Evidence and Scarcity

As digital technology expands, our whole relationship to presenting evidence will have to change.

Other disciplines roll their eyes at historians for having  too many examples. A lit scholar might read a historical article and think “he had me at five: the forty five examples that followed  didn’t accomplish a damn thing.” And even history grad students learn to skim the long train of examples, unless they’re directly related to their research. It’s a legacy of history as a science: enough examples proves repeatability and theoretically establishes truth.

Set that aside for a moment, though, and think about the other reason why we needed to present the examples: scarcity. Just as the structure of academic paper publishing grew from the scarcity of print, so too the structure of evidence presentation grew from the scarcity of time and access.

Printing a journal or book was/is expensive. Even today paper is expensive, printing is expensive, binding and shipping are expensive; they were even more so in 1870, when the profession got started. Peer review helped conserve this scarce media, by making sure that resources–physical resources,  but also resources of time and attention–only went to vetted work. Printing was a way to discipline scarcity.

The historian’s march of examples also represented a relationship to scarcity–scarcity of time to do the research, scarcity of material, and scarcity of access. Good evidence was/is often hard to find, sometimes located only in an archive, and sometimes buried deep within other sources. The historian needed professional credentials to get into the archive, and he or she needed the time required to do the work. Archives had limited working hours. Both were relatively scarce, and the parade of examples demonstrated the historian’s triumph over scarcity.

That scarcity is less and less of a problem. When I wrote my dissertation, on the invention of standard time, I spent about 9 months looking at every American newspaper extant for the time period September through December 1883. Sitting in front of a microfilm reader for long hours every day, turning the handle, feeling slightly sick, stopping to make a notecard when I found something useful. The New York Times index helped, but otherwise, I was hunting for references to “time,” “standard time,” “railroads,” etc. by skimming the newspapers.

Today, most of those newspapers are digitized and word searchable. A search that took months takes ten minutes. The scarcity is gone. Over a decade ago, at the beginning of my research for Face Value, I looked for texts about money, and searched them for metaphors that used racial or genetic terms. Today, most of those same texts are word searcheable: I can find the same results almost instantly across a broad range of texts.

Google has digitized I believe more than ten million books. In my field, 19th century US, that means that nearly every published book is available instantly on  line, fully searcheable 24/7. Scarcity is gone.

So one of the things the profession recognized and rewarded–the sheer effort required to plod through scarce resources–is now outdated. And while of course not all archives are online, and some may never be, who can doubt that arc points toward ever increased digitization?

If the profession’s byways and practices emerged in an era of textual and evidentiary scarcity, how will we remake it to fit an era of evidentiary abundance? Should we keep acting as if  access to old books is limited to people with University library cards? Do we really need to keep parading the fruit of hours in the library, when any casual user can find the same results in a few seconds?

Clearly, an academic historian still has things that can’t be casually acquired–context, depth of knowledge, a comparative framework. These things are still essential. And just as clearly, some kinds of research, some kinds of questions, foreground the end of scarcity more than others.

I’m not sure exactly what this change in the axis of scarcity means. It’s particularly acute in the kind of history I do, cultural history inflected by ‘postmodernism.” Perhaps in  the future, rather than trotting out 40 examples, we will simply describe the “information architecture” of our searches. Thoughtful practitioners of history quickly realize how the kinds of questions they ask determine the range of possible outcomes. All historical investigations depend on a scaffolding of assumptions and pre0questions, “mettanarratives” that we assume in order to make our investigations cohere.

Perhaps future historical inquiries will spend more time describing the search terms used, and less furnishing results. Describing the terms one searches for: “gold” and “negro” and “amalgamation,” within 50 words of each other; or “time,” “railroad” and “standardized” on the same page, not only produces certain results: it reveals the structure of historian’s inquiry, and invites others to use it or modify it.

The Center for History and New Media at GMU is working on new ways of “mining” text. We are all more and more used to “dumb” word searches that produce huge results. How might we refine and rethink the  digital search process, to make it more useful for historians?

Imagine searching a range of documents–the collected writings of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, say–and being able to get a list of all the adjectives she used, broken out by frequency. Or searching for a term like “equality” and seeing the results ranked by the words most frequently pared with “equality?” Or having the results returned as a tag cloud, with synonyms and antonyms displayed in different colors and sizes, by frequency. The limit here is our imagination, not technological possibility.

So it seems to me that it’s now essential to rethink how history will look. The things that drove the forms and modes of scholarly work–the scarcity of time, materials and access–are less and less present. Electricity was once a scarce resource. When it became cheap and abundant, it changed everything about the way we lived. Now it’s threatening to become more dear, and so we are having to rethink what it does for us and how we use it. It’s time to rethink how we use evidence in an age of evidentiary abundance.


My colleague Sean Takats made an excellent response to this post, pointing out that the abundance of evidence might only cause historians to “double down” on quantity. I fear he might be right. It increases my sense that we have an obligation to think more about the “information architecture” of our questions. No amount of evidence can conceal the banality of a weak premise.

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