Organiz­ing and Commu­ni­cat­ing Historical Knowledge: Some Personal Observations

In my initial academic encounters with Germany in the late 1980s and early 1990s, one of the things that impressed me was the availability of handbooks as well as specialized encyclopedias such as Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe. The textbook series Oldenbourg Grundriss der Geschichte was a new experience for me.[1] Each volume offered a concise, chronologically organized survey (with key terms in the margins for rapid orientation), followed by a substantial historiographical discussion and bibliography. At the time, I did not appreciate the massive effort behind such compilation and systematization efforts. I just found these tools were quite practical for orienting myself in a given historical subject. Why didn’t we have such useful tools in the United States?

Nowadays, it seems pretty clear to me that the difference had to do with how academic projects are organized and funded, and how their merits are perceived when hiring decisions are made. Perhaps, too, there is something in the academic culture that sees particular value in such projects, although I have no idea how one would separate such possible cultural predilections from the institutional organization of scholarship generally and of the discipline of history more specifically.

I do know that my doctoral advisor’s approach to reading lists for our comprehensive exams at Georgetown University in the mid-to-late 1990s was unusual in the history department there. Roger Chickering gave us a massive bibliography for research purposes along with a so-called canon (read: very long list) of the texts that he expected every PhD student to know or at least know about.[2] For my reading in Soviet, Imperial Russian, modern French, and modern British history, I had to write up my own reading lists, sometimes with suggestions by the professor, never with the ambitious, perhaps Sisyphean intention of producing a canon.

Roger Chickering, of course, is both product and producer of the American academic landscape, and he has deep ties in the German one too. The above example, however, is not meant to suggest that his approach was in any way related to its proximity to German academic culture. Instead, I mention it in order to underline what I sense is an additional reason for the (to my mind) weaker handbook culture in the United States, at least among historians. Such systematization is hard and its desirability not clear.

I bring this up because I was struck by a recent post on the francophone blog Germano-Fil, a Franco-German production. The post is entitled “Recherche bibliographique en France et en Allemagne” and contains a wonderfully useful list of resources, the kind I would like to have had when I was studying German history. This list would also fit in one of the more traditional handbooks, but it is on a blog and can be accessed easily via the site’s category links, which act like a table of contents. Does such a detailed resource even exist in English for the study of German history? Hard to imagine.

The nice thing about this blog is that it does not require massive overhead, although it does seem to have some institutional support. Nor must an entire handbook be conceived and created before anyone can use the knowledge being gathered and produced for it. The blog simply grows over time (since 2011) and can respond to new concerns and concentrations with tweaks to its categories and tags.

There are other German websites that mirror the old handbook and encyclopedia culture more closely in that they are the products of specific research grants, and they begin with a structure, like a book, instead of waiting for a structure to emerge, as is possible on a blog. In its current iteration, German History in Documents and Images (GHDI), a German–North American project, is organized in chronologically bounded volumes, each edited by a different historian (or team of historians).

Another site, historicum.net, is a cross between a reference work and a reference library for students of history. Such an undertaking, of course, requires substantial institutional support, at least that is the impression I get from the extensive content, not to mention the logos of the project’s sponsors—the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, Universität Köln, and the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek.

Docupedia-Zeitgeshichte also recalls a multivolume handbook with a correspondingly large editorial team. Like on GHDI and historicum.net, Docupedia’s articles contain no tags or links to establish connections across entries. Instead, each piece reads like a traditional handbook article. In other words, the enterprise comports with the traditional research and writing practices of professional historians.

I have been thinking about blogs in terms of academic cultures for another reason as well. The above-mentioned blog has an ISSN, an identifier for periodicals. My encounters with academic blogs in the past decade or so have not involved this kind of identifier. Yet a number of academic blogs in Germany, at least blogs with some sort of institutional support, not to mention all blogs on the Hypotheses portal, are now using the ISSN. Why?

According to the international organization behind this numbering system, “The ISSN role is to identify a publication,” thereby preventing possible confusion with similarly named publications, for example. But this “digital code without any intrinsic meaning.” The ISSN contains no “information about the origin or contents of the publication,” and, most importantly in the present context, “it does not guarantee the quality or validity of the contents.”[3] Nevertheless, on the blogs I have been encountering, this number appears to be about making the web publication look more serious or legitimate. In Germany at least, but maybe further afield, the ISSN can apparently make blogs accessible to library catalogs, as well as to an international open access directory called ROAD; however, it is hard to escape the impression that for blogs, the ISSN is more about gaining recognition.[4] Academic culture might be a factor too.

Academic cultures with a long and deep history tend to influence the ways in which new media formats are used. Blogs, for example, offer the advantage of speed. One can put pixels to screen and share one’s thoughts almost instantly. Gatekeepers are practically nonexistent. Instead, it is up to bloggers to make clear who they are so that readers can judge for themselves the worthiness and reliability of the blog. In my view, these factors constitute advantages, but they can leave scholars uneasy, steeped as they are in a specific academic culture. Thus, some blogs take on the forms of more traditional academic publications.[5]

See, for example, the impressive and seemingly well-funded Verfassungsblog: On Matters Constitutional, whose posts often even include a DOI, a tool to ensure the long-term availability of a piece, even in the face of changing hyperlinks or dying websites. Aside from longevity, this approach might have the merit of making it easier for scholars to include any substantial blog posts they write on their curricular vitae. On the other hand, DOIs would seem to entail a prohibitive amount of extra work for many of us, perhaps militating against the rapid communication of ideas and research results that a blog can make possible.

Many research blogs give me the impression that their authors understand blogging and peer-reviewed journal publications as complementary. The former allows faster publication as well as more provisional and personal writings, but it in no way precludes developing one’s blogged thoughts further toward a peer-reviewed article or book. Conversation can also occur more easily in the blog format, since a response to one blog post can be written and published in a matter of mere hours or days, if that long. The benefits of such speed and interaction would seem to outweigh any need to “legitimize” a blog by adding the trappings of a more conventional periodical.

None of these observations amount to a specific argument or program, but I thought they might be worth sharing in the context of a blog about knowledge. Self-reflexivity should be part of any scholarly undertaking. Moreover, some of our contributors might be new to or skeptical about blogging as a form of scholarly communication and knowledge production.

Mark Stoneman holds a PhD in history and is an editor at the GHI, Washington, DC.


  1. Now there is the similarly conceived Enzyklopädie deutscher Geschichte.
  2. There was also the extremely helpful and systematic Imperial Germany: A Historiographical Companion, edited by Roger Chickering (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996).
  3. What is an ISSN?, ISSN International Centre. See also the Library of Congress’s explanation of the ISSN, last updated February 19, 2010.
  4. See, for instance, Mareike König, “ISSN für Wissenschaftsblogs—mehr als nur Symbolik?,” Redaktionsblog , March 10, 2016, which is as revealing as it is informative.
  5. See Hannah Birkenkötter, “Blogs in der Wissenschaft vom Öffentlichen Recht: Ein Beitrag zur Erschließung neuer Formate,” in Formate der Rechtswissenschaft, ed. Andreas Funke and Konrad Lachmayer (Weilerswist-Metternich: Velbrück Wissenschaft, 2017), 117–39. Thanks to Alexandra Kemmerer for bringing this piece to the attention of my colleague Kerstin von der Krone.
Suggested citation: Mark R. Stoneman, “Organiz­ing and Commu­ni­cat­ing Historical Knowledge: Some Personal Observations,” personal blog, June 16, 2018, https://markstoneman.com/2018/06/16/organizing-and-communicating-historical-knowledge/.

Blogging before Conferencing

We tried something new in connection with a conference called Learning by the Book. The conveners asked participants to submit a blog post to History of Knowledge in lieu of precirculated papers. One of the conveners, my colleague Kerstin von der Krone, did most of the coordinating work, prescreening posts for length, permissions issues, and content. Then I edited them, trying to ensure they spoke to a multidisciplinary audience, not just specialists in their authors’ respective fields.

Of thirty-seven potential posts, we managed to publish thirty-five on a rolling basis between May 2 and June 5. Four of these were crossposted on the Recipes Project and edited by Jess Clark instead of me. One piece wasn’t published because of an unresolved copyright issue and another because the author had trouble conceiving of a short blog post that spoke directly to the conference’s concerns while giving the original research context a much more cursory treatment. These numbers tell a success story. An overwhelming number of scholars, from graduate students to senior scholars, were able—and willing—to convey their core ideas in only 1,000 to 2,000 words. And they did so to good effect.

Sometimes, scholars will read aloud what they precirculated to conference participants. I experienced only half the conference in person, but the papers I heard generally did not duplicate the blog posts. Some presenters made their blog contributions a foundation on which to build fuller versions of their posts, while others consciously used the blog format to present a specific aspect of their work, presenting other sides of the story in the conference room. A great example of the latter strategy was offered by Jennifer Rampling, whose blog post focused on an alchemic experiment in the lab, but whose talk dove into the alchemy manuscripts and how they were read.

One participant also suggested that blogging before conferencing forced participants to prepare better because their ideas were being made public in advance. Moreover, the process of writing and revising can force one to become clearer about one’s own positions.

The higher volume of activity on History of Knowledge lead it to garner many times its normal number of readers, thereby expanding the reach of the conference, getting ideas to an audience many times its size. Conclusions synthesizing the results are missing, of course, but what a way to get a first draft! If all history is an act of interpretation, why not make earlier iterations of that work public for other scholars and for engaged members of the public?

Reader engagement (visible in visitor statistics and in reader engagement with our accompanying Twitter posts) and the discussions at the conference itself underlined that knowledge as an object of historical inquiry can open productive dialog across seemingly impermeable disciplinary and sub-disciplinary boundaries. (Researching what hashtags to use for which communities on Twitter helps too.)

…The iterative practice of regular blogging has its own set of joys. For me, writing begets writing. The blog doesn’t distract from my formal academic or scholarly work. It feeds it. It becomes a form of discipline, like doing sit-ups every morning, a practice I long ago abandoned. My abdominal muscles are flabby, but when I sit down to write, whatever the context, I feel strong.

David Perry, “3 Rules of Academic Blogging,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 11, 2015

Being a historian right now feels like being kept awake through brain surgery.

– Elizabeth Catte on Twitter, January 28, 2017

Tonight’s Lecture

My initial personal takeaway from tonight’s lecture on digital mapping: It looks useful as an analytical tool, and for presentation, but in the end we still have to write narratives. Historians have to make choices, not present facts that merely speak for themselves.

During the question and answer period, the story-telling aspect of such enterprises became clearer. Apparently a kind of directed narrative is the idea. Unfortunately, that got lost in the presentation of tools aimed at the already initiated. An inordinate amount of space was given to talking about digital mapping per se and not enough about the history that he was mapping.

I would have liked to hear more about the insights that a given mapping project offers. If digital mapping were a product for sale, I would be the consumer who needs to be convinced why that category of product is desirable in the first place. The issues involved in getting value out of a specific iteration of that product are secondary.

I think many members of the profession are at this stage, which is one reason why gaining professional recognition (tenure) for output other than the monograph is an ongoing struggle. We need to gain a better understanding of the value of these projects.

But this public event was a keynote lecture for a conference. Part of the audience included people who, like me, are interested in but not initiated in the assumptions and concerns of digital mapping projects. The other part of the audience, however, comprised conference participants deeply immersed in the tools discussed and the reasons behind their creation and use. Trying to bridge that gap is never an easy task for a speaker.

In any case, I look forward to the conference presentations tomorrow, optimistic that they will help me learn more about the historiographical motivations behind this kind of work. I just hope the history, not the tools used to do it, predominates in the discussions.

Suggested citation: Mark R. Stoneman, “Tonight’s Lecture,” personal blog, October 20, 2016, https://markstoneman.com/2016/10/20/tonights-lecture/.

In most of today’s university disciplines, professional training serves to distance an individual from the public, to refine them into an ‘expert’ whose speech and writing are marked by incomprehensible formulae and keywords. But history-telling came out of an age before the era of experts, and its form is inherently democratic.

Jo Guldi and David Armitage, The History Manifesto (2014; Cambridge UP, 2015), 56.

German Scholarly Monographs

At the end of his English-language review of Anne Sudrow’s long book (in German) about the shoe in National Socialism, Neil Gregor has some choice remarks about German academic publishing, particularly dissertations and the second advanced dissertation (Habilitation) that would-be professors in Germany have to write.1 Of course, he does not mean all or even most scholarly books in Germany, but as an editor and historian, I do have to deal with the tendency he describes rather a lot. I’m sure translators will feel Gregor’s pain too.

Inevitably, there are sections in an 800-page book where the reader’s spirits flag, and where one wonders whether some editing down might not have improved the readability of the book at little cost to the comprehensiveness of its argument. No self-respecting German Ph.D. monograph would spare its reader a fifty-page discussion of the state of research, Fragestellung, and methodology; a suitably earnest discussion of the definition of a shoe is also, of course, a must. Yet life is short, and the half-hour I devoted to mastering the different kinds of shoe polish available to consumers in the 1920s is a half-hour of my life that I will not get back.

On the other hand, scholarly monographs, like shoes, have their own product history—they can no more be seen as isolated objects, standing outside of time and space, than the things with laces that we wear on our feet. In that sense, any such critical remarks are as much a comment on the academic habitus that consistently produces such books as it is on the book itself. The culture of subsidy which permeates German scholarly publishing, combined with a scholarly environment which places such emphasis on thoroughness, can all too easily permit indulgence. Rather like the German manufacturers this book describes—ambivalent about their customers, and irritated by their habits—one often feels that German academic authors ought to take their readers a bit less for granted. Who knows, they might then, like those shoe manufacturers this book brings to life so superbly, even produce objects that can compete without subsidy in the marketplace.

Keep in mind, Gregor begins the review by stating that Sudrow’s book “is one of the most interesting things I can remember reading,” and the bulk of his piece shows he means this. He is not criticizing Sudrow in the above comments, but rather particular weaknesses in an otherwise excellent academic system. I’m quoting him here because he made me laugh, recognizing, as I did, Gregor’s pain, but cognizant that the production of such pain is not a monopoly of German academia.