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Wednesday 26 November 2014

Eras are ending all the time, and new ones starting

To anyone who has been keeping up (not that I'm sure I'm entirely kept up, because these things are developing all the time) with the historiographical area of 'Soho Studies', so ably undertaken by Frank Mort in Capital Affairs: The Making of the Permissive Society (2010) and Judith Walkowitz in Nights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London (2012), the gloom and doom in this article: The slow death of Soho: farewell to London's sleazy heartland: For years, relentless gentrification has been squeezing the life out of the infamous district. The closure of Madame Jojo’s feels like the nail in its coffin feels not just like same-old-same-old, but actually rather ironic.

In particular, in its invocation of some kind of traditional Soho embodied in 'the old rogue' Paul Raymond, it places a figure who himself, as Mort has so ably elucidated, was instrumental in bringing about the end of a previous era of Soho, as the keeper of a heritage he himself did much to destroy. 

Perhaps, however, the glory days of any subculture are never in the present, but always in some moment that has just fleeted past and been missed: in a telling little essay on bohemia and the bohemian, Elizabeth Wilson invokes the following quotation:
“Bohemia is always yesterday,” wrote the American writer Malcolm Cowley, a bohemian himself, as long ago as the 1920s.
As writers on nineteenth and twentieth century bohemianism have commented - and were, as this line by Cowley shows, in a long tradition - that the 'real' bohemian has always just passed, by the time of writing it has become a performative spectacle or sold out to the mainstream.

But, as Wilson suggests, has it vanished - or has it just mutated or is it just located somewhere where people aren't looking?

Someday, no doubt, someone will be looking back at those vibrant subcultures of 2014 and lamenting their passing into the banal normality of the present moment.

Tuesday 18 November 2014

Attack of the sex cliches and national stereotypes

There is a fairly lengthy piece in today's Guardian on the about-to-open Institute of Sexology exhibition at Wellcome Collection (I may have given some advice on specific aspects, but I was not involved in curating this, by the way). It doesn't entirely manage to escape a number of dodgy cliches and generalisations, in particular the one about Those Brits In The Past, so repressed.

So, not only do we get the idea that the nation of Havelock Ellis, Marie Stopes, a host of other sex reformers and educators, and pioneering organisations for birth control, abortion law reform, and marriage guidance, was locked into a 'saucy postcard view of sex': which presumably came after, rather than running in parallel with, that other cliche, 'hooked on cold showers and the pursuit of empire' (is there nothing in the exhibition on Sir Richard Burton, we ask ourselves? - pursing empire perhaps but not about the cold showers).

We also have the O Les Francais, so much more relaxed and sorted about L'Amour than les rosbifs of Olde Angleterre: 
the curators make a little joke about our embarrassment when it comes to sex by juxtaposing a 19th-century French booklet praising “Les charmes de la masturbation” with an English publication, The Secret Companion, in which a gentleman is shown lying exhausted on a chaise longue in a section called “On Onanism as a cause of sexual debility”.
The Great Masturbation Panic was Europe (and North America)-wide - if kicked off by the early C18th quack pamphlet Onania it was given serious credibility by the (Swiss) physician Tissot and fears of self-abuse were disseminated every more widely over the course of the C19th, with the dread disease of spermatorrhoea being more or less invented by the French doctor Lallemand
Early C19th French anti-masturbation corset

While it is entirely probable that in the corpus of C19th British smutty literature there may be found some text on 'The Joys of Frigging' or similar.

Indeed, while Marie Stopes was hymning the benefits of contraception as an essential adjunct to married love, the French government, beset by longstanding fears of population decline, actually made it illegal in 1920, and idealistic Malthusian anarchists were imprisoned for promoting birth control.

There's also the very common simplistic notion of who was liberal and who conservative. Krafft-Ebing may not look like a radical, and he wasn't, but he was a supporter of the campaign for the repeal of Paragraph 175, the German penal law on homosexuality, initiated by Magnus Hirchfeld.

It does, however, manage to eschew some of the usual suspects.

Tuesday 11 November 2014

Further thoughts on the urban myths of sex

Musing further upon my post yesterday, and wondering about the endurance of these two narratives about sex in history, it occurred to me that they do have something in common.

They are both about posited attempts of a patriarchal system to exert control over women - in the case of the chastity belt, specifically husbands attempting to ensure the fidelity of wives, in the case of hysteria/vibrators, the notion of dealing with disruptively hysterical women by giving them a good seeing-to with a medically-approved and scientific device.

And both get subverted. Most tales involving chastity belts are about the woman managing to deceive her husband nonetheless, while the hysteria/vibrators narrative implies that women took a procedure intended to pacify them into appropriate womanly docility and turned this into private enjoyment with personal appliances.

This is a much more widely applicable gendered narrative of male desire to control and sly womanly subversions, with added sauciness. No wonder these have legs.

Monday 10 November 2014

Urban myths and legends about the sexual past

I was gratified to see somebody concurring with my own views on the extreme dubiousness of the case for Victorian vibrators and C19th doctors masturbating female patients for hysteria. But from the comments on that piece, people seem very attached to the belief that this Really Happened and was a Genuine Thing in Victorian medicine.

I note some people claiming that they have seen Victorian vibrators in a museum and so it must be true. Except you can, really, label any old Victorian medical device as such, because, given the spread of the idea that these actually existed, people will take it on trust. I've personally been asked to testify that a certain Victorian medical object was a Victorian sex toy, when there was really very convincing evidence (such as the patent number attached to its base) that it was an electrotherapeutic device intended for rectal use (a use of electrotherapy which can be substantiated from contemporary medical texts - it was recommended for haemorrhoids and also for prostate problems). I feel that there are interesting and bizarre stories about Victorian medical practices which are rather depressingly being occluded by the desire to bend them to the hysteria/vibrator narrative.

The 'saw it in a museum' defence of some sexual urban myth is not a new one: in fact it's of some antiquity, being recorded by E J Dingwall in his classic work, The Girdle of Chastity (1931) apropos of chastity belts. He pointed out that although widely supposed to have been a medieval device, the examples he saw were no earlier than the Renaissance - and more recent scholarship suggests that even these may have been later forgeries. The curatorial comment on one of these items

held in the British Museum remarks:
The evidence for their use in the Renaissance period, however, is largely anecdotal or in burlesque fiction. It is probable that the great majority of examples now existing were made in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as curiosities for the prurient, or as jokes for the tasteless.
But presumably there are still people going around with a vague belief that this was a thing that actually happened in the Middle Ages.

Sunday 19 October 2014

New departure

There's not much on it yet, because this is still a pretty new and underdeveloped project, but I've created a page on the website for my work in progress on Interwar British Progressives  (I've also, talking of the website, added a number of new references to Literary Abortion).

I haven't yet produced much arising from this project, but I have been doing a certain amount of archival research, and as I noted in my very preliminary thoughts on what the progressives were about in my Porter Lecture last May, they were about things like a healthy society and planning for the people and public amenity, so I was really interested to see this piece in today's Observer about Green Belts.

Certainly the progressives, who were all about the rights of the people to roam in the countryside, the stopping of the curse of 'ribbon development' and urban sprawl, and the ability to access green areas by public transport, would I think have been horrified if the legislation now turned out to be favouring the rich (given the attacks on private land-owners and such actions as the Kinder Scout Trespass) and affecting the availability of housing. This was the very reverse of what they hoped would be achieved by the Labour-controlled London County Council of the mid-1930s designating the London Green Belt, as praised in an editorial in Plan for World Order and Progress: A Constructive Review, the journal of the Federation of Progressive Societies and Individuals.

Tuesday 14 October 2014

Ada Lovelace Day post: sisters in science

To commemorate the achievements of women in STEM today, I thought I'd mention two women who are perhaps not among the most well-known of women in science in spite of their significant achievements.
Elsie Widdowson, self-experimentation

Elsie Widdowson spent 60 years in a fruitful collaboration with Professor R A McCance, working principally on questions of nutrition. Together they were responsible for inaugurating Standard Food Composition publications with their 1940 Chemical composition of foods, and were also extremely influential on World War II rationing policies. They and their research team went to the Lake District and self-experimented, trying the various recommendations for adequate nutrition and then going fell-walking to test them. Widdowson continued to be research active into her 80s.

Her sister, Eva Crane, although she initially studied physics, achieving a PhD in the subject when women in physics were very rare birds, and even being appointed a university lecturer in the subject, became a world-renowned authority on bees and apiculture following the gift of a hive as a wedding present. She similarly remained active into her 80s.

A draft letter by Widdowson in the McCance/Widdowson papers in the Wellcome Library suggests that they had an unusual background in that their parents were Exclusive Brethren.

Monday 6 October 2014

Twitter is a limited forum for discussing 1920s contraception

Further to an exchange on Twitter apropos of (didn't see this, only reported) instance in Downtown Abbey of an unmarried upper-class woman getting herself fixed up with contraception before having a fling. Well, not entirely improbable, but I really don't think she would have been sending her maid (even if she trusted her implicitly not to blackmail her further down the line) to procure the necessary. 

The most reliable form of contraception for women being advocated by e.g. Marie Stopes, and indeed the rest of the UK birth control movement, was the female occlusive rubber cup, and while there were controversies between Stopes's pet high-dome cervical cap and the Dutch cap (diaphragm) that other clinics thought women found easier to fit, it still had to be fitted by a trained nurse or doctor and this was hardly something that a maid could undergo on her mistress's behalf. What the lady in question needed was one of the discreet Harley Street specialists unconstrained by the requirements of the various voluntary clinics to ascertain that all their clients were respectably married. There would, however, be practicality issues around fitting a woman who did not have former sexual experience.

There were other possibilities: W J Rendell's 'The Wife's Friend' quinine pessaries were widely advertised (though without ever explicitly stating what they were for and why they were the wife's friend) in the most reputable women's magazines. However, this is an under-researched (and possibly impossible to research) area of contraceptive practice - the oral histories studied by Kate Fisher in Birth Control, Sex, and Marriage in Britain 1918-1960 and by her and Simon Szreter in Sex before the Sexual Revolution are silent on the topic. However, there is evidence that this was a profitable line, and Rendells were incensed when the National Birth Control Association (later the Family Planning Association) found them not meeting the standards of efficacy and safety necessary for inclusion on their Approved List of contraceptives, pointing out  that they were widely used by numerous (they claimed) entirely satisfied customers (documented in the FPA archives in the Wellcome Library). Quinine, however, is only weakly spermicidal, although the greasy medium used as a carrier did have some effect in slowing sperm motility. But anyhow, these would not have been a particularly reliable expedient.

The really sophisticated cosmopolitan woman might hear about and resort to one of the early forms of intrauterine devices that had been around since the early 1900s, principally the Grafenburg ring, named after its deviser. There was, allegedly, only one doctor (and to no-one who knows anything about these issues surprise, it was Norman Haire) in England who would fit them, and he charged the kind of rate that that commanded, to the extent that at least one woman (the bohemian writer Ethel Mannin, as stated in her correspondence with Douglas Goldring) found it slightly less expensive to travel to Germany and be fitted by Grafenburg himself. Mannin was a great advocate for this method even while conceding that the process of fitting it was the reverse of fun and might even require local anaesthesia.

I find it hard to suppose that the maid's errand would have been to purchase condoms to be discreetly handed over to the partner at an intimate moment. This does not seem a likely scenario for the period.

Sunday 22 June 2014

What's online is < 1% of the primary sources worldwide

If Dan Snow thinks he can do history by searching primary source material from the comfort and convenience of his office, I fear he is not doing very sound or thorough history. Yes, digitisation is making a lot of material available without the stress and strain of visiting actual archives, but as an archivist, and as a historian who has just returned from a trip involving crossing Canada from Toronto to Victoria to look at archival collections which it is unlikely will go online within the foreseeable future, I think I can state fairly categorically that any historian who thinks they won't ever need to go and get hands-on with the sources is limiting themself in ways that are very bad for the process of history.

I refer back to my post in late April flagging up the problems of what is given priority in digitisation programmes, how complete it is, how much necessary context is there.

I might also remark that in many instances I have encountered, repositories holding important collections of personal and institutional papers don't necessarily even have a decent online catalogue so that one can ascertain what they've actually got.

Plus, maybe the research Mr Snow conducts does take him to glamorous places, but many archives are to be found in locations which are not only not particularly places one would choose to visit for any other reason, but not even particularly easy to get to. (Though I will say, Victoria BC in June is lovely, even if most of my days were passed in a semi-basement furiously making my way through handwritten and occasionally typed correspondence.)

What has possibly transformed research in this digital age (from my experience on the basis of this recent research trip) is the ability to take digital photos of the documents for later perusal (I was fortunate to be working in special collections which permitted this). Having  worked, in the past, in institutions where there was not even a routine procedure for obtaining photocopies and one was obliged to rely on the kindness and available time of the staff, or in other institutions where the charges were inordinately high presumably to discourage the ordering of large amounts, being able to take away images from collections which I had a very short time to ingest has been a major boon.

Friday 23 May 2014

It's not all about you

My attention was drawn to an article by an author about having being solicited to sell his papers (past and future) to a university archive and his musings about the relationship this bears to his existing and future literary reputation, the impact of the prospect of the preservation of his correspondence on his self-expression, etc.

Maybe it's because I'm a historian rather than a literary scholar, or maybe because I'm an archivist, but it's not necessarily the intrinsic value of the work of the individual that makes the papers interesting. It may be what people wrote to them, their circles and connections, what their papers tell us about relatively quotidien details of their life. Sometimes the papers of a relatively minor figure who was well-networked, or who kept scrapbooks or diaries, can be more informative than those of a major figure who didn't bother to keep things.

It's only relatively recently that most people routinely have a copy of outgoing correspondence, because they've saved the word-processed file of the letter, or because it all happens in email anyway. Certainly from at least the early twentieth century one does find some individuals (as well as people who needed to keep copies for business purposes) making carbons of their letters out, but on the whole this remained fairly rare. In the past a letter was despatched to its recipient, to be preserved, torn up, burnt, have shopping lists written on the back, etc and its survival as a record of the sender's thoughts and emotions a haphazard matter.

Embarrassing or revelatory letters or bundles of correspondence still do occasionally turn up.

A further thought about archives in general that was my takeaway from a fascinating workshop discussion on Women and Gender in the Archives at the Berkshire Women's History conference: the great extent to which discussion of archives of [x] all tend to end up with the same issues and problems common to all archives (which are not those of central government) - whether papers, of individuals or organisations, have been kept at all, if they have, how complete are they or has expurgation/damage occurred, the under-resourcing of archives, the importance (and the limitations) of cataloguing and provision of metadata, the digitisation question, the continuing fascination and importance of handling the originals, etc etc.

Wednesday 30 April 2014

Not just archival nerdery

I recently came across a fascinating article by Andrew Paul Janco on Dissertation Reviews about the use of digital archive collections - which would appear to be curated selections from a range of different archives, rather than what the Wellcome Library is doing with Codebreakers and the forthcoming Digitising the Asylum project, in which entire collections are being digitised wholesale and made available online.

I was cast into a certain amount of gloom to discover that a problem I had encountered with academics developing digital resources, that they did not seem to think it necessary to include the references of the documents they were using, is far from unique and that the documents are thus detached from their original context and not readily traceable back to it.

Janco posits that this is because of the
public-history model where digital archives function more as virtual museum exhibits than as research archives.  While this provides important access to primary sources, advanced undergraduates and graduate students quickly grow frustrated by limited collections that show little promise for original research or do not lend themselves to innovative research methods.
This seems to me not only sad, but bad practice. When I edited an anthology of extracts from published texts some years ago, I included the relevant publication details, including edition and page references, such biographical details as I could glean on the authors, and so on - I didn't just present bits of texts without anchoring them. And books are usually a lot easier to access than archives.

While it is doubtless useful to bring individual documents into juxtaposition with other contemporaneous documents on related matters, it does risk losing important contextual information on the individual documents, especially if where they come from has been occluded in the process. Just an archival reference can tell you something about a document, though I'm never sure whether anybody but archivists who carefully construct references to reflect hierarchies within the archive appreciates this. A reference number is not only a means of locating and retrieving an item within an archive, it contains encoded information as to what collection, what part of the collection, what subsection, etc etc. As Janco usefully points out:
archives have a detailed finding aid and have been organized in ways that allow researchers to identify what kinds of materials are held in the collection and where to find them.  It is impossible for a researcher to read every page in an archive, so he or she depends on archival organization to assess a collection, to understand its origins, its possibilities and limitations.  Knowledge of the materials as a collection informs how we find materials, evaluate their authenticity and their usefulness as historical evidence.

Wednesday 23 April 2014

Have they tried Kellogg's cornflakes?

It has come to my attention that there is a movement (I hesitate to speculate on how large or thriving it is) aimed at encouraging individuals to give up, or at least radically reduce, their masturbatory practices. (This seems to be distinct from, or at least not co-terminous with) the fundamentalist religion- inflected anti-masturbation  discourse.) These are pretty much entirely seen as the result of the proliferation of internet porn, although in the nineteenth century fear of masturbation was pretty much epidemic in spite of pornography being rather more difficult to come by and possibly the habit was just as prevalent without the intervention of the wonders of modern technology.

However, abandoning self-abuse seems to have all the benefits that Victorian onanists would have anticipated from giving up the dire habit. While it doesn't seem that modern sufferers fear a slow death from consumption

or a decline into insanity (masturbatory insanity remained a diagnostic category according to the Board of Control (pdf), formerly the Commissioners in Lunacy, well into the 1930s), they do report improved health, ability to engage effectively with the world, and sexual functionality.

The emphasis appears to be on willpower and self-control, but I wonder if there is a marketing niche for some of the older remedies...

While I'm not sure it's actually true that John Harvey Kellogg specifically invented cornflakes as an anti-masturbation breakfast cereal, they would certainly fit in to his dietary notions about non-stimulating food. And anyway, surely there is a modern advertising campaign in there somewhere - ?Control Yourself with Kelloggs? 

Monday 14 April 2014

A foundational myth?

The story was going around some years ago that sanitary towels were invented during the First World War, and this is reiterated in an article today about inventions that owe their success to World War One. I daresay that Kotex  - a US Brand - may have owed its development to the series of events therein described, and maybe the story about the Red Cross nurses repurposing absorbent surgical dressings for their own hours of need is even true. But while this may be a compelling foundational story for Kotex, it's not actually true of sanitary towels as a product in general.

Even the Wikipedia article for Kotex concurs on this -'modern, commercial, disposable pads seem to have started in the late nineteenth century with the Hartmann company in Germany and Johnson & Johnson in the United States'.

Unmentioned there is the Southall Company in the UK, which was advertising in Family Doctor and Home Medical Adviser, c. 1893:

The greatest invention of the century for Woman's Comfort, at the cost of washing only.*
May be obtained from Ladies' Outfitters, Drapers and Chemists throughout the world
A Free Parcel of SOUTHALL'S "SANITARY TOWELS" will be sent Carriage Paid to the first Lady Stall Holder of every Bazaar who applies to THE LADY MANAGER... mentioning this paper, and enclosing circular with list of stall-holders.

FREE SAMPLES could also be sent for.

The primacy of Southalls features in the main Wikipedia article  on the history of sanpro and there is yet further information, including scans of ads, on the Museum of Menstruation website

*Possibly not disposables, then.

Tuesday 8 April 2014

New Directions: Gender, Sex, and Sexuality in C20th Britain

This was an excellent small and focused conference that took place today at University College London.

It reflected several things currently happening in history of sexuality - the spatial turn, from postwar planning of domestic spaces to produce new forms of masculinity to the very specific space of Cardiff's Butetown associated with prostitution and cross-race sexuality; the recognition of the continuing significance of religion, both in the panel dedicated to it and in Sean Brady's compelling paper on the role of sectarianism in attitudes towards on homosexuality in Northern Ireland; the importance of popular media (in this case the tabloid press) as a means of circulating sexual knowledge, not necessarily in the way the editors intended. Material culture also made an appearance in the form of the repositioning of the condom in the 1970s.

There was a very welcome attention to differing regional experiences. Besides Brady on Northern Ireland, and Simon Jenkins on transgressive sex in Cardiff, we had a taster of Helen Smith's impressive work on working-class men in South Yorkshire who related sexually to other men in the pre-Wolfenden era, and Jane O'Neill's work on Scottish young peoples' negotiations around sexuality since World War II.

There were also plenty of opportunity for informal interactions over lunch, coffee, and eventually wine.

The organisers can be congratulated on a very successful day.

Sunday 30 March 2014

A chance to see Sir Henry's sexual objects

Since my post on Sir Henry Wellcome's sexual objects is the most popular post ever on this blog, I am delighted to be able to mention this forthcoming exhibition, Intimate Worlds: Exploring Sexuality through the Sir Henry Wellcome Collection​,  at the  Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter, from 5 April-29 June 2014, at which there will be the chance to view these artefacts.

Friday 28 March 2014

Forthcoming appearance

On 14th May at 6.30 pm,  I shall be giving the Roy Porter Lecture for 2014, 'Healthy Lives/Healthy World: the utopian visions of interwar British progressives'. This is free by ticket: booking opens on 25th April.

Wednesday 26 March 2014

Further thoughts on historians vs popular marketplace

I like this article by Paula Michaels a lot, because she makes the significant point that
the path of popular history is closed to most historians because of the very subjects of their investigation. No amount of finesse with the written word would have put my first book, on the history of medicine and public health in Soviet Kazakhstan, on the shelves of Dymock’s. The publishing of popular history is driven not by how scholars write, but by what readers are willing to buy.
Speaking from my own experience, if I'd wanted to top the Amazon rankings in C20th biography, I wouldn't have written about a radical and penurious social activist who, towards the end of her life, saw the battles she had fought for continuing but not yet won. I'd have chosen some glamorous aristo or already well-known literary or artistic figure, or at the very least someone who had affairs with men of note or can be posited to be 'the original' for some literary character. However, that wasn't the research I wanted to do or the book I wanted to write.  Finding oneself gripped by a particular individual or group of individuals, rather than scanning the bestseller lists to see what's going well, drives a lot of people to create biography.

If one is thinking beyond the individual and about broader thematic topics, again, the bestselling areas are (at a guess) war, historical crimes especially involving horrible murders, and royalty. I don't deny that there are people doing work that is both popular and academically respectable on all of those topics, but those are not the only subjects of historical investigation and they don't light every historian's fire. I daresay, properly pitched, and given a sexy title like Subterranean Passions, Muck, and Brass a book on C19th municipal sewage reform might catch the public eye, given a few well-placed reviews and possibly interviews with the author (though one sometimes cynically thinks that being young and conventionally attractive is a significant asset for the latter).

Similar points are made in this powerful essay by Ludmilla Jordanova about heroic narratives in the history of science and the tensions that perhaps particularly affects museums between creating 'accessible ties with the fields they represent, while drawing on scholarship that is rooted in critical distance, in scepticism, even cynicism.'

We want to get our work across, but how far do we want it to be at the expense of complexity and nuance?

Sunday 23 March 2014

We need both

Spotted just now via Twitter, an article which claims that 'academic historians' compose 'brief analyses or micro-histories - finely hewn articles for scholarly journals that their peers are obliged to review as an occupational duty, and make you wonder: what is academic history for?'

But these, after all, constitute the necessary building blocks of more wide-ranging syntheses (which one does hope are written in a way to be pleasing and accessible, certainly). Otherwise, the historian is just making stuff up and guessing.

Most historians are engaged both in undertaking what are often very micro-studies (here I would evidence my own short essay '"The Reserved Occupation"? Prostitution in the Second World War', which appeared in Women's History Magazine, no 41, June 2002. This was an investigation into the basis for what turned out to be the urban legend of the 1940s that prostitutes were exempt from direction of labour and that women could get out of conscription by claiming that they were members of the oldest profession. Pretty micro, really.), and also much larger studies which bring together the fruits of their own and others' researches.

I would claim (well, I would, wouldn't I?) that the revised second edition of my own Sex, Gender and Social Change in Britain since 1880 (2012) is a good deal stronger and more nuanced than the first edition (2000), both because I had myself investigated a number of outstanding loose ends (that prostitution urban myth, a good deal more detail on sex education in the UK) and because a lot of other scholars had been producing work in the area, much of which was in the form of articles in scholarly journals as well as major monographs such as Matt Houlbrook's Queer London, Alison Oram's Her Husband Was A Woman! and Laura Doan's Fashioning Sapphism, Hera Cook's The Long Sexual Revolution and many more.

One of my own very micro-micro, even nano, -studies, on the alleged fashionability of nipple rings in late Victorian/Edwardian high society, was undertaken when a friend who had been reading a popular work of history on the pre-Great War era asked me whether the author's claim that this was so, could possibly have been true. I like to think that I have done a little towards clearing up a misapprehension based on Iwan Bloch's somewhat uncritical attitude towards his sources. But a microstudy of this nature was also fueled by a sense of the wider social context of sexual mores and body practices.

The practice of history perhaps requires continual shifting of perspective from the narrow to the broad to the middle range. An analogy I always like is George Eliot's metaphor in Middlemarch of microscopical examination of a drop of water:
Even with a microscope directed on a water-drop we find ourselves making interpretations which turn out to be rather coarse: for whereas under a weak lens you may seem to see a creature exhibiting an active voracity into which other smaller creatures actively play... a stronger lens reveals to you certain tiniest hairlets which make vortices for these victims while the swallower waits passively at his receipt of custom.

Thursday 20 February 2014

Credit where it's due

I'm riffing off an impassioned post by Matt Houlbrook on the exploitation of historians and the invisibilisation of their labours by, for example, the media (as well as unattributed citation in the blogosphere). And like him, I could rant for a considerable time about 'media researchers' (and as an archivist I possibly encounter even more of these) who expect what is often a substantial amount of free labour which may not even come to anything ('we're thinking of developing a programme...').

But what this made me think about was the failure to give due credit even within our actual profession, by senior figures in the field who should know better. This is a rather different matter from the people who write novels or plays based on an incident or theme in history that they have discovered in some historical monograph, though one does feel that acknowledgements to source are due in an afterword, if not a preface.

Some years ago I went above and beyond any responsibility I might have as archivist looking after a particular collection of papers, by identifying for a well-known historian, who had only a short time to pursue research into what is a very extensive collection of correspondence, not thematically organised, a selection of  letters within it dealing with a particular topic, as I had published on this myself and was able to retrieve the information from my notes. When the work of which this formed an admittedly minor part was published, there was no citation to my work, a very strong implication that the author had found this collection all on their own, and interpretations applied which I felt possibly unjustified by spending a few hours consulting what was, after all, a small if hopefully representative selection. This was, looking at other references, not the only place where the existing historiography of the subject was glossed over; the impression the work in question gave was that the author had made startling new findings - which anyone who knew the literature of the subject would have known were already well-established.

Books by well-known names, published by trade presses, tend to get reviewed in the general press, not merely the scholarly journals, usually (in my experience) by people who lack any background in the field and thus take as revelation matters which are hardly new to the historian.

I could think of other instances of lack of collegiality in failure to acknowledge assistance given, or indeed to make due attribution to precursors in the field. I don't think this kind of bad behaviour is universal, in fact it is sufficiently contrary to usual good practice that it is perhaps the more shocking when it occurs, but I wonder if the media-isation (as it were) of history puts pressure on historians (or their publishers) to claim that their work is sui generis and a wholly new revelation about some historical matter, rather than part of the ongoing collective process that history actually is.

Friday 14 February 2014

Social media, old and new

I have recently been given to think about certain things which Twitter is not very useful for, one of which is asking research questions to which a simple answer cannot be given. Sometimes it's just not possible to give a snap 140 character response, or refer to an online resource or even a published work. There are questions which, however straightforward they may look, need unpacking in order to tease out the problems, and the suggestion of an array of possibilities for finding out the required information.

This sort of thing was much better served by the email-based listserv, but I'm not sure that younger scholars, used to Web 2.0 social media, engage with listservs any more? I was certainly quite surprised to come across a blog post by a younger scholar talking about the benefits of forms of social media I associate with the 2010s for engaging with the wider field of the discipline, making contacts, getting one's work known about; because I found that listservs also did this, back in the Upper Palaeolithic (in internet terms) of the 1990s.

They even had archives that were searchable: though the constant recurrence of certain questions which had already been addressed on-list led me to produce the first version of the Victorian Sex Factoids Page and to compile a bibliography of recent work on Victorian Psychiatry beyond the one work published nearly 30 years that everybody still keeps citing so that I could just link to these rather than reiterating the same message.

New technology and new media do not necessarily drive out the old, which may still have their uses. The major nexus for humanities listservs, H-Net is currently undergoing a massive upgrade to bring it more into line with modern web-use practices, but there remains a value in having the potential to respond to research queries in a more discursive and nuanced fashion than 140 characters permits.

Tuesday 28 January 2014

Talk to the nice archivist *first*

Something that always forcefully reminds me of the lack of communication between researchers and archivists is being apprised of some research proposal - in more than one instance, a research proposal that has gained funding - where the researchers have done a lot of homework and put a lot of thought and effort into constructing their proposal, in some cases have even already invested in intercontinental travel -

But at no point have they found it necessary or desirable to contact the archivist i/c the material they intend to use in the project.

Which - and again, this is more than a unique experience - is not actually available for research, either because it has not yet been processed (and I don't think it is entirely breaking news that pretty well all archive repositories have a cataloguing backlog, even if these aren't as monster as the secret Foreign Office archive lately in the news) or because there are other issues such as Data Protection or the wishes of the donor affecting access. In one case, though the acquisition of an individual's papers had been announced, actual physical transfer to the repository in question had not in fact occurred.

A catalogued archive has robust referencing that means it can be effectively cited (though another of my archival moans is the failure of researchers to use the unique identifying references archivists have created) and one that it's possible to find things in without starting at box 1 and sorting through until reaching the last box - a process that is not considered best practice from the point of view of long-term physical preservation.

If you let the archivist/s know in advance that you are interested in putting forward a research proposal that depends on a specific archive, this will feed into their management decisions about cataloguing priorities and they may, in fact, get that archive processed. Whereas it is fairly unlikely that they will be able to just drop everything and process a collection because a researcher has turned up wanting to consult it.

I also consider that funding bodies could be a bit more au fait with this issue and spend some modicum of time when assessing proposals to ensure that the archives in question a) actually exist and b) are available to researchers.

Sunday 19 January 2014

Friday 10 January 2014

You say that like it's a bad thing...

Looking at this post, on the new History of Sexuality Seminar at the Institute of Historical research, inaugurated this week at an almost impossibly overcrowded roundtable session, with people sitting on the floor and outside the door, I wonder whether the question posited is so either/or.

Possibly incoherence indicates a state of invigoration, rather than a One True Way accepted orthodoxy? Might it not be a sign of the health of the field that it is hard to get one's head around, that people are looking at different things and taking different methodological approaches and some are doing micro-studies and others are doing Big History?

Is it not a reflection of the fact that the topic under consideration - and given the debates over questions of definition, and what we call it, and the sex/sexuality distinction - is itself large and contains multitudes and contradictions? Coherence is too often an artefact of perspective.

I am all for people being aware that there is other work going on and that the issues are often intricately related in ways that may not be apparent on the surface, and that occasionally long-term continuities are overlooked in favour of what may look like change, but I don't think any one person or any one group owns the history of sex/sexuality and all its ramifications.

Some while ago there was an H-Net list on Psychohistory: unfortunately at the time (and I may be wrong about this) my perception was that it was being run by a small 'inner circle' of people who considered themselves the custodians of the Only Right Approach to Psychohistory and were quite heavyhanded about this. The list is now defunct.

I don't think it is entirely down to me setting up the first embryonic Histsex list in the late 1990s on a free listserv provider, and having a 'let 100 flowers bloom' approach to what its remit was, that H-Histsex still flourishes a decade after the move to H-Net, even if we seldom have the dingdongs heated discussions vibrant debates that I remember from those early days. I think it is probably far more to do with the wide-ranging and diverse nature of the subject.

Sunday 5 January 2014

Interesting thoughts on cataloguing, digitisation, activist records, and other issues

I am very taken indeed by this interview with Kate Eichhorn, Author of The Archival Turn in Feminism although it seems to me to be coming very much from a US perspective and not all her insights are applicable to the UK situation (the distinction between public and private universities, e.g., and no mention of the UK archival tradition in feminism embodied in The Women's Library, previously the Fawcett Library).

I particularly liked her paean of praise to the importance of cataloguing and the creation of metadata:
When you catalog a document, you’re giving the document a tag – you’re creating another layer of text that is attached to the document – a layer that makes it visible and retrievable in a larger system. I suggest here that this has more potential for social change than digitization of individual documents, because rendering a document visible in a meta-catalog means that that single document now has the potential to become visible in a myriad of different contexts. By contrast, one can digitize a document and make it available online, but as we all know, if the document is not properly tagged, it will never be retrieved, no one will see it. If archival and library-based activism is at least partly about access, then the tagging of materials – be it a material document or born-digital item – is critical.
Something that people who go 'why don't you just digitise everything' tend to overlook (but I am old enough to remember the 'why don't you just microfilm everything' earlier iteration of the same mindset): 'if these materials can’t be retrieved, they are as accessible as a box of photographs or documents locked in a personal storage unit'.

A lot of really good thoughts and perspectives there.

The discussion of preserving archives of activism also resonates for me with a discussion at the Hirschfeld conference in Berlin last May, when somebody raised the question of whether the records of activist bodies were not better left in situ as part of an organic whole.  To which my own response was that activist bodies often did not have secure permanent premises (not to mention concerns that might take priority over record-keeping) and that not all activists were always aware of the importance of preserving their records - my blood ran cold when I read an interview with a central figure in various campaigns of the 60s and 70s who talked about shredding the files, locking up the office, and moving on to the next campaign as each one achieved its aim. These kinds of archives are thus often particularly at risk.

And on the subject of Hirschfeld and his legacy, a blog for the AHRC-funded project on A Violent World of Difference: Magnus Hirschfeld and the Shaping of Queer Modernity has just been inaugurated.

Thursday 2 January 2014

But I thought historians...

I've been brooding over something somebody said during a conversation at a party before Christmas in the context of the relationship between historians and science fiction, where somebody mentioned that history is one of the humanities which involves looking at/for evidence, and I suggested that historians are interested in the factors leading to change within societies, and then somebody said

'I thought history was about assessing which was the most reliable account'

Which is, when I came to reflect upon it - party conversations not being great for pursuing intricate trains of thought - a rather naive view of What Historians Do. Even if historians do have to have a nose for the reliability of the evidence they consult.

As an archivist, of course, one of the things in which we are interested is making sure the record is an authentic record and not letting people either remove things, or insert things that compromise the integrity of the record - e.g. The 29 fakes behind a rewriting of history or the insertion into the Tate Archives of documents creating false provenance for forged artworks

But as a historian there are still issues of interpretation to the documents, and it's not necessarily that one will be 'more reliable' than another: it's more about 'what does this mean?', 'how much weight should we give to this?' and piecing together an array of different materials rather than having The One True Account.

Also, what does reliability mean? A document which is entirely unreliable in one respect may be extremely reliable in another, if only as an exemplar of the kinds of stories that were being told.

Documents and other evidence also exist within a context, and sometimes people who are focusing on these traces lose sight of the bigger picture of which they are part, and thus miss important points.

History is rather less about establishing The Real Truth and more about discussions and debate on the meaning of the evidence and how we interpret it.

Though what is history and how do we do it is pretty much an endless discussion.