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Historians need to stop obsessing over writing books

Why are historians so obsessed with writing books?

Now that I’m on my second quarter of a PhD program in the History of Science, I am continuing to think about why I am doing this and what history (and History) has to offer, both to me and to the world at large. One concern I already have is with the apparent obsession with the book as the primary mechanism of disseminating the work of historians.

By Kristopher A. Nelson in

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RNML_illustrateds2 Why are historians so obsessed with writing books?

Now that I’m on my second quarter of a PhD program in the History of Science, I am continuing to think about why I am doing this and what history  has to offer, both to me and to the world at large. One concern I already have is with the apparent obsession with the book as the primary mechanism of disseminating the work of historians.

To begin with, I’ve noticed a tendency in the discipline of history — common in many disciplines, of course — to focus inward (or backward?) and to avoid engagement with the rest of society. In departments of history right now, there is a distinct, and understandable, preoccupation with budget cuts and the lack of tenure-track faculty positions. The latter issue has caused a certain sense of crisis in history departments, especially amongst graduate students who are now consistently warned about the lack of jobs and the challenges of adjunct teaching. The former should lead to an increasing desire to justify the place of history (and its departments) in academy and society. Surprisingly, however, I have not seen a great deal of such justification as yet. Mostly I have instead seen the discipline continue to focus on the itself and its own concerns — to draw inwards. Academic disciplines are conservative, though, and a shift to engage with contemporary society in a real way is not easy.

That said, certainly I have seen a newer generation of historians focus on socially relevant issues, including culture, ethnicity, technology, etc. I have not, though, seen this focus reflected in the marketing or communications of the discipline. The shift to greater societal engagement, then, is not so much about contemporary issues, but is instead a problem of a failure to engage effectively with meaningful mechanisms of modern communications.

While I do believe that Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and other forms of social media are one potential means of communication yet to be engaged with fully by historians, I see this failure reflected more basically in a disciplinary obsession with full-length books (as opposed to article-length pieces or other shorter scholarly works). The tendency in my history seminars is to assign these long books for discussion. Legal, medical and scientific scholars, on the other hand, prefer journal articles to books (with the exception of textbooks, which serve a different purpose).

History values the book first. Publishing your dissertation as a book is essentially required if you want a chance at a tenure-track position. Reading at least a book per week per seminar is mandatory. Google Books is revolutionary, as it provides electronic access to books, something that is hardly revolutionary when it comes to articles!

Books can be wonderful, and can capture the sweep of history in a way that an article cannot. Such a sweeping approach, pulling the reader along for the ride, can make for good story-based history if well written, well edited, and not too caught up in historical detail. (General readers don’t want footnotes!) If more historians produces this kind of work, that might be a great thing for public understanding, and might even benefit the discipline. But those aren’t the books I’m talking about.

Most of the books I see in history are aimed at other historians (though they might pretend to be readable by the public, to try to entice a publisher to bite). Even the really good ones could often have been cut in half with some good editing. They certainly would have been more useful to me as a scholar if they had been published as a focused series of articles. And despite my sense that a good book aimed at the general public can be a great thing, wouldn’t more shorter pieces that are accessible at least to inform journalists — or as resources beyond Wikipedia — also benefit the public rather directly? I think people generally are expecting shorter, tighter, more focused written work today, for good or ill. I also think historians should stop fighting that trend, and start embracing it.

Honestly, I don’t know whether the general public would read more history if it were shorter. (Despite my hopes, I suspect not.) But I do think the work of historians could be more readily accessible to other disciplines — law, medicine, sociology, and so on — if their works were packaged in a more focused form than the book. This might go a long ways towards justifying the utility of history within the academy by encouraging other disciplines to make use of its work. Combine this greater accessibility with greater use of social media and modern self-marketing tools, along with a strong dose of the ongoing trend to engage with contemporary issues (while informing that engagement with a strong dose of historical understanding)  and I think historians and their discipline would receive a much higher valuation from both within and without the university.

So how about it, historians? Can you give up your precious books?