Citations, Statistics, and Transnational History

Even two weeks in, this class is already making me reflect on my own actions as a historian. Blaney and Siefring’s A Culture of non-citation led me to reflect on my own work and I looked back on my thesis to see how I cited things. Despite the fact that I got all of my journal articles from ProQuest and JSTOR, I did not cite a single one as an online source. I think the reason is a mixture of the reasons respondents gave in the article: lengthy URLs, insufficient citation generators on the site, and a lack of training to do otherwise.1 Footnotes where I cited multiple articles would have become insufferable if I provided the lengthy URL associated with each document, and I used up plenty of space as is. The citation generators on most sites (in my experience) have some kind of formatting issue and are usually inefficient to even bother with. Finally, I was never really trained in how to cite online sources. The default answer to how to cite is “check the style manual” but we all tended to follow the example of our professors, who all cited text copies, when inevitably they had to have looked at things online.

Ironically, I did cite a handful of sources that I accessed online with URLs. One was a PDF of COINTELPRO files that my advisor sent me, which I located myself and cited with the URL. While I know the real copy existed, I suppose I cited the information because I solely accessed it online. One was a website that was a personal project where someone tracked election results throughout history in Ohio counties; I cited that site because the information was compiled in a specific way on that site. And finally, I cited a school record that I am sure is buried in the archives somewhere, but that I was only able to find online; again, I only accessed the online copy so I cited the online copy.

I’m not sure, then, why I would not cite journal articles that I accessed online as online sources. How does that differ from the COINTELPRO files, which I know also exist in paper form but I didn’t see in person? And while citation issues may seem minor compared to complex historiographical and methodological issues, I am still hung up on this idea that we are cheapening digital history and the labor of those who provide us the access.

On to the hands on work this week. I have always had an interest in statistics, and I do believe that quantitative analysis has an important role in history that is undervalued. However, with the breadth of other methodologies that historians need to learn, I understand why quantitative analysis is not typically included, especially after using OpenRefine. I definitely struggled with the program and manipulating the data. I think for me it was more about not understanding the platform and coding commands rather than what steps to take. I was able to logically understand what steps I should take, but not within the constraints of the program. I managed to find various filters and facets that could exclude the NA values, combine duplicate names, and filter the dates. However, I couldn’t find a way to efficiently exclude dates before 1533 and exclude dates after 1665; the filter only went by the decade, so I had to manually calculate those exclusions to get my final count. There are a few errors that I think I made that I could definitely resolve by becoming more familiar with the program and learning how to manipulate the rows and values, but I think I came close at least; unfortunately, in a real study, close is not good enough.

Prior to this class, I had used Tropy a minimal amount when testing out other source organizing software (like Zotero for secondary sources). I was pleasantly surprised to find that Tropy (as well as Zotero, which I knew) was developed by the Center for History and New Media here at GMU, adding to my excitement to be here. After toying around with Tropy, I am excited to use it for my projects going forward. Even without being able to search the text of the images/PDFs themselves, Tropy is a great way to quickly access information you know is in your collection. Creating tags and metadata is done by hand but can be applied to wide swaths of sources at the same time, making it easy to categorize massive quantities of sources and make them easily filterable. Having one software to organize the hundreds of photos and PDF documents that I have from past projects is going to be infinitely easier than parsing through individual files and opening each one to double check where the information is at.

To close out, I wanted to also briefly mention that Putnam’s article about transnational history has me reconsidering the projects that I could complete during my time at GMU. Simultaneously while reading this article, I was reading a book for my Progressive Era class that involved a Black man passing for Mexican (and assorted other races) across transnational lines in the Gilded Age. I became so intrigued by the reality of transnational existence while reading both. When I consider my own life, it becomes clear that news from other countries effects the way I live my life, or at least how I think. The arrival of Covid, the international response, the looming threat of war with North Korea, etc. Even without international travel, the reality of life (especially in a time of globalization) is that transnational history will have to become more of the norm.

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