Sunday, March 3, 2013

Carl Becker on Index Cards

Carl Becker published in the Atlantic Monthly CVI (1910), pp. 524-536. In it he talks about the process of how historical "synthesis" works, relying implicitly on the so-called index card method. Thus he claims that historians are not just "thumbing cards." As she/he
goes over his cards, some aspects of the reality recorded there interest him more, others less, some are retained, others forgotten; some have the power to start a new train of thought; some appear to be casually [read causally] connected; some logically connected; some are without perceptible connection of any sort. And the reason is simple: some facts strike the mind as suggestive, have a meaning of some sort, lead to some desirable end, because they associate themselves with ideas already in the mind. they fit in somehow to the ordered experience of the historian. This original synthesis—not to be confused with the making of a book for the printer ... is only half deliberate. It is accomplished almost automatically. The mind will´ select and discriminate from the very beginning. It is the whole 'apperceptive mass' that does the business, seizing upon this or that new impression and building it into its own growing content ... the process is continued, for years it may be ... the original concepts which give character to the entire synthesis were contributed, not be the facts of the sixteenth century, but by the facts of the twentieth century (534).
It is the dominant ideas of the historian that act as "centers of attraction" of other ideas, not the supposed facts of the historical record.

I am here not interested in the claim that historical facts are no basic units of historical inquiry, but rather in the practical implications of his method for today. Most of us no longer work with index card or slips, but with electronic tools of some kind or other. Some of these work with massive quantities of text and the algorithms used need not be the idea of the person who uses them. The "centers of attraction" and "the apperceptive mass" seems to be just as much determined by the program you use. Therefore, serendipity or unexpected discoveries seem to play a much larger role than they may have played in the past. Though it also appears to me that Becker's description is exactly opposed to Luhmann's method which did not involve much "thumbing of cards," but rather careful cross-referencing. This method is closer to what electronic media seem to enable us to do. Therefore it might be argued that electronic tools are more of the same.

It might of course, also be claimed that these two methods just appear to be different. Cross referencing may be more of front-loading the effort, while "thumbing" comes at the end. Yet, just as the selection of what to record presupposes some idea of an end so does cross-referencing. And what is experienced as serendipitous discovery may just be a re-discovery of what we forgot long ago. And this also might have consequences for how we understand what electronic tools allow us to do.

This is something on which I have no settled view as yet.

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