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November 26, 2008

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Building Yourself Into Somebody

Rachel Leow with a letter to a young historian:

Only Collect; that is to say, collect everything, indiscriminately… Don’t presume too much to know what’s important and what isn’t. Photocopy journal articles, photograph archives; create bibliographies, buy books; make notes on every article or book you read, even if it’s just one line saying “Never read this again”…
… collect newspaper clippings and email them to yourself; collect quotes; save your ideas for future papers, future projects, future conferences, even if they seem wildly implausible now. Hoarding must become instinctual, it must be an uncontrollable, primal urge. And the higher, civilizing impulse that kicks in after the fact is organization, or librarianship. You must keep tabs on everything you collect, somehow; a system must be had, and the system must be idiot-proof (that is to say, you should be able to look back on it six months for now and not be completely stymied as to why you’ve organized things that way - the present versions of ourselves are invariably the biggest idiots, and six months will make that clear).

This is great advice for young knowledge workers of all kinds, not just historians and not just scholars. You never know when some touchstone of information might pay off, whether it’s a book or a news item or a new skill. (I’d be really interested to hear how people outside of academia think about how this works.)

But this model of collecting is especially persuasive to me because as the second half of Rachel’s post indicates, it is, at bottom, a way to protect yourself from who you are.

That’s why Charles Foster Kane piles up so many things in Xanadu, “the art as well as the junk.” Self-defense, as well as self-creation.

P.S.: It was news to me that Rachel is 23, which ought to make me (at 29) feel old, but instead just gives me a very warm, comforted feeling, like there is a cosmic community of budding intellectuals who aren’t stuck in one space or time. I find this feeling very difficult to explain.

Tim-sig.gif
Posted November 26, 2008 at 5:11 | Comments (4) | Permasnark
File under: Books, Writing & Such

Comments

On the internet, no one knows you're a 23-year-old historian!

I'm a big fan of present self as lazy enemy of future selves. This is not limited to the historian's hoarding. In every Photoshop document I create, in every program I initiate, there is a series of decisions that will either make it legible & understandable to some future self... or completely twisted and incomprehensible. The latter is always *always* faster and easier. And frankly I usually choose it. So I spend a lot of time cursing the Sloan of six weeks ago.

More on point: For you digital-age academics out there: If you really are thinking about building hoards that grow over decades, what are you doing now to store & back this stuff up -- especially the digital-only references, the PDFs and web pages? What are the creative schemes & solutions?

I know Rachel is a big fan of DevonThink, which I have too.

The two best PDF sorting, tagging, downloading programs I use are Yep! and Papers. The key with both is that you can tag, search, and sort. Papers supports some subscriptions, proxy logins (where you can access university-only resources), and inline database searches. There isn't a perfect reading app though.

Actually, the biggest issue facing academic researchers is that for the most part, we don't want to read texts, we want to use them -- to hoard, to mark, to snip, to search, to deploy.

None of the reading apps convert terribly well to writing apps. Scrivener is okay. Word's resource managers have gotten better. Zotero is popular and versatile, but would (I think) be better as a stand-alone, Webkit-enabled app than just a Firefox extension. (Whole 'nother post -- Firefox extensions that should be applications.)

This goes back to my long-standing complaints with the do-everything web browser. The web browser environment is versatile, yes, but in 9 cases out of 10 I would prefer a specialized, web-capable application that could communicate intelligently with my web browser, word processor, databases, and so on.

So, to prod a little more -- are Yep! and Papers going to work in 10 years? 20?

I mean I guess wherever there's a big enough market, there will be tools for migrating, upgrading, etc.

It's just that a box of papers is a format that's always compatible, always accessible.

Box of 5.25" floppies, not so much. So is Yep! more like a box of papers or more like a box of floppies?

Yeah, as long as they're around, they'll work. They're really not sophisticated apps at all, especially Yep! -- it's basically just a fancy, convenient version of the Finder.

A better analogy might be iTunes. It helps you sort, find, and add to your library, but it doesn't mess with your underlying files. So yeah, if the apps died tomorrow, you'd lose some of your metadata, but your hoarded files beneath that wouldn't go away. Most of the metadata is just autotagged anyways.

Compatibility is a real problem though -- one of my big disappointments with Scrivener is when I learned that the free versions and pay versions were actually incompatible, so research binders created with one wouldn't open properly with the other. Yet they have the same file extension. This is a crazy-ass headache and has led me to abandon working in the app for current projects -- which is a shame, since it actually does integrate research and writing together reasonably well. It also turns PDFs into images, not text-aware docs. Dumb.

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