The historian at work

2015-01-30

After Lego launched its first women scientist set, ‘Research Institute’, in August 2014 and a twitter account @LegoAcademics started posted vignettes of the trials and tribulations of academic life, I knew I wanted the ‘Research Institute’ set. I was delighted to get one for Christmas. But after getting it, it occurred to me that the set features a paleontologist, astronomer, and chemist—all natural science professions. As an academic in the humanities, I felt a bit left out.

So my 8-year-old daughter and I decided to make my history lab using pieces from her Lego sets (she’s a big Lego fan). But then I began to ponder what my own academic Lego lab would look like. After all, I had no chemistry beakers, or telescopes, or fossils to represent my workplace. We decided that what represented my workplace best is documents (see the photo).

The historian at work scene by Dolly Jørgensen and daughter Marion

We made a table where I sit with my laptop. A stack of books and artwork awaits attention on the right and a set-up with a camera to digitize books on the left. My bookshelf is overflowing with large format books lying down and others properly standing in place. My daughter also made a coffee machine, which she said was vital to my work (she knows me too well).

Documents serve as the primary source material for historians. For my research, sometimes these data sources come in book form, but just as often they are newspaper articles, scientific journal articles, and personal letters. Because I also believe in using artistic works as historical sources (rather than as pretty pictures) like I have in my work on medieval wood pasture management, I made sure to include a picture in the stacks of books on the table.

Getting all of this material in an accessible form is vitally important for historical research today, which is why I decided to include the camera setup. It’s so convenient when a historical source is already available for online access. For example, I spent a couple days last week looking through digital newspaper articles from the Norwegian National Library to find out more about local perceptions of the muskoxen released in the 1920s on Svalbard. When sources aren’t already available in digital form, I often spend hours scanning or taking digital photos so that the documents will be available on my computer no matter where I am. Just to give a feel for how much data I’m talking about, I counted the scanned articles I have just in a few folders: 213 newspaper articles on muskoxen in Dovre and 492 documents on beaver reintroduction in Sweden. When I visited the Jamtli archive in Östersund, I took 435 pictures of documents and in Naturvårdsverket, I took 392. Of course gathering the data is only a very small part of what a historian does. The material has to be read, interpreted, and placed into a coherent story.

I once had a comment from an editor of a conservation-related journal that a piece I had sent in was “fascinating and makes a very interesting story, but as the reviewers observe there are no new data.” Au contraire, I would argue that there was a wealth of data behind the story, data that had never been put together the way I did. Yes, the article did not have quantitative data, which is the kind of data many natural scientists expect, but it was not lacking data. The data was in the many documents that had to be read, interpreted, and fit together.

The way I collect data is not in a microscope or a lab bench, but by reading. This is the historian’s work.