Bad History, birth, dissection, doctors

The internet for historians?

Thanks to the wonders of Twitter as a way of asking academic questions and being pointed to research I didn’t know existed, last week I was able to read Tim Hitchcock’s superb 2013 article “Confronting the digital: or how academic history writing lost the plot”. This is the first piece I’ve read which addresses in detail, for a general academic reader, the issue of how the work of the historian has changed with the proliferation of online material. I’ve learned so much from it, and I want to share it with all students everywhere!

For me, one of the most striking points he made is that historians cover up their dependence on what’s online. I’ve certainly done that. When I find a reference in an unpaginated online version of an article, I try to find the paper version in order to produce the page number for what I am citing. But, as Hitchcock points out, that means that my reader doesn’t know how I came across the reference. Very, very occasionally I haven’t been able to find a paper copy, so I then use a formulation such as in this footnote from my 2013 book:

Katharine Park, ‘Cadden, Laqueur, and the “One-Sex Body”’, Medieval Feminist Forum, 46 (2010), p. 4 (pagination from online version, accessed 10 January 2012) notes that the Latin translation of Nemesius did not circulate in the period before c.1500.

You can probably tell from the way I did this that I feel I should have found a paper version. Why, though? And while we’re on this, have you ever read a historian describing in detail how she went about finding material online, and what hazards she encountered?

Today I was reminded of another point Hitchcock discusses. Advising someone on something she is writing, I did a quick search which came up with some reading suggestions for her; but of course when she used the same terms she saw something different. Since 2009, Google’s search facility has been personalised, so what you see for a particular search is tailored to you; so, if you advise someone else to use the same search terms, she’ll see something different. Hitchcock even points out that some searches he describes were carried out “from my home computer located in Muswell Hill, UK, on 8 December 2011 and, as described in the text, cannot be repeated or effectively cited” (23 n.18). That’s thorough!

Back in 2011, I was involved in a pretty acrimonious exchange with Don Shelton, self-styled ‘historical detective’, whose self-published book (then available in Google Books) alleged that eighteenth-century men-midwives had been murdering patients to order to acquire specimens for their research. I found, and find, this entirely unpersuasive: I’m not alone in this. The exchange involved his 2010 article, my initial criticism of his work (“History without Historians? Medical History and the Internet,” Social History of Medicine, 24.2, 2011, pp. 212-221, set within a wider discussion of the internet), followed by his response (“The Internet and ‘New’ Historians,” Social History of Medicine, 25.1, 2012, pp. 222-231), followed by my response to his response (“Response to Shelton,” Social History of Medicine, 25.1, 2012, pp. 232-238). In the final one of this sequence, I noted:

As Bryan Rosenblithe wrote in a recent article on the ancient historian Moses Finley, who died in 1986, Finley spent months searching for an 18th-century German monograph that he sought to resuscitate from obscurity — a five-second search on WorldCat reveals that it is available in 25 libraries around the world, 13 of which hold it in some type of digital format’.

There’s one benefit of the internet! But finding something isn’t the end of the story; it’s what you do with it that counts. The reference I gave to Rosenblithe then is already dead: now, the article can be found here. And I currently can’t find Shelton’s self-published book anywhere online. That’s how it is, online.

However, Shelton’s first ‘response’ provided a rare (although not encouraging) example of someone admitting how they found their material online. In footnote 5, he describes how he found a 1702 passage on Caesarean section, as follows: “Result of Google search for ‘Mr Mery’+‘Cæsarian Operation’ (accessed 19 November 2011).” But that’s the extent of his interest; nowhere does he say what this source actually was. For him, it’s just a “report of a Caesarian” which floats free of any anchor other than its date. In fact, it is from volume 4 (p.651) of The History of the Works of the Learned. There is no sign of any interest in just what this is (it’s a journal) nor of who ‘Mery’ was (Jean Méry, chief surgeon of the Hôtel-Dieu and enthusiastic dissector, who worked on the foetal circulation)The internet throws up pieces of information but their identity is not investigated further.

In my final ‘response to the response’, I noted that

Google Books and Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO) do not contain every work published in the period, let alone archival materials. Further eighteenth-century texts have been released online by a wide range of libraries and archives. Images are now easily obtained: historical statistical material is not. The internet is a filter disguised as a treasure chest; it holds out to the user the promise ofthe whole of human knowledge, and can overwhelm with sheer quantity, but it does not contain all the evidence that exists.

I also commented on something Hitchcock discusses, the ‘fuzzy search’ of optical character recognition (OCR):

A further appeal of Google books and ECCO is that here the text is searchable,although as Shelton notes one needs to think of alternative spellings (or use fuzzy search). Searchable texts save much time when we scope our research questions. But the person or practice we study cannot always be found using key terms. An example from my own current work: in the early modern period the Hippocratic case history of Phaethousa of Abdera is sometimes retold calling her Phaetusa, Phatusa, Phaltuse or Pithoulia, but at other times her name is not given at all, and one would only recognise the case by the symptoms, for which one cannot predict every possible synonym. More importantly, finding key terms is not in itself history’. The historian needs to consider the context of the phrase found. In what type of work does it appear? What are the conventions of this text? How does the passage located fit into the book as a whole?

and so on.

Hitchcock’s article adds far more: read it for yourself. I think we need to do far more to educate students at all levels – and each other! – about the effects of the changes to the balance between using the internet and going to the library; and I for one am going to be far more open about how I do my basic research.


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