Thursday, October 13, 2011

Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing

As the history of science has moved beyond strict intellectual history, our work has gotten more and more interdisciplinary. At the same time, because we are in one of the few independent history of science departments in the country, even our colleagues on the other side of Bascom Hill can sometimes seem like they're from another world. When beginning work on a new project, you inevitably realize that other subdisciplines of history likely have valuable contributions to offer. But catching up on decades of historiography in a field that impinges on your work takes time and hard work. And especially for those of us who come from backgrounds other than history, figuring out how to start can be bewildering.

Probably the most important thing to do is ask a friend in the "regular ol' " History Department for suggestions about what to read and who to talk to. Syllabi and textbooks from survey courses can also point you in the right direction.

I just stumbled upon a useful source, though, that can help make tracking down and understanding unfamiliar historiographies just a little bit easier: The Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing. Trying to decide whether it's more correct to say that your work will be relevant to "diplomatic historians" or to "historians of international relations"? Want to know who the most important authors in legal history are? Wonder what the heck Arnold Toynbee argued, anyway? This is the place to go.

Now, I obviously haven't read the whole thing, so I can't say whether every article is spot-on, but this is definitely a resource to add to your toolkit when venturing into new areas of history (especially if you find yourself suspicious of Wikipedia's handling of the topic). Unfortunately, our library system does not have it in electronic form, and only part of Volume 1 is available at Google Books.

While we're on the subject, how have you approached the problem of familiarizing yourself with relevant historical subdisciplines? Any tips to share or frustrations to vent?

(P.S. I'm hoping we can get more vigorous discussion going in the comments section of this blog, though maybe the low volume is just a result of the quality of our brownbag and happy hour conversations!)


  1. Thanks, Megan -- this looks like a very helpful resource, especially for someone like me, still trying to orient himself in the discipline.

    I'm intrigued that the editors categorize our field as the history of "Science, Medicine, Technology, and Ecology" -- perhaps a glimpse into our department's future?

  2. Yes-- how could I have forgotten to mention that they lumped environmental history in with sci, med, tech! I think their choice of calling this "ecology" is an odd one, since EH is concerned with a lot more than just ecology. Why not use environment, since this is what the field uses itself? It's misleading.

    Lumping is problematic, considering the very different traditional disciplinary approaches (science as object of study vs. science as one of the methods). Though, synthesizing them is a really exciting area of work. I'd say our department is "already there", since a good chunk (1/4, 1/3?) of our grads are in CHE. I know the main reason I chose Madison was because it was one of the only places where history of science and environmental history are in such close dialogue.

    This label aside, the individual articles on EH that I looked at seemed to get across the major points in an appropriate way.

  3. I'd seen this title and was wondering if it was useful.

    It strikes me, however, that reference works like these would be so much more accessible if they provided a digital format that individuals could purchase. It's selling for $400 on Amazon right now, which is obviously only affordable for institutions. I would be inclined to use something like this if I could search it online via the UW library or buy a much cheaper personal copy that I could have on a cd or store on my laptop.

    I know this opens a whole can of worms regarding digitization and the death of print culture, but for some projects, like this one, digitization seems like the way to go. Publishers could even charge more by making comprehensive works like this available by subscription to institutions. In that format, it would also be far easier to update it and add content.

  4. I second that. Do you know, I've written encyclopedia articles that I've never even *seen* in published form because they are not accessible. (And they are not obscure ones)

    I wish someone could explain the encyclopedia market to me. Something funny is going on there.

  5. Ditto. I wrote one on "potatoes" and "gardens" once for the Encyclopedia of American Environmental History, which I have never seen. It's selling for $350 now from the publisher ~ this price is an obstacle for high-schoolers everywhere from gaining true knowledge of the history of potatoes!

    In case you're interested in purchasing this valuable product, however:

  6. At least the index is viewable there! (Mine on Caribbean environmental history is in there, too! Didn't even know we were authors in the same publication!)

  7. What would you think about us asking for a copy of this in the Department reading room? I think that we still have an annual budget for book purchases.

  8. It seems appropriate, though its probably a big purchase--$400? It would save a trip to Memorial, which would mean more of us would look at it. But b/c its at Memorial, the dept. might be less inclined... no harm in asking, though. Good idea.