Peak Document and the Future of Historical Research

Each January, the American Historical Association (AHA) organizes their annual meeting. This year I travelled to the United States to represent the Royal Netherlands Historical Society (KNHG) at this large gathering of mostly American historians. The annual meeting is a good opportunity to meet colleagues in the field, to discuss current affairs in the historical field, to address issues and to take home new ideas. In 2020 the KNHG celebrates its 175th anniversary and our theme is to look towards the future of history, as a discipline as well as a field of research.

The 2020 edition took place in New York City and part of its extensive program is a Presidential Address, followed by a presidential reception. This address is given by the leaving president and he or she is introduced with a lot of kind words by the incoming president. Detail, though not irrelevant, is that the AHA maintains a kind of zipper construction. After a male president a female president takes office. This year’s president John R. McNeill of Georgetown University did something historians rarely do. He used his address to speculate about history and its future. And he did so with a lot of dry humor and a few moments loaded with self-mockery. You will understand this subject and his speech got my full attention.

Models of presidential addresses

Before McNeill started his speculation about the future of our discipline he took his time to give us, his audience, an analysis of the previous presidential addresses. He concluded that past presidents either gave a research talk or a reflection on history speech. This last type of speech can be subdivided into a retrospective speech. Meaning by looking back at the past these presidents made statements about the profession or the scientific discipline at large. But this type of speech could also be, what McNeill called, a sermon. These presidents preached by telling their audience what they should do as historians. He also noted only once in the history of presidential addresses, in 1989 to be precise, the president addressed the future of the AHA itself. And McNeill added ‘this president advocated higher dues’. Laughter rolled through the audience and I could see quite a few historians flipping through the leaflet that the AHA hands out, to look up who was president back in 1989.

Rise of Paleo Sciences

McNeill recently received a prestigious award from the Dutch Royal Academy of Sciences for his important work in integrating two branches of the study of history: global history and environmental history. In his address he talked about the influence of the paleo sciences on our discipline. He mesmerized his audience with examples from genetics (the saliva of a 16th century clerk from Milan tells us a lot about his diet and health), geology (land techniques can help archeologists looking ‘‘through’’ the canopy to find settlements to excavate) and the natural sciences (the layering of teeth of bodies found in old graves gives us information about the peoples medical condition and their nutrition).

Historically documents, which we find in archives and libraries, are the voice of the powerful. These documents tell us their story of the past. And for a long time historians have taken it to be the voice of the past. These new techniques however, give a voice to historical actors without documents and speak for lost or forgotten communities (as in the case of the land surveying techniques).

Disruptive developments

The question is, are these new sciences disruptive for the historical science as we know it? According to McNeill the answer is yes. In his opinion they will affect all disciplines, maybe with exception of the intellectual history. To put his money where his mouth is, he sketched a rather dim picture for our profession when we do not respond to the opportunities the paleo sciences offer.

First of all, the academic job market will change and historians have to evolve their toolkits to stay put. It is still, subject and period over method in our field. That will have to change and change will come soon to us, much sooner than we expext. McNeill compared history with geography. In that discipline tools and skills identify the jobs, not the subject. He advocated this change for historians too.

He also warned against a split for history as a discipline. On the one hand there will still be the traditional history which is document based research. On the other hand a new and interdisciplinary field of history will emerge. McNeill would like to see an integration of the two. That also requires a new type of research institute even though it is currently hard to figure out what that institute might have to look like. He advocated trial and error but as a result of that development another split impends, one between the richer and poorer institutes. Those who can afford to evolve this new toolkit and develop this interdisciplinary institutes and those who cannot and will have to stick to old-fashioned document based history.

A third threat is the temptation to we-othering the other disciplines which is, according to McNeill, fed by the historian’s text ‘fetish’. The upside is ‘we walk the paper trail carefully’. McNeill advocates to be collaborative and urges historians not be shy to table the traits they have but other disciplines lack. In other words, to shy away from simple and mono causal arguments he now sees so often when historians are not ‘on board’. So, historians should not hesitate to offer their help and knowledge to paleo sciences.

McNeill’s final conclusion was a rhetorical question. He asked what will happen to the profession of history when the low hanging fruit of paleo sciences has fallen. Will the relevance of texts come back? This question lingered on during the reception afterwards and I can assure you has not been answered at all.

Antia Wiersma
Director of the bureau of the Royal Netherlands Historical Society

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