Professional blogging and historians

I don’t mean blogging for a living. I mean professionals who blog in a way that reflects or showcases their professional activities. One of my favorites is Andrew Lewis’s The Past Sure is Tense. Andrew is a trained historian with a PhD from Queen Mary’s, who plies his trade as a consultant specialising in historical research and archival investigations. I’ve used Andrew for some of my own research projects, which has involved a lot of sniffing through Colonial Office and Foreign Office records.

He’s simply superb: he doesn’t mess about, he has an excellent work ethic, and he knows the many prominent and obscure archival repositories in and around London like no one else. If he has a fault – he doesn’t, really – it’s that he doesn’t know his own worth, which is more a comment on the profession and the sort of rates its consultants charge, especially when compared to the cost of consultants in other sectors.

Andrew’s main website sets out what he does in simple, clear terms. His blog recounts with great personal style some of the gems he sometimes stumbles across in his investigations.

Here’s one, on Orwell:

More treasures from the India Office collections, this time in the form of two brief references to some character called E. A. Blair. In some ways, Eric Arthur Blair is a fiction that will forever be overshadowed by the nom de plume he created for himself, and so being out of reach he is perhaps of more interest. Not that there was much in the way of substance to what I found in the India Office Lists for 1927 and 1928: one, a terse announcement that Blair had joined the service as a district superintendent in Burma on 29 November 1922, the other an equally short note advising of his ‘retirement’ on 12 March 1928. Not that there is any great mystery about this period of the man’s life – it produced two classic essays, and doubtless the references I looked at have been used by his many biographers. But the thrill of seeing it there in black and white, and knowing something of what lay behind his decision (momentous as it turned out) to ‘retire’! This is George Orwell I’m on about – not some Phil Space hack writing to order for the tabloids.

Or this one, on the 21st century historical researcher, in which Andrew notes “how certain ineluctable research problems remain for the historian to wrestle with”:

In between completing recent research commissions for scholars working on Turkish POWs interned in India and Burma in WW1, Iraqi coinage (issued by the Royal Mint – hence the records at TNA) and Greek refugees in the post-WW2 period, I’m currently chipping away at my PhD, trying to render it fit for publication (and not before time given that I finished the thing 20 years ago). The working title of this eagerly awaited masterpiece is ‘Venal Hirelings and Despicable Incendiaries: British West Indian Newspapers During the Struggle for Abolition’, and what strikes me on revisiting the original text is how different it could have been had I been doing the research now. So many new and potentially rich fields of historical enquiry have been opened up by the Internet that it’s difficult to pick any one that would illustrate just how different the experience of the 21st century researcher is to his/her counterpart of a mere 20 years ago. Take the records of Parliament, for example; struggling as I was to get to grips with the Colonial Office stuff at TNA, I never did get around to even approaching this apparently impenetrable mass of material – why! even referencing the report of a nineteenth-century select committee seemed to be an arcane mystery. Thus these invaluable records remained untouched, at least as far as my work was concerned. And what an omission: a few careful searches of the House of Commons Parliamentary Papers website has produced an undreamt of bounty, all of which can be read, sifted and analysed at home and at leisure.

But it’s not that simple, and even though the technocratic mystics out there may not like it there are some things that the Internet can never change: individually and collectively, the documents themselves are still what they always were, and I remain staggered at just how complex and multifarious the records of Parliament and government can be (the two are not the same thing, of course). Even finding a simple verbatim account of what was said in the Commons or Lords on a certain occasion can pose problems: 20 years ago as a callow researcher I would have thought that we would be on safe ground with Hansard, but not so – or at least not for the 1830s. In fact, I have found Hansard to be remarkably inaccurate and have had to resort to other sources in the quest to find what I was looking for: the little-known Mirror of Parliament (on which Dickens – a famously accurate notetaker – worked) or the parliamentary reports that appeared in the press, for instance. However, press reports differ slightly from MoP which differs from Hansard – so which should I use? It goes on and on: access to records has improved to an extent that previous generations would have thought impossible, but certain ineluctable research problems remain for the historian to wrestle with.

I hope Andrew will forgive me for posting these two bits in their entirety. What I want to highlight is that his blog is a great read in its own right, but equally, it’s a model to be emulated. His posts are genuine, personable observations, neither preachy nor impenetrably academic, the substance of them drawn from daily professional practice.


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