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[First post here]

But if laptops replaced paper as the main way of getting notes down, the difference in the actual physical process of research was not that much altered. Go to the archive, order the sources you needed, and spend days or weeks or months taking notes on them. Copying costs at most archives were much too high to consider wholesale reproduction, and so note-taking depended on how fast you could type. Portable scanners did not really work; either one had to put the document face down on the scanner or drag the scanner along the document. Neither of those things pleased most archivists. In addition, the scanners were slow and did not offer much storage. Thus, note taking remained resolutely textual, and resulted in the production of lots and lots of MS Word documents with notes on specific sources.Notetakingwindows

That changed dramatically with the advent of digital cameras with high resolution, storage, and battery life. Suddenly, I could buy, relatively cheaply, a lightweight camera able to take hundreds of shots at a resolution that, properly framed, could be read with relative ease on a monitor back home. This advance came too late for A War of Frontier and Empire, but I decided to convert entirely over to using a digital camera for The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China, 1900. This was encouraged by the birth of my daughter Madeline, whose arrival meant that long research trips, while restful, did not contribute to domestic harmony.

Powershot sd800 frontBut what kind of camera? I thought about getting a DSLR, but quickly discarded the idea. This was going to be an experiment, and paying over a thousand dollars for a camera to do it seemed excessive. Instead, I decided on a smaller camera, a “point and shoot.” After a fair amount of Internet research, I settled on the Canon SD800. It got good reviews, took a detailed picture (without being too large), and was reasonably priced. I equipped it with the largest memory card I could (512 MB at first; now up to 4 GB, which translates to about 3000 pictures), and set off.

From the first moment in the archive, I was ecstatic. Read the rest of this entry »


It pleases me that the 12th place finisher in the Republican primary in New Hampshire was…Barack Obama.

Socialism is alive and well in the GOP.

(Of course, that’s a slippage from his 2008 result, when he finished 7th in the Republican primary, and a severe slippage from John Kerry’s 2004 result when he came second)

The biggest changes in my research since I became a historian have come about because of the usefulness of laptops and digital cameras. When I started doing scholarly research, note-taking was still done using pen and paper (or pencil and paper for particularly careful archives). In the 1990s, however, computers suddenly became really portable, and could be carried into the archive and used to take notes. Suddenly, my high school typing class really started to pay off: ten fingers of typing madness.

My first real research workhorse was a PowerBook 160, 7 lbs and 25 MHz of raw computing power. Allied with a homebrewed Filemaker Pro database, this laptop carried me through a large chunk of my dissertation research. The main limitations on the PowerBook were its battery life (circa two hours) and the range of restrictions that archives put on the use of laptops. The former meant that there was often a mad rush for available outlets by scholars (the old British Library was particularly difficult; if you didn’t get there by 9 am, you weren’t getting a seat in the one row with available plugs). The latter meant that I had to be careful to check with each archive on what they would allow before visiting. The PowerBook did have an unexpected benefit: it got warm when being used, which was nice in archives with less than sufficient winter insulation (yes, I’m looking at you, Colindale).

Figuring out the process happened piecemeal. I didn’t plan ahead of time how to use the new technology, I just took it with to the archives and tried to use it. That meant that the laptop became an electronic notepad/typewriter at first, but I quickly began to figure out ways to use it to better advantage. I learned to program Filemaker, to set up ways to make each note individual and linked to a source citation. I figured out ways to use keywords so that I could gather the individual records into larger groups when I needed to use them. Later, as I was writing, I figured out how to apportion records to particular chapters. The result was barebones, primitive, and resolutely black and white:


The above was a personal memoir of a British soldier in the First World War from the Imperial War Museum.


This was an entry for Martin Ceadel’s book on pacifism in Britain in WWI.

The second record comes from a later iteration of the database and the improvements are evident. In an odd sense, the research notebook grew with the research, sprouting new features and new abilities as I went along. The advantage was that I could do more with it. The disadvantage was that retrofitting a feature left a fair number of earlier entries out, and it was often difficult to update them. Nor, I should note, did I particularly learn the lessons of this impromptu development. I’ve continued to adopt new technology but have essentially figured out how to use it as I go along. There are any number of my scholarly tools, electronic and otherwise, that have been fitted and retrofitted, made for one purpose and then pushed to do another.

Next: digital cameras.

Ira Katznelson’s When Affirmative Action was White shows how government social programs of the New Deal and immediately afterward skewed heavily toward white people – and, as the title indicates, this early “affirmative action” occasioned no objection from the paler members of the citizenry. It was only later, when government programs aimed to help Americans with darker skins, that principled libertarian objections became so popular among white folks.
Read the rest of this entry »

Friend of the blog, Ian Lekus, is featured over at Tenured Radical:

This just in from Ian Lekus, the outgoing chair of the Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History (CLGBTH): queer activities at the AHA abound…

Click over for a roundup of the CLGBTH activities at the AHA.

Sometimes requires a strong stomach:

Mr. Brûlé, 43…looked immaculate in a custom blue flannel blazer, rolled Edwin jeans and Pierre Hardy desert boots that seemed box-fresh, despite dodging puddles all day…. [He] embodies the border-agnostic sophisticate whom the Monocle brand is built around. His globe-trotting persona (cocktails-with-Danish-diplomats intellectualism, sleeper-seat jaunts to Taipei) has inspired legions of followers, who hang on his oracular pronouncements on what’s next.

The phrase “perma-stubble” is also used, non-(apparently)-ironically.

Worried, I suspect, that the Constitution itself might be tainted by sharia law, New Hampshire Republicans have turned to an older, purer document. I give you (State) House Bill 1580

All members of the general court proposing bills and resolutions addressing individual rights or liberties shall include a direct quote from the Magna Carta which sets forth the article from which the individual right or liberty is derived.

Clearly, they haven’t seen the Kevin Costner version of Robin Hood, with Morgan Freeman playing Azeem the Moor. Eek. Perhaps a return to the Tribune of the Plebeians?

Over the past month, I’ve been finishing — as in, putting the final, no really, the final! — touches on my book. It’s been a huge pain because of the narrative structure I’ve adopted this go round. Lots of flashbacks means lots of moving parts. Change one thing, you have to change many things. Very annoying.

Anyway, because of my present circumstances (to recap: annoyed), I’ve been paying more attention even than usual to storytelling and editing. Which prompts two observations: first, J.K. Rowling should have edited her books. If another one of her characters “pants”, I’m going to assume Hermione or Gilderoy is trapped in a low-budget pr0n film (ick). And second, the opening twenty or so minutes of the Star Trek reboot is a model of narrative economy. Like the much-praised, and deservedly so, montage in Up (No, I’m not crying. But hang on a sec, okay? I have something caught in my eye.), the scenes, starting from when the lights go down until Kirk and crew begin their adventures on the Enterprise, are incredibly taut. The number of characters and story lines introduced (though they couldn’t wedge Scotty in until later) is admirable. I haven’t done that well with my book, I’m afraid. But then again, my budget was smaller than J.J. Abrams’s.

Schilderen, roken, eten

Best wishes to all for the new year. Among my resolutions: more postings.

Philip Guston, Painting, Smoking, Eating (1973; via the Guardian). I like the heap of his signature hobnailed boots behind him — I think they stand for the compulsive quality of his work. May we all contrive both to harness and indulge our compulsions, in due proportion!

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