On hoarding

Last month I went into an archive to look at some historic ledgers. Working through ledgers is a bit dull, but we need historians who see persistence and patience in the face of dullness as a virtue: we can’t all be economic historians, we can’t all learn to program (though I am dabbling), so (IMO!) we all need to take on our fair share of dull tasks for the good of the field we love. Working through ledgers can also be a huge undertaking. Deciphering and transcribing line after line into a database takes time. Time I don’t really have. So I photographed the ledgers (now a standard practice in the archive I know, but bear with me), spoke to the curator about licence restrictions (she said there were none!), and decided to share the load with someone I knew would find them interesting.

Last week that esteemable someone published the first fruits of this sharing: a short analysis of one year’s worth of ledger data. Between us we now have a template for transcribing the rest of the data: all that is required now is some effort and some collective encouragement (I think more on my part than his). And some time, but much less of it than if I’d kept it to myself.

Of course, like photography in the archives, outsourcing such efforts is nothing new: well-funded researchers often work with fleets of RA, and well-funded projects have created platforms for volunteers to take on such labours (though I’ve yet to be convinced that crowdsourcing in its current guise is the way forward, I’m with Nick Hiley on this one…). But I’d suggest that I’m among a minority of historians – citation needed! – who’d happily share with anyone what they had spent time obtaining access to (in this case nine months of letters and emails around permissions clearance) and effort working with. This I lament. For while I sympathise with those who see the products of their labours as theirs to do with as they please (and in terms of copyright law, they are free to), two points keep me from being among them.

First, for the most part we historians (and especially those who study – to choose an arbitrary delimiter – the pre-1900 period) no longer work in an age of game-changing archival discovery or original research as defined by working with previously unused material. Where our research is original – as all research should be – it is in the combination of historical materials used and the approaches taken to interpreting those materials. In short, more often than not historical research undertaken today is original because of the originality of the interpretation involved.

Second, I am of the firm belief that work funded by the public should be of the greatest public benefit possible. This does mean that all research funding should be directed toward combating global environmental catastrophe (though a bit more would be nice), but rather that the outputs of research should be available to the public: and I mean ALL outputs, be that books, journals, articles, data, or research notes. Yes research notes.

Now I’m not advocating we all go out and immediately digitise every scrap of paper we’ve made during our research (though with a little data management training it would be possible, Sharon Howard has some useful thoughts on this). But making available initial reflections on research findings would be a start (David Weinberger does some nice live blogging of talks which shows how this might work), as would openly sharing the data that underpins what we write aboutsharing records of what we’re reading or even sharing the notes we take on what we’ve read (which, as you’ll see in my Zotero archive, I’ve done).

I’m not the only person saying all this. And those of us saying it know that there is a long battle ahead of us. I for one will be a happy man when a majority of historians are in agreement that our notes are data and that sharing this data could enrich our collective understanding of historical phenomenon. Until then, I’ll keep belligerently refusing to hoard ‘my’ data.

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