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Timothy Alborn, ‘A Digital Window onto Writing History Research Notes’

2015 October 9

Timothy Alborn is Professor of History at Lehman College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He has published widely on British history in such journals as Victorian Studies, Journal of Victorian Culture, and Journal of Modern History; as well as two books: Conceiving Companies: Joint-Stock Politics in Victorian England (Routledge, 1998) and Regulated Lives: Life Insurance and British Society, 1800-1914 (Toronto, 2009). His current research focuses on the cultural and financial history of gold in Great Britain in the decades leading up the gold rushes in California and Australia.

This post accompanies Timothy Alborn’s ‘Journal of Victorian Culture’ article’King Solomon’s Gold: Ophir in an Age of Empire’. This can be downloaded here.

The best historical writing rests on a canopy atop a dense forest of primary sources. Through hard work and determination, historians struggle through this foliage to reach the light of day, where they can gain a clearer perspective on the past. They then tell a story that creatively makes sense of that past to other readers, who have not had the time or inclination to examine it leaf by leaf.  The art of writing history largely consists in giving the impression of a wealth of primary evidence without bogging the reader down in too much detail. There’s always a fine line between inducing boredom and creating a suspicion that too little evidence has been made to go too far.  The only real test is a largely subjective one, which requires mutual trust and not a little artistry: do readers emerge feeling that they would be just as convinced of the article’s generalizations after carefully studying everything that wasn’t, as well as everything that was, included?

I’ve long toyed with the thought of creating an apparatus to go along with one of my articles that would enable the reader to part the leaves in the canopy and delve more deeply into the vast amount of material I typically sift through in the course of my research. I accomplished one version of this in 2013 when I co-edited a three-volume primary-source anthology on Anglo-American life insurance, which roughly accompanied monographs my co-editor and I had respectively written on American and British life insurance in the nineteenth century.  In this post, and with much less destruction of actual (as opposed to metaphorical) trees, I’ve created a digital window onto my research notes. In the process, I’ve also provided some insight into how I organize my research, and how I choose which evidence to include in the final version of the article and which to keep concealed beneath the surface.

My article roughly covers two distinct time periods, the sixty years before and after 1850.  In the first period, Biblical scholars, explorers, and merchants engaged in a global scrum regarding the possible location of Ophir, a mysterious Biblical land from which King Solomon received prodigious supplies of gold and other exotic commodities; in the second, novelists, colonizers, and mining speculators joined in the hunt for Ophir, and by the 1880s mainly set their sights on South Africa.

The first of these periods corresponds to the period covered in a book-length project I’m writing on the cultural and economic meanings of gold in Britain between 1780 and 1850; the second is a period I’ve focused on extensively in my previous work.  In preparing this article, I first selected judiciously from the mass of material that I had gathered in the course of researching my book; indeed, the idea of writing a stand-alone article on Ophir grew directly out of that research. I then focused my attention (and my search engines) more narrowly on references to Ophir in the decades leading up to and beyond Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, which I correctly assumed would be a useful framing device for my contribution. Since this latter period also has received much more attention from scholars than the decades before 1850 (which has received all but no attention), I also had a better sense of wheels that could safely be left un-reinvented.

Figure 1: Ophir folder

Looking over the “Ophir” folder on my computer, the result of this research strategy is apparent in the files: one very large file, simply called “Ophir,” sprawls its way through dozens of sources ranging from the eighteenth century through the 1840s, and ranging around the globe. Several smaller files, with titles such as “Ophir news 1863-73” and “Ophir news 1881-91,” or specific files devoted to late-Victorian books about Ophir, gather around this file like so many vines (see Figure 1).

Referees of my articles often comment that they have a hard time seeing the forest for the trees, or words to that effect.  As published, my hope is that “King Solomon’s Gold” is the beneficiary of astute pruning, both by myself in the revising process and by my editors. This blog post is a Borgesian effort to restore the forest in its lush wonder. Clicking this link will take you to a web page I’ve created in which I replicate, more or less faithfully, the pre-1850 “Ophir” file on my computer, with some bells and whistles: pictures of some of the Ophir-hunters and links to online editions of most of the sources cited.  The page also includes links to several of my post-1850 files, which include three with screenshots from the British Periodicals Database; “newspaper” files with screenshots from 19th Century British Newspapers and UK Periodicals; and one file with articles from the Times Digital Archive.

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