics. But I am content to be numbered among those many historians whose books remain literary constructions, shaped by their author’s moral values and intellectual assumptions. When writing history, there are rules to be followed and evidence to be respected. But no two histories will be the same, whereas the essence of scientific experiments is that they can be endlessly replicated.

Note (because it is all too easy in these post-modern times to be misunderstood) that the concluding line does not advocate methodological randomness or a denial of the reality of the past; indeed, if there is one thing that has -- fortunately -- kept history safe from the more extreme theoretical currents of recent decades it is its unavoidable dependence on evidence.

Which helps me, anyway, to think that Thomas's conclusion might not be too far off the mark:

That, I think, is a very kindly account of what I try to do: to immerse myself in the past until I know it well enough for my judgment of what is or is not representative to seem acceptable without undue epistemological debate. Historians are like reliable local guides. Ideally, they will know the terrain like the backs of their hands. They recognise all the inhabitants and have a sharp eye for strangers and impostors. They may not have much sense of world geography and probably can’t even draw a map. But if you want to know how to get somewhere, they are the ones to take you.
Well, at least some of them, and you could do far worse than asking historian (and humanist) Sir Keith to tell you the way.

1 comment:

Mr. Joyboy said...

OneNote changed my life. You open up a new note, type in, scan in, or even say in whatever you want to remember, and it's there forever -- you don't even have to save it.

Later, using its extremely intuitive interface, you can organize the notes however you wish. Then you can search all of them for any word (even in scanned text) in seconds.

I have my reservations about Microsoft (don't we all), but Onenote is the most effective program I've ever downloaded for doing anything.