Did you ever want to know how historians work?

Anne Kwaschik, Mario Wimmer, Von der Arbeit des Historikers, Ein Wörterbuch zu Theorie und Praxis der Geschichtswissenschaft, Bielefeld, 2010 (Histoire Band 19)


How do historians work? At the desk with paper, French historian Lucien Febvre answered this question laconic. He did no longer believe to get facts by reading texts, turned away from the “bookish history” towards a “science of man”. It should be interdisciplinary and team-oriented, just in line with the intention of the editors of the dictionary to be discussed. Therefore, we find here keywords, which have been worked by geographers, sociologists and philosophers and, naturally, historians. It is the result of an effort that has been taken place in a workshop (Marc Bloch), the modern workplace in historical research. In this “production space” (Richard Sennett) technical skills are being taught.

The image of the workshop insinuates, miraculously, that history is “being made”. In that, it says nothing about the content first, but focuses on practices and concepts. Marc Bloch knew that history is always “a science in the making”. In his workshop one should be able to watch the historian at work. The dictionary starts exactly from this insight; it makes an inventory of tools of historical research: theories, methods and paradigms as well as practical aspects and production conditions. The dictionary is a forum for joint reflection on “history as a profession”.

Theoretical challenges such as the “counterfactual” (Pierre-Michel Menger) and risks as the “tunnel vision” (Jacob Tanner) are named and added through self-reflection as in “places of memory” (Etienne François), “discourse analysis” (Philipp Sarasin) and “imaginations” (Nathalie Zemon Davis). The dictionary distinguishes three dimensions in the notion of a historical tool: Places lead to premises, from lecture halls (“course”) through “libraries” and “archives” to “bookstores” in which the unexpected can be found. Practices describe aspects of the operation (“sample”, “peer review”) and the representation of history (“biography”, “essay”). Concepts refer to the theory of historical research and knowledge (“memory”, “historical epistemology”, “and truth”). To illustrate and better understand this three-dimensional project, a few examples of such tools respectively keywords are presented in the following:

Astrid M. Eckert calls the “archivist” as “indispensable partner” of the historian. In earlier times himself working historically, he nowadays is mostly busy “with other things”. For the archivist, the historian has rather been a disturbance. Metternich is said to have ordered to give nothing “without any highest order” out of the archives. Thus the historian was depending of the archive policy by the powerful. In the last third of the 20th Century, the team of two began to dissolve. Between the potential partners a “growing alienation” is to be stated again, the archival divide: Historical sciences experiment with new form for access to documents since the 1970s and leave state archives increasingly outside of their radar. And in response to Derrida the archive itself comes into the focus of the cultural research. So, Eckert comes to the same conclusion as Francis Blouin: Historians and archivists, she says, “inhabit separate conceptual spaces” for quite some time now. For the archivist, the historian is “just a customer among many”.

Nathalie Zemon Davis deals with the “imagination”. No surprise, if one knows her “true story” of the famous return of Martin Guerre and considering that the author of this fantastic story was dependent on imagination (and not just her protagonist). Pity that the contribution solely by reference to some exemplary publications and that the essential boundary respectively overlap to fiction is just completely omitted. By the way: It is really a pity that fiction was not included as a separate “tool” against the notion of “truth” in the dictionary.

Anselm Haverkamp and Barbara Vinken operate on the word “source”, a play that is somewhat risky, given the importance of this concept for historical research. Much more productive is Jacob Tanner’s etymology of “tunnel vision” (German: Tunnelblick). The surprise about the fact that this keyword was included in the dictionary – there is hardly something as generalist as historiography – gives way to curiosity to find out what the term is capable of: it brings “an explosive combination of narrowing and hope metaphorically to the point”. One bears the tunnel only, “because it holds a promise for the future” – the proverbial light at its end. But of course, the term is commonly connoted negatively: it stands for the “counter-productive complexity reduction” and „déformation professionelle”. “Perception tubes” protect against overburdening and promote, supposedly, professionalism – even in science: The efficiency of experts “rises in step with the decline of originality”.

These examples may suffice to show that the dictionary ironically and critically discusses the current situation of the historical science. Theoretical and practical is equivalent juxtaposed and discursively linked by cross-references. The result is a collective product in the tradition of the Bielefeld school. It wanted to be a lot – an introduction, a dictionary, a reader. It is, actually, a notebook of craftsmen who have been thinking about their profession and their work. As such, it is sometimes exciting and interesting, but sometimes too short and too committed solely to the game. And, surprisingly, it almost avoids the digital turn totally.

Guido Koller

Senior Historian, Swiss Federal Archives, CH-3003 Berne, Switzerland

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