Friday, June 11, 2010


A Historian's Workbench

A couple of months ago, while spending a day in the library at Georgia State University, I happened upon a wonderful book by Keith Thomas, his Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England, 1500-1800 (London: Allen Lane, 1983), from which I culled much information relevant to a topic which amounts to a monomania with me—protests against arboricide.

Now Thomas, in an essay in London Review of Books, Vol. 32, No. 11 (10 June 2010) 36-37, has given us a fascinating look at his decidedly low-tech, but highly effective, method of research:
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.


My notes are voluminous because my interests have never been very narrowly focused. My subject is what I think of as the historical ethnography of early modern England. Equipped with questions posed by anthropologists, sociologists and philosophers, as well as by other historians, I try to look at virtually all aspects of early modern life, from the physical environment to the values and mental outlook of people at all social levels. Unfortunately, such diverse topics as literacy, numeracy, gestures, jokes, sexual morality, personal cleanliness or the treatment of animals, though central to my concerns, are hard to pursue systematically. They can't be investigated in a single archive or repository of information. Progress depends on building up a picture from a mass of casual and unpredictable references accumulated over a long period. That makes them unsuitable subjects for a doctoral thesis, which has to be completed in a few years. But they are just the thing for a lifetime's reading. So when I read, I am looking out for material relating to several hundred different topics. Even so, I find that, as my interests change, I have to go back to sources I read long ago, with my new preoccupations in mind.


When the time comes to start writing, I go through my envelopes, pick out a fat one and empty it out onto the table, to see what I have got. At this point a pattern usually forms. As Beatrice Webb rightly said, the very process of shuffling notes can be intellectually fertile. It helps one to make new connections and it raises questions to which one must try to find the answer. So after scrutinising my scraps of paper, I set about reading more systematically, often discovering in the process that somebody somewhere has already said most of what I thought I had found out for myself. If not too discouraged, I add my new notes to the old ones and try to create some coherence out of these hundreds of pieces of paper. This involves dividing the topic into a great many subheadings, writing each subheading at the top of a page of A4, stapling the relevant slips onto the appropriate page, and arranging the sheets in a consecutive order. Only then do I start writing. Compared with the labour of making, sorting and arranging notes, this is a relatively speedy business. But it is followed by a much more time-consuming task, that of travelling round the libraries to check the references in my footnotes, only too many of which, thanks to poor handwriting, carelessness and an innate tendency to 'improve' what I have read, turn out to be either slightly wrong or taken out of context. I wish I possessed the splendid insouciance of David Hume, about whom a Scottish friend said, 'Why, mon, David read a vast deal before he set about a piece of his book; but his usual seat was the sofa, and he often wrote with his legs up; and it would have been unco' fashious to have moved across the room when any little doubt occurred.'

When all my mistranscriptions have been sorted out, the task is finished. Months later, the proofs arrive, by which time more books and articles have been published and I have found several more delicious passages which cry out to be inserted. By then, of course, it is too late.
Hat tip: Languagehat.

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