The London Review of Books has a fascinating article by Keith Thomas, a fellow of All Souls College in London (Vol 32, No. 11 10 June 2010). Keith Thomas is an historian of the early modern period, and a student of Christopher Hill whose books I remember vaguely from an undergraduate subject over 35 years ago on Puritans and Quakers, Shakers and other tremblers in the English Civil War.
I enjoy reading about how other historians “do it” and enjoy reading biographies and autobiographies of historians generally- and they are legion! I’ve been in enough historians’ offices to glimpse their shoeboxes of index cards and rolls of paper, and I must admit that I’ve always been bemused by what they do with them. Even before reading Thomas’ article, I’ve been aware of Beatrice Webb’s adage of “one fact, one card” and I’ve always wondered how that would work with a multi-layered fact that could be categorized in so many different ways. [ One spin-off of reading Thomas’ article has been that I went to my bookshelves and picked up Beatrice Webb’s book My Apprenticeship which I must have bought 35 years ago and have never even opened. What impelled me to buy it for the princely sum of $2.10 I wonder? It may just find its way to the pile of books beside the bedside table.] But Thomas has enlightened me- you place a punchhole in the margin of the card for a particular category and then, using a knitting needle you can locate all the cards that have been punched in the same place on the card under that category. Well I never!
Thomas himself writes on sheets of paper on one side only, notes down the bibliographical details (and is honest enough to admit that he often gets them wrong!), then cuts up the pieces of paper and files them in envelopes, with a separate envelope for each topic. He then keeps an index of all the envelope-topics. His envelopes include jottings, newspaper articles etc. Some of the envelopes become voluminous enough to migrate to a box or drawer.
For myself, I’m an NVivo gal. I returned to history after a period working as a researcher in education which has somewhat of a social-sciences bent, with quite a bit of work on interviews and protocol analysis. It was in this context that I became aware of Nud*ist, the early incarnation of NVivo. Basically (and I suspect that most qualitative research programs do a similar thing), there are the source documents which remain intact, then the “nodes” that are tags that you attach to the text in the source document- a bit like highlighting them with different coloured pens. You can group the tags together into trees of associated nodes, merge nodes that ended up being similar, or split nodes into categories that you weren’t originally aware of when you started your research. Its plasticity is intentional: it is assumed that your categories will be shaped by the research you undertake.
Although my research doesn’t have the model and theory-building aspect that is encouraged by NVivo, I find it invaluable for just keeping track of what I have. As I read Thomas’ article, I could see how NVivo encourages and supports the same activities. For example, where Thomas would open his envelope and have a little shuffle through the assorted things he found in it, I open a node and am amused by the things I’ve found to put in it. Where C.Wright Mills wrote of the pleasures of rearranging his filing cabinet as a way of reorganizing his intellectual index, I can see that on the (admittedly rare) occasions that I’ve sat down and merged or split my nodes, or arranged them into trees that I’m doing an intellectual form of rearranging the furniture. I like that I can easily go back and find the complete document from which a particular paragraph or dotpoint emerged, and that a single paragraph can be categorized in any number of ways.
It’s certainly not foolproof, as evidenced by my chagrin over the missing letter (which, by the way I have never found, but I did find a document similar which I now wonder if I misinterpreted on my initial reading). I live in terror of the whole edifice of NVivo collapsing. While I am not in danger of being drowned, as Anatole France warned, by an avalanche of index cards, my increasingly towering spindle of backups on DVD at home and work, and the steady accumulation of portable hard drives and data sticks must be contributing to Harvey Norman’s stellar profits.
Once you’ve started down a particular route, there is an element of commitment and momentum that keeps you on it. Thomas obviously finds that his envelopes work: those who use card files obviously do too. There’s the danger of constantly searching for the perfect system instead of actually sitting down and using it. The corridors of academe are crowded with scholars who found their system and made it work for them. I do find myself wondering if the availability of key-word searching and micro-tagging will change the sorts of histories we write- will the ease of locating the detail alter the process of creating a big-picture argument? Or does the propensity to be either a hedgehog or a fox drive the systems and processes that academics set up for themselves?