Anthony Grafton: Historians should try collaborating

Roundup: Talking About History

[Anthony Grafton is the Henry Putnam University Professor of History. He can be reached at ]

... I'm on leave this year. Instead of teaching and urging seniors to read piles of books and ransack the darkest corners of JSTOR, I've been doing it myself. And I've had a little time to reflect on an issue that oddly connects the world of workshops and seminars with that of seniors writing theses: Collaboration.

In the sciences and the social sciences, collaboration is normal. In Nature and other scientific journals, the authors of articles come not as individuals but as battalions. Teams of professors, postdocs, grad students and undergraduates — sometimes several teams at several universities — carry out big experimental projects. Many practitioners of the so-called hard social sciences like demography do the same. Distinguished economists often have writing partners (to hire one great economist, it turns out, you may have to buy two, at the price of four).

The people who work in these demanding fields learn the collaborative habit early. I've never forgotten watching our great astrophysicist David Spergel '82 marching along at the 2002 P-rade with three classmates — the three professors, he later explained to me, with whom he had worked through problem sets when they were all undergraduates. I'm told that one reason we're building a science library (which sounds, after all, like a bit of an oxymoron these days) is to provide spaces where undergraduates can work together without bothering others or being bothered.

In the humanities, collaboration is rare. Senior colleagues warn against it: It takes longer, they'll tell you, to write an article or a book with someone else than to do it alone, and your department won't know how to allocate credit. (The former point is true; the latter problem, however, doesn't seem to stump our friends in the collaborative fields.) And relatively few of us write together.

For professors in the humanities, the fall and spring conference/workshop/seminar seasons give a little taste of the pleasures of intellectual teamwork. We organize groups whose members approach common issues from different points of view; we listen hard to one another and argue about where we and our fields should go next; and these conversations shape our next research projects. Even the less academic parts of the experience — like the concert of Byzantine songs that colleagues and I enjoyed as part of a conference — are vital, both for the common experience and sociability and because they change the way you think as much as the actual conference sessions do.

As to seniors in the humanities — well, they have their advisers and their roommates. Often small, informal groups take shape, as seniors give one another emailed bibliographical suggestions and editorial help and the odd glass of wine late at night. But on the whole, seniors in the humanities are intellectual lone gunmen, fated to walk the corridors between those Firestone carrels and face their sources and laptops alone. This year, now that I have time to think, I find myself wondering if we couldn't devise creative ways to keep the intensity of the experience, as the scientists clearly do, but make it more collaborative and less painful. Some faculty-run senior thesis writers' groups have flourished, but many haven't. Could we do workshops? Should we — as many universities do — stage more conferences where students can present their results to one another and their teachers? And could we make seminars and junior independent work and other courses a little more collaborative? It's something to think about next year — if I don't have so many eager, demanding seniors that I won't be able to think about anything at all.

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Maarja Krusten - 4/21/2007

Dr. Grafton notes, “But on the whole, seniors in the humanities are intellectual lone gunmen, fated to walk the corridors between those Firestone carrels and face their sources and laptops alone.”

There is another area in which historians start out and remain throughout their careers as “lone gunmen.” It is in the area that relates directly to those sources that Dr. Grafton mentions. There are few opportunities for historians to interact with professionals in information techology (IT) and in archives and records management. Few historians have studied or keep up with all the key aspects of technology, records management, and archival science that affect their research. Yet professionals working in these disciplines affect the creation and preservation of the records that make up primary source materials. More and more, in looking for source materials, historians depend on what IT people, records managers and archivists do.

Every government record that ends up in the National Archives comes there due to a retention decision affected by what a federal records manager once did. The same process that ensures the preservation of some items results in the destruction or deletion of other records. For those who study corporate history, chances are the existing documents also were preserved because of a records retention process. (Records managers create what are called records retention or records disposition schedules, which tell the institutional creators of records how long to keep them.)

Records first pass through a gate controlled by records managers. Many records are adjudged to be transitory or ephemeral or are found to have only short term value. For the small percentage of records judged to be permanent rather than temporary in nature, the second gate for researchers is the one controlled by archivists. Archivists in academic, corporate and governmental repositories decide what can be released to the research public and what must be withheld from public view due to the need for restriction. Many archivists are trained historians. Records managers have varied backgrounds, it is my sense that there are fewer historians among them than among archivists.

Records managers judge records according to their administrative, fiscal, legal, and historical value. There is an element of risk management in their work. Is it better to keep certain records permanently or for a long period of time or to destroy them at the earliest possible opportunity? In the private sector, retaining records can be risky legally, customers might sue you and demand internal documents in the discovery process. On the other hand, corporations must comply with Sarbanes-Oxley and other requirements. Records managers often argue for keeping records for as short a time as possible to limit exposure to risk. In reading discussions among records managers, I have the sense that in many organizations, historical value is viewed as the weakest of the criteria for retaining records. Some organizations see little need to keep records that explain what happened and why. Keeping such records might even appear to be a liability.

In reviewing Carol Chosky’s book, Domesticating Information: Managing Documents Within the Organization,
Dr. Richard J. Cox notes that Chosky makes “the case that records managers are doers not thinkers, practitioners not researchers.” Archivists, often "thinkers," are more geared towards research and work more closely than do records managers with historians (which many archivists themselves are by training). Given the extent to which we historians rely on the people Chosky discusses in her book, I believe the doers and thinkers might benefit from greater exposure to each others’ perspectives, not just in grad school, but throughout their professional lives.