Real-Time

Mark Kishlansky discusses the change for historians with the ever increasing use of computers.

Historians are not a garrulous lot. They work alone for long hours in private devotions. Though they debate issues that give them some common ground, and some common language, their larger endeavours are with unique problems and singular sources. Methodologies do not unite them, subject matter does not knit them together.

In fact, as their discipline has expanded they have been pulled into ever wider fields of enquiry. History departments were once dominated by a single national history with some logically allied offshoots – England predominant (Europe and the Commonwealth represented) or American history divided into ten year periods (with traditional American allies representing European history). Now they pride themselves on being departments of world history with a wide representation of continents and countries studied in their own integrity. The conquest of Euro- and ethno-centricity has claimed, as an unintended victim, the common ground of historians' discourse.

All of this has increased the isolation, not to say the alienation, of historians from each other. Many find their most vital intellectual companionship with members of other disciplines who study similar geographical areas or use similar methodological approaches. This has led to the remarkable growth of hybrids like historical anthropology, historical sociology, economic and legal history to crowd out the pure strain. Lunchtime meetings among historians are more often alternating monologues than engaged dialogue. After the tid- bits of departmental and professional politics have been chewed, few scraps of common interest remain.

Yet over the last year or so, in the halls of' departmental buildings or in the lunchrooms and tearooms of research libraries, historians can be heard in vigorous conversation and can be observed in earnest argument with each other. They gather together seeking information and news and pass on to others what they learn with the fervour of converts. Unexpectedly they have rediscovered that what they have in common is a way of studying a problem, whatever that problem is, which involves the collection of bibliography; the segregation of subjects; the arrangement of archival materials; the collation of information; the preservation of notes; the systematisation of citations; and a host of other ordinary, day-to-day tasks which make historians different from anthropologists or economists or lawyers.

What has spurred this realisation is the personal computer and the vast array of software available to run it. Everywhere universities, departments, and individuals are purchasing personal computers and therefore initiating debate over such things as storage capacity, data transmission, software availability, and user friendliness.

No one who would take the time to learn such a language would pass up the opportunity to speak it. Thus historians now passionately debate the merits of various systems, the uses of various packaged software programs, and the quality of various makes of peripherals like printers and display units. Everywhere the lines are drawn: word processing versus data management; portability versus power; ease of learning versus flexibility of programming. Remarkably, the debate transcends ideology. Departments polarised for years over personnel decisions or political biases suddenly reform along lines of IBMs and Apples. Grizzled Marxists and fresh faced yuppies peruse together the latest advertisements for hard disk add-ons.

Word processing frequently dominates discussion as it is the task common to all. Is a program that can be learned in an hour preferable to one which can number your footnotes automatically but can barely be mastered in a month? This debate over user friendliness unites generalists against archivally-based historians. Is the ability to store chapter length pieces of text worth the cost of upgrading an older machine? This debate segregates those who concentrate on writing books from those whose metier is articles. What are the best programs to manage bibliography or to convert footnotes to bibliography? Here the best advice is to be sought from synthesizers to whom the latest citation is a cherished gem.

Most importantly of all, which machines and programs are the fastest? Scholars who in the past would patiently wait a month for the departmental secretary to type a final copy of their most recent article now debate the expenditure of' an additional several hundred pounds so that their printers will produce a page a minute rather than a minute and a half or so their machines will locate a file in fifteen seconds rather than in thirty. The quest for ultimate speed was never more intense.

The great paradox of historians' discovery of the personal computer is that for all of the eagerness with which information is now exchanged, the result of privately owned computers is likely to be further isolation. The change is analogous to that which occurred when television replaced cinemas. The community aspect gave way to the individual one. Greater choice and freedom came at the cost of shared experience. On line bibliographic services, which many American libraries now provide, will soon be followed by on line publications and research in progress. This is a small step from the electronic mail capabilities of most machines. Rather than attending conferences to hear papers, one will be able to order them through clearing houses' phone services like Compuserve. Rather than visiting archives one will be able to scan their holdings and mail order photocopies. The historian's study will become his castle with the moat a sea of software. The only sound will be the gentle whirr of a disk drive and the delicately tapping keyboard. But then historians are not a garrulous lot.

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