To Kill a Habsburg: An Explanation of Historiography

by James Rucker

Editor’s Note: Have you ever wondered why people continue to write new history books about very old topics, and why libraries need to buy them? Once something happens, it doesn’t change, right? So why can’t we just read old books about it and be done with it? In today’s post, James explains how historiography–or the study of historical writing–has changed over time, and how various approaches to history differ. –Brittney Reed-Saltz

Like any trained professionals, historians have a history, and there are two watershed moments where we could start telling it. The first is in ancient Greece, with Herodotus. Renouncing the authority of myth and legend, he embarked on a self-critical pursuit of knowledge. When interviewing witnesses to the events, he did what any good attorney does to a witness in a court of law: He cross-examined them. He called his book Inquiries. (The ancient Greek word was ‘istoriai, the root of our modern word “history.” Modern translations just call the book Histories.) For our purposes, it doesn’t matter whether Inquiries is entirely free of errors or assumptions; it quite obviously isn’t. What matters is it represents an undeniable and fundamental shift in the concept of historical truth: It is not something to be related, it is something to be discovered. This attitude has generally characterized historians ever since.

The history of history-writing (historiography) since the Inquiries has taken many forms.

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On Unicycles, Bicycles, and Tricycles

by James Rucker

When you want the answer to a question, where do you start? I, for one, am unashamed to admit that I check Wikipedia first when I’m unfamiliar with the topic. However, when I am familiar, I check more specialized sources. Perhaps I’ll know of a historian who has written about it, or maybe of a relevant news article or or memoir. Either way, we can recognize these as different kinds of information sources. But how are they different, exactly? And how does this inform our reading of them? To answer these questions, today we’ll discuss the central distinction employed by historians, between primary, secondary, and tertiary source documents.

A good rule of thumb for classifying a document as a primary, secondary, or tertiary source is to consider how many steps removed from the topic the source is. Let’s pretend that on June 22, 1902, Teddy Roosevelt rode a unicycle along the streets of New Orleans. Many people saw him do it. If someone were to interview any of these witnesses, that interview would be a primary source (since it is a single step removed from the alleged unicycling). If a historian were to read several such interviews and write an article describing how they think it took place, this would be a secondary source document (since it is two steps removed). If yet another historian reads many such secondary source articles and books, which themselves were written in response to primary sources, and then synthesizes that knowledge into a textbook or encyclopedia entry then we would refer to that as a tertiary source document for the event (since it is three steps removed).

At this point, I want to direct your attention to three titles we have at Linebaugh which capture this distinction: Reporting the Revolutionary War, edited by Todd Andrlik, a selection of primary source newspaper snippets from the revolution; 1776, written by David McCullough, a secondary-source monograph on the Revolutionary War itself; and Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, edited by Harold E. Selesky, a tertiary source.

Right on the cover of Andrlik’s Reporting the Revolutionary War, we have a tagline that seems to say it all: “Before it was History, it was NEWS.” Most people would categorize a newspaper article as a primary source (even though many reporters are not eyewitnesses to events they describe), and the tagline makes the important point that history is usually written retrospectively. Historians know how the events in question turned out, which gives them an advantage when deciding what events are significant. Journalists can be blind at times to whether current affairs will be of any consequence. For example, on August 13th, 1776, the London Chronicle announced the Declaration of Independence, merely saying, “Advice is received that the Congress resolved upon independence the 4th of July; and, it is said, have declared war against Great Britain in form” (Andrlik 197). It is buried in a page of unrelated stories, less than an inch or two from announcements of local marriages and bankruptcies.

On the other hand, a memoir (say of Teddy Roosevelt recalling his unicyclical antics years later) does have the benefit of hindsight, but it still isn’t a secondary source because it is limited to his personal perspective on the event. Taking these two examples together will highlight an important trait of primary sources: They are limited in scope, either by perspective or by time.

Primary sources like these do provide an important advantage to the curious and critical reader: They present a perspective in a more or less pure form. With secondary or tertiary works, you not only have the perspectives of the witnesses, but those of the historian as well, and, of course, with a perspective comes its biases and assumptions. It is important to say that bias does not make a source useless. In fact, once harnessed, an identified bias makes a source incredibly useful. Historians don’t merely want to know what people did, they want to know why. Uncovering a person’s bias can help immensely when pinning down their motivations.

If primary sources provide pure perspectives, why read secondary or tertiary sources at all? Well, because sometimes an eyewitness is mistaken about what happened, and perhaps another witness can provide a more accurate account, or at least cast some much needed doubt on our first interviewee. Cross-referencing different perspectives on the same event is important work not only because it helps to identify who is mistaken about events in question, but also because it can show how the perspectives exist in conflict or consensus. In an ideal universe, someone could consult only primary sources, but there simply is not enough time to read them, let alone learn all the languages necessary. Historians must rely on each other to provide context for the events they study in depth. How do we understand the significance of Roosevelt’s speculative unicycle ride? Was his presidency popular at the time and so his unicycling was done with a light heart? Or did he just declare war and such frivolity was in poor taste?

This is where secondary sources like McCullough’s 1776 come into play. Rather than merely quote primary sources, the historian attempts to synthesize them into a single account. Central to the work of historians is the distinction between testimony and evidence. Testimony is the set of claims a primary source makes, while evidence is any information that can be inferred from the document, even if it is information the source’s testimony disagrees with. As in everyday life, where we can choose not to believe someone because their testimony is too inconsistent, incoherent, or fragmentary, historians can do the same to their sources. Any source can be dishonest or misinformed, so no particular source’s testimony is given absolute authority. Therefore the bulk of the work is in source criticism, where you read “against the grain” and “between the lines” of the text to glean information which it doesn’t wish to divulge. Rules and regulations are an excellent place to see divergence between testimony and evidence. For example, if New Orleans in 1905 passed a law banning unicycle use in the streets, we would not want to believe that unicycles were therefore never used there. Quite the contrary, we would instead have to infer that people rode their unicycles in the street so often that it became a problem, otherwise, such a law would not exist. So while the testimony of the rule is that unicycling through the streets is illegal, punishable, and therefore something the authorities are putting a stop to, the rule is itself a piece of evidence of the opposite. Even though secondary source documents do not typically represent direct experience of what they describe, they do tend to represent the professional authority that comes from having been trained to read texts critically in this way.

As I said at the beginning, I’m unashamed to consult a tertiary source like Wikipedia when approaching a topic which is foreign to me, but I wouldn’t dream of citing one in a paper of my own. Note that this isn’t exclusive to Wikipedia. The problem with Wikipedia isn’t so much that it is edited by the general public; the problem is that it is a tertiary source. No tertiary source is acceptable to cite as an authority in a formal setting. A tertiary source, like an encyclopedia, may frequently be compiled by a professional historian; however, they will tend to have less familiarity with a given topic in the book than another historian would who has focused more exclusively on it. A tertiary source, therefore, is a more general information source. It does not tend to represent cutting edge research, nor can it be expected to provide detailed information.

Now that I have established the difference between these three sorts of sources, I need to qualify it. Whether a document is primary, secondary, or tertiary is not intrinsic to the document itself, but is entirely relative to what questions the historian chooses to ask it. For example, Titus Livius (also known simply as Livy) wrote a massive history of Rome called From the Founding of the City. It is a secondary source (and probably not a very accurate one at that) for studying the early Roman Republic. However, it is just as much a primary source as Virgil’s Aeneid when studying the literary culture in the court of Emperor Augustus. In fact, every secondary source document for a time in the past is a primary source document for the time in which it was written. A book like Livy’s demonstrates that the distinction between primary, secondary, and tertiary is not between exclusive categories, but regions along a spectrum. Some sources are more primary than others, some less. Roosevelt’s memoirs of his fictional frivolities would be more primary than an article in the New Orleans Bee which happens to recount the tale, too. On the other hand, Wikipedia and the World Book are more tertiary than our Encyclopedia of the American Revolution.

Before I conclude, I’d like to take a moment to step back and talk about the purpose of my blog entries more generally. I want to write about how to get the most out of both history books and news articles (primary sources of the present). Hopefully interested readers will find my posts helpful when cultivating their critical reading skills. Of course, the blog is mainly intended to point people to various resources that the library provides, so I intend to inform the readers about various materials and services that RCLS has available. However, I also want my entries to feel like a resource in themselves. I am drafting one more entry right now about the Historical Research Rooms at Linebaugh and Smyrna. After that, each month I will discuss a different types of history writing, exploring the strengths and weaknesses of their methods. Different kinds of historians utilize different sources or utilize the same sources in different ways. They ask different kinds of questions and expect different kinds of answers. After all, historians, just like the people they write about, have motivations. Knowing why they write and what they think is important will hopefully help my readers better understand an author’s argument and be able to evaluate it more thoroughly.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dewey Decimal System

by James Rucker 

Thus far, we haven’t focused on non-fiction in our blog. So, broad though it may be, our topic today is the Dewey Decimal System (DDS). As the subtitle of this entry suggests, I spent some time griping about it. I actually still do, for a variety of reasons. The DDS reinforces the unhelpful belief that practical skills and projects (600s) are fundamentally separate from artistic (700s) or scientific (500s) endeavours. (For example, vegetable gardening is 635, while decorative gardening is 712, and botany is the 580s.) It gives overwhelming space to Christianity (220-289.x) when compared to the space given to every other religion in all of human existence (290-299.x). It gives a lot more space to the United states (973-979.x) when compared to Mexico (972.x), Canada (971.x), or the various indigenous groups of North America (some fraction of 970.x).

However, such problems are relatively minor compared to our topic for today: the DDS does not know where to classify history books.

Actually, I should say that the DDS doesn’t know how to categorize any books at all. History books simply show the problem in sharp relief. Of course, this isn’t just a problem with the DDS. No categorization system is ever going to be perfect, or even objective; they will always require subjective judgement for one simple reason: books can be about more than one thing at once, and this problem will persist for as long as books continue to insist on containing more than one word.

For the uninitiated, the DDS is a set of 1000 digits, each associated with a different topic. (They continue to divide past the decimal place, but we’ll get into that later.) It is first divided into ten different areas, with 100 points each:

dewey 1

“Now wait a minute!” my esteemed readers all shout at once. They then proceed to object, somewhat hyperbolically, “Are you mad? Or are you simply oblivious? You said it didn’t know where to categorize History books, yet right there, as plain as day, it says ‘900-999: History and geography’. How could you have missed something so obvious?”

I did notice, actually, but the word Geography should really be first, because, as you’ll see below, the ten sets of 10 are assigned (mostly) to more specific geographical regions. (Make a mental note that the 920s, for the most part, have fallen into disuse.):

dewey 2

To emphasize my point, we should look at how the 940s divide:

dewey 3

How would one categorize history that crosses borders? Where do we put the history of the Atlantic slave trade for example? *Searches RCLSTN catalog for “slavery” and “atlantic slave trade”* Apparently, 306 (mostly). Not in the 900s at all! What about history of art, history of science, history of sports? For a clue, let’s look at the 90x.x region:

dewey 4

Note how 901 is “philosophy and theory of history” while philosophy in general, as we saw earlier, is the 100s. Could it be? Does philosophy have this problem too? (Spoiler warning: Yes, it does.) The important clue is that they are both making use of the digit 1. On further investigation, you’ll find out 501 is philosophy of science and 701 is philosophy of art. In fact, 301 is philosophy of sociology, 401 is philosophy of language, 801 is philosophy of literature… yeah, and 101 is philosophy of philosophy (because that’s an actual thing, believe it or not). Well,  909 is world history… Which, in a way, is the history of all history. This pattern holds for other subjects: history of philosophy is 109, history of science is 509, history of art is 709, and so on.

This is because Melvil Dewey gave his system a recursive structure, where the patterns of classification echo into one another. In other words, if you take one classification number and attach it at the end of another, you might (just maybe) have a working classification that somehow combines the two topics in some way. History is the most obvious example of this. If you look under a subject’s call number, and you see either “9” or “09” tacked on the end, you are probably looking at the history of that subject. For example, 629.4  is space engineering, and Deborah Cadbury’s 2006 book, Space Race: The Epic Battle Between America and the Soviet Union for Dominion of Space, is shelved at Linebaugh under 629.409.

Biographies receive a similar treatment. As I pointed out above, the 920s used to be where biographies were categorized (actually, at Linebaugh, we still have a fair number of older biographies there). But if the 920s are generally unused, where did the books go? Well… in a way, they went everywhere. If you know what such-and-such a person is known for you’ll frequently (though not always) find biographies of that person under that topic with either “92” or “092” tacked on the end. For example, 520 is Astronomy, and so David Wootton’s 2010 book, Galileo: Watcher of the Skies, is shelved under 520.92. Similarly, 780 is music, so 780.922 is where you’d find The Lives of the Great Composers by Harold C. Schonberg.

You can use the same method for Geographical locations:

These examples have mostly been art history, but as Galileo’s biography shows, it applies to other disciplines as well. Initially, I found this quite frustrating. After all, this speaks to an ideological assumption that I’ll revisit in future posts concerning what counts as historical and what does not. From the Dewey Decimal System, one would conclude that history is all about nations, geographical regions, borders, and the wars fought to change them. And if you look at the history of the U.S. in the DDS, you’ll see that it is organized according to presidential terms. Are we then to conclude that presidents are the only important Americans? Are the only important dates those when power changed between them? I’d like to exclaim, “Of course not! History isn’t just names and dates!” But that is exactly what many people assume it is.

The causes for this popular opinion are themselves historical. When academic history began in the 1800s, nations, borders, names, dates, and (last but not least) wars were the only topics historians tended to emphasize. Mainstream historians didn’t begin exploring other areas of life in much depth until after World War II. Melvil Dewey first published the DDS in 1876 and so his system reflects the assumptions of his time. The non-academic press still lives under this assumption, and the popularly-consumed history books they publish reflect this. In addition, the political interests who dictate school curricula carry this attitude as well, and high school history classes reflect this. The general view that history is mostly the memorization of names and dates is the unfortunate result. My hope is that my blog entries, in time, will convince some hearts and minds otherwise.

Throughout the 1900s, academic historians expanded their interest from the study of politicians, generals, and diplomats to the study of industry, agriculture and trade, topics that customarily are shelved under the 300s and 600s. In other words, they helped bring historians’ attention to the doings of regular people in their practical lives. Others later broadened history’s scope further to consider the effects and changes in language and culture. It has become clear that, in a very real sense, everything humans do is historical, and therefore everything we do has a history of how we did it. Not just art and science, but gardening, beer,  and religious practice. But all these other topics are shelved apart from what the DDS considers “real history,” and that used to sadden me.

So how did I learn to stop worrying and love the Dewey Decimal System? Because of times like when I was walking through the stacks today, trying to find the books I mentioned above. In my search, I stumbled upon this:

dewey 5.png

It was a whole row of books in the 385s, which is where we shelve our books on trains, and I noticed most of them were under 385.09 and its subordinate points. Sure enough, I had discovered a little island of history books. 385.0957 was a history of Siberian railroads. 385.097, 385.0971 and 385.0973 were histories of railroads in North America, Canada, and the U.S. respectively. It was a magical moment. Despite supporting a narrower view of history on its surface, beneath that, the Dewey Decimal System contains the truth that all human endeavours are historical.

What’s the upside? If you’re ever in your little corner of the Dewey Decimal System, let’s say 641.5 (cooking), and you find a section with books under 641.5944 (French food), 641.5952 (Japanese food), or 641.5973 (“American” food), you’ll know you’ve found a little island where you’ll find the history books written just for you.