Interpretive Markup as Historical Practice

Sunday, January 10, 2016: 11:00 AM
Room A706 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis)
Susan Garfinkel, Library of Congress
Like some Schrodinger’s cat neither dead nor alive ‘til we open the box, no historical evidence exists independent of its observation. “Memory is never shaped in a vacuum,” writes Holocaust scholar James Young (The Texture of Memory, Yale, 1993, p. 2). The same can be said equally for Auschwitz or the mundane observations of weather in a nineteenth-century diary: all meaning is situated, all history interpretive.

Historical evidence is interpretive as well. Within the framework of historians’ practice, a multitude of context-based judgments reside beneath the explicit scholarly choices of which evidence to use, in what format, to be combined in what manner of analysis or exposition.

This paper unites the fundamentally interpretive nature of historical evidence with methods of textual markup to explore how historians might explicitly reveal the constructedness of their sources. Using the diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, a civil servant living in Washington, D.C. during the Civil War, it posits an experiment in multidimensional markup by treating a single source in strikingly different ways. One scheme indexes names, dates and events for easy discoverability. A second, based in anthropology, organizes the structures and institutions of society. Third, a scholar-derived taxonomy foregrounds preoccupations with weather and news. Already digitized on the Library of Congress website, the Taft diary is ideally suited for this project due to its rich overlap of ordinary life and significant historical content, as well as its broad appeal.

Essential here is the process of markup itself. The careful textual work required turns the act of marking into a means of thinking deeply about the structure, content, contexts and meanings of historical documents—with analysis now interleaved directly in the text. Such layered and interactive specificity helps us reimagine historical practice as dynamic, interpretive observation built on the new affordances of digital tools.

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