Arizona and Bad Bentheim

There were between twenty and thirty people on my car of a Berlin-bound train from Amsterdam. The train was taking a ten minute break in Bad Bentheim, the first stop in Germany after passing out of the Netherlands. As is the case with so many European borders today, the shift from one country to another can easily escape the notice of a traveler, until perhaps they catch on that the announcements have switched from Dutch and English to German and English. Though this was not true for the whole train, all the passengers in my car were fairly pale skinned northern European-looking sorts with two exceptions. One dark-tanned guy with some Spanish writing on his shirt had stepped off the train for a cigarette. The second racially distinct passenger sat in front of me, a middle-eastern looking guy wearing some fancy looking jeans and an Italian national football jersey. Whereas I had a large backpacker’s pack and a somewhat disheveled look, he had no luggage around him and was browsing the music selection on his cellphone.

Two police officers boarded the train and walked through my car looking at the people in each seat. Only later did I realize that this is was what counts for border control within the Schengen Area these days.

Of all the over two dozen people in my car, the two officers spoke to only one person. They asked only one passenger where he was going, where he was coming from, how long he intended to stay there, and where his luggage was. They asked only one passenger to produce his passport and then subjected each and every one of its pages, most of them blank, to close inspection. They were polite, respectful, and spoke excellent English. When they found nothing wrong with his Italian passport, they handed it backed, wished him a good journey, and moved on to the next car.

Though the man sitting in front of me didn’t seem annoyed by the encounter, I couldn’t help feeling a shiver run down my back and an anger swell within me. I was reminded that this happens every day, all over the world, in all sorts of context, and that however rational it might seem to the one asking for the documents, racial profiling is unjust, pure and simple.

Little dh and Planting Seeds

The following is reposting of an entry I contributed to the THATCamp New England blog:

I am excited to have the opportunity to join THATCamp New England this November and look forward to learning from everyone I meet there. I was asked to post an entry here about the issues that I hope will be discussed at the event. I have no doubt many of the main themes I’m interested in will receive plentiful attention but I would like to bring up two issues that I find of particular importance: 1) the continued need for the appreciation of and promotion of what I’ll call the “little dh” of the digital humanities and 2) an action oriented discussion about the need to plant seeds within each and every department that promotes the cultivation of both real skills and the requisite appreciation for a spirit of experimentation with technology in the humanities not merely among the faculty but even more importantly as a part of the graduate curriculum.

Little dh

I have been unable to keep up with the ever-growing body of scholarship on the digital humanities but what I have read suggests that much of the work that has been done focuses upon the development of new techniques and new tools that assist us in conducting research and teaching in the humanities in roughly four areas: the organization of sources and data (for example Zotero, metadata practices), the analysis of data (e.g. using GIS, statistical text analysis), the delivery and representation of sources and research results (e.g. Omeka) and effective means for promoting student learning (e.g. teaching with clickers, promoting diverse online interactions).

I’m confident that these areas should and will remain the core of Digital Humanities for the foreseeable future. I do hope, however, that there continues to be an appreciation for digital humanities with a small “d” or little dh, if you will, that has a much longer history and I believe will continue to remain important as we go forward. So what do I mean by little dh? I mean the creation of limited, often unscalable, and usually quickly assembled ad hoc solutions tailored to the problems of individual academics or specific projects. In other words, hacks. These solutions might consist of helping a professor, student, or specific research project effectively use a particular combination of software applications, the writing of short scripts to process data or assist in creating workflows to move information smoothly from one application to another, the creation of customized web sites for highly specialized tasks, and so on. These tasks might be very simple such as helping a classics professor develop a particular keyboard layout for a group of students or particular project. It might be more complex, for example, involve helping a Chinese literature professor create a workflow to extract passages from an old and outdated database, perform certain repetitive tasks on the resulting text using regular expressions, and then transform that text into a clean website with automatic annotations in particular places.

The skill set needed to perform “little dh” tasks is such that it is impossible to train all graduate students or academics for them, especially if they have little interest or time to tinker with technology. “Little dh” is usually performed by an inside amateur, for example, the departmental geek, or with the assistance of technology services at an educational institution that are willing to go beyond the normal bounds of “technical support” defined as “fixing things that go wrong.” Unfortunately, my own experience suggests that sometimes the creation of specialized institutes that focus on innovation and technology in education has actually reduced accessibility for scholars to resources that can provide little dh instead of increased it because it is far more sexy to produce larger tools that can be widely distributed than it is to provide simple customized solutions for the problems of individual scholars or projects. One such center to promote innovative uses of technology in education I have seen in action, for example, started out providing very open-ended help to scholars but very quickly shifted to creating and customizing a very small set of tools that may or may not have been useful for the specific needs of the diverse kinds of scholarship being carried out in humanities. There is a genuine need for both, even though one is far less glamorous.

I hope that we can discuss how it is possible to continue to provide and expand the availability of technical competence that can provide help with little dh solutions within our departments and recognize the wide diversity of needs within the academic community, even as we celebrate and increasingly adopt more generalized tools and techniques for our research and teaching.

Planting Seeds

I have been impressed with progress in the digital humanities amongst more stubborn professors that I’ve come across in three areas: 1) an increasing awareness of open access and its benefits to the academic community, 2) an appreciation for the importance of utilizing online resources and online sites of interaction, and 3) the spread of use of bibliographic software amongst the older generation of scholars. This is, to be honest, the only areas of digital humanities that I have really seen begin to widely penetrate the departments I’ve interacted with both as a graduate student and earlier as a technology consultant within a university. I’m now convinced the biggest challenge we face is not in teaching the skills needed to use the software and techniques themselves to the professors and scholars of our academic community, but the pressing need for us to, as it were, “poison the young,” and infect them with a curiosity for the opportunities that the digital humanities offer to change our field in the three key areas of research, teaching, and most threateningly for the status quo, publishing.

There are a growing number of centers dedicated to the digital humanities but I wonder if we might discuss the opening of an additional front, (and perhaps such a front has already been opened and I would love to learn more of it) that attempts to plant a seed of digital humanities within every university humanities department, by asking graduate students to take, or at least offering them the opportunity to take, courses or extended workshops on the digital humanities that focus on: some basic training in self-chosen areas of digital humanities techniques and tools, the cultivation of a spirit of experimentation among students, and finally a more theoretical discussion on the implications of the use of digital humanities for the humanities in general (particularly on professional practices such as publishing, peer review, and the interaction of academics with the broader community of the the intellectually curious public). Promoting the incorporation of such an element into the graduate curriculum will, of course, be a department by department battle, but there are surely preparations that can be made by us as a community, that can help arm sympathetic scholars with the arguments and pedagogical tools needed to bring that struggle into committee meetings at the university and department level.

Tell Me Why This Couldn’t Work

I found lots of interesting book offerings in the Routledge Asian Studies catalog I got in the mail today. Government and Politics in Taiwan is out in paperback, I’d love to learn a bit more about that. Oh, $43 seems a little much for a paperback. Legacies of the Asia-Pacific War looks interesting. Hmm, $125 seems a little unreasonable for a 240 pager, even if it is hardback and all. Ooh, Debating Culture in Interwar China, ah but, this 176 page book is $130. The Third Chinese Revolutionary Civil War, 1945-49 seems right down my alley, but $160 for that 224 page book is out of my range and is probably not where your average library would want to invest. But don’t worry, you can buy a Kindle version of the book for only $127 at Amazon! Hey, a four volume set on Imperial Japan and the World 1931-1945 looks fantastic, and looks to include a collection of influential historical essays on the topic. Oh, these four books will set you back $1295.

It is true Routledge is worse than many publishers, but this is beyond ridiculous. I’m fortunate enough to have access to Harvard libraries until I graduate (fingers crossed) next year, but the chances are very good that whatever libraries I can find nearby throughout the rest of my career are the kind who cringe at these prices. I don’t really blame the publishers, though. They are just trying to make a buck in a tough industry with books that have very low chances of selling more than a few copies here and there.

However, I do blame academia for making book publishing such a central part of career advancement. I really wish they would support a wider range of formats and a completely digital open access but peer reviewed world of scholarly interaction, given the increased potential it offers that informed readers outside our small academic world to participate more actively in the process.

Perhaps my expectations are too high, but even if monograph-length publications of the traditional variety are here to stay, can someone tell me why we can’t do something like this:

1. Scholar gets an annual personal publication fund from department, its size based on multiple variables, including perhaps, evaluation of past publications, a department’s commitment to support research in a tough field that is poorly funded by grants and professional associations.

2. Scholar writes a manuscript (a book, an article, but also other multi-media or film projects etc. ought to be included).

3. Scholar submits manuscript to a professional association along with small administration fee for free distribution of work to readers (or viewers, etc.).

4. Professional association finds some qualified unpaid anonymous readers for the work to evaluate its quality and distributes copies to them (the way publishers do now).

5. Readers return an evaluation that concludes refuse, revise, or publish with some indication of what relative importance the work has in terms of its contribution to the field from their perspective.

6. If it passes peer review, the professional association gives the scholar back the evaluation reports, an official endorsement (which can be used to promote the work, once “published”), and if funding is available, makes an offer of some amount of money towards publication of the work, in relation to the relative importance of the work attributed to it by its readers, its own further evaluation, and its budget for the year.

7. If the work passes peer review and the money offered by the professional association is sufficient for publication, proceed to step (9). Otherwise,

8. If the offered money is insufficient for publication costs or the professional association refuses to endorse it, and the scholar does not wish to make up the difference from her/his personal publication fund, they then repeat steps (3) to (6) seeking help from other professional associations whose evaluation of quality will add to the prestige and funding of the work, or other funding sources (departmental, university, other institutions) until they get enough money in offers or they revise or abandon the research project.

Once the scholar has decided that they have enough support from professional associations, grants, further departmental support, or contribution from their annual personal publication fund they proceed with publication and spend their funds in the following manner:

9. (Optional) Pay lump sum to a publisher-consultant who handles the administrative tasks and payment in below steps (10) to (13) if the scholar doesn’t want to deal with it personally or through someone at their own institution hired specifically for this task. There is to be no transferral of copyright away from the scholar either way and this publisher-consultant does not have any role in determining whether or not something gets published. In this model the publisher is an administrator who has contacts for managing the below steps.

10. Pay for X hours of labor to hire an editor-consultant to help improve the language and writing of the manuscript beyond the quality of its academic content.

11. Pay for Y hours of labor to hire a designer-consultant to create the print and digital presentation for the work (for desktop/mobile web browsers and e-reader applications).

12. Pay $Z for the fees to have the metadata for the work permanently indexed and its files hosted in multiple online depositories, including important information on its peer-reviewed endorsements and positive/negative evaluation reports.

13. (If you really want to make a paper version) submit the print formatted version of the work to all the major online print-on-demand services where anyone can order a cheap paper copy, including both libraries and average readers.

Here are the some of the strengths of a system like this:

-It leaves the copyright in the hands of the author, who will hopefully release the text with a Creative Commons license for maximum distribution and use.

-It imagines a new and powerful role for professional associations, or at least a transformation of traditional journal editorial boards/networks into more broadly defined associations who continue to have, among their primary duties, the evaluation of scholarly work in their field.

-It recognizes that publishing, even digital or print-on-demand works, can be costly process involving many hours of labor beyond that of the author and the anonymous readers.

-It leaves peer review intact, but shifts it from publishers to professional associations which should themselves proliferate in number and each will naturally develop differing perceived standards of quality and funding sources. With the decline of traditional academic publishing, these organizations should receive funding from universities and outside grant institutions or at least provide them with recommendations of where their funding should go.

-It allows for multiple sources of funding both from professional associations that participate in the peer review process but also allows scholars to use their own annual publishing funds, and further grants from university or other institutions.

-Since personal or departmental funds may end up partly or completely funding the publication of works that were poorly evaluated in the peer-review process and couldn’t get financial support from sources based on its quality, it does little to stop bad research from getting published. It does, however, prevent them from creating a burden on the traditional publisher who currently pass that cost onto the consumers of information – since now publishers play no part in the selection process or have any stake in the success of its publication – the publisher, editor, designer, and digital index/content hosts are all paid for their work regardless. Also, since such poor quality publications will not be able to promote themselves by showing that they have the endorsements of, and positive evaluations of reputable professional associations, they will simply get cited less and can get filtered out in various ways during the source search process. However, even bad works or ones on extremely obscure topics can sometimes be useful, if but for a footnote or two that turns us on to a good source.

In this system what is the role for traditional academic publishing companies as they exist now?

None. Universities who support many of them should eventually dissolve them but support them long enough to allow a relatively smooth transition for its employees to find niches in the businesses that should grow from providing services in step (9) to step (12). Book paper printing should be all done through print-on-demand services as the print medium slowly declines. Marketing/promotion of the traditional kind will ideally become a minimal part of the equation as association endorsements and evaluations become the dominant stamp of quality and citation networking power comes to rule the day. Of course, you can add a “marketing” budget for promotion and advertising between steps (11) and (12) above if such funds are available but hopefully this will be seen as a practice resorted to mostly by those who failed to receive strong endorsement from professional associations. No one promotes our journal articles, why should we treat our academic books and other projects differently? If it gets cited, read, and referenced, is that not enough to ensure its spread, especially if the works are openly available and thus offer no barrier to access.

Now, tell me why can’t this work? Why won’t something similar to this emerge from the ridiculous state of academic publishing today when it really wakes up? Let me know what you think.

Two Conference Paper Proposals

I recently submitted two conference paper proposals. One is somewhat connected to one of the chapters of my dissertation, and the other is something of a prequel for a post-dissertation project I hope to work on.

If they are accepted, I have a foundation of notes to work off of, but there is some more research that needs to be done and I welcome any comments, suggestions, etc.

The ‘Democratic Police’ under US Military Occupation: Torture and Reform in Korea and Japan, 1945-48

The reform ideals of every postwar United States military occupation have faced one of their greatest tests in the question of how to address the pre-occupation institution of the police: Are they to be preserved largely intact in order to carry out the essential duties of preserving public order, and guarding against new insurgent forces? Or are their post-conflict remnants to be completely dismantled or at least thoroughly purged for having been the most efficient tools of state oppression? This paper examines and compares the attempt by US occupation authorities in early postwar Korea and Japan to balance its strategic need to preserve social stability and its desire to eliminate the worst symbols of police brutality and oppression. It focuses on the campaign to bring about an institutional rebirth in the form of the new ‘Democratic Police’ and the responses to it within the Japanese and Korean police establishment. US occupation officials and post-occupation advisors were forced to acknowledge, often with embarrassment, the failure to eradicate torture. However, the United States police forces that supplied advisors and instructors for the occupation were no distant strangers to brutality themselves, with torture, or “third degree” interrogations reported widespread in the 1931 Wickersham Commission’s “Report on Lawlessness in Law Enforcement.” Despite a genuine disgust with brutal methods, the very willingness of US forces to quickly disassociate themselves from the ‘dirty work’ of occupation security guaranteed the persistence of such methods by Japanese, and in a more politically violent environment, especially the Korean police.

Pan-Asianism or World Federalism? Raja Mahendra Pratap and the Japanese Empire, 1925-1945

A number of Indians opposed to British colonial rule made their way to Japan and found their voices welcome among Japan’s leading pan-Asianist thinkers. The most famous of these figures include Rash Behari Bose and Subhas Chandra Bose, former president of the Indian National Congress and eventual commander of the Japanese supported Indian National Army. The collaboration between these Indian nationalists, sworn to an anti-imperialist cause, and Japan’s own brutal empire has been of great interest to historians. The more eclectic figure Raja Mahendra Pratap, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1932, was also a fervent activist against British colonial rule in India and likewise turned to Japan for support, but Pratap also developed a highly evolved and spiritually charged conception of world federalism. Pratap found some support for his ideas in China, Japan, and elsewhere in Asia, where he raised money and corresponded with intellectuals long before the idea of World Federalism would briefly enjoy widespread interest in Japan and around the world from 1945-1947. This presentation will show how Pratap worked to prevent his conception of a world federation from clashing with Japan’s imperialist conception of pan-Asian union and suggest the ways in which his exploration of the relationship between the regional and the global foreshadowed postwar and contemporary debates of a similar nature.

Update: The first proposal was rejected and I delivered the second presentation at Columbia University. I’ll try again with the first proposal for another conference in the fall.

Well Written History

The majority of the research is done. The sources have been found. The books and documents have been photographed or photocopied. Some of them have even been read.

I’ve got ideas. I’ve got outlines. I’ve got hundreds of pages of notes.

I have years of training in the destruction and dismissal of other people’s arguments. They call it grad school.

Now the time has come when I too must write – and not one of those research papers churned out in the day or two before the deadline arrives. I must write the dissertation. I am to write chapters that connect to each other in some logical fashion. Chapters. Even the word itself sounds like so many heavy links of metal to be hung around the necks of PhD students back from those green pastures they call “the field.”

I have seen them. They wander the campus with a pale look; the clank and rattle of their invisible burden almost audible as they walk. Nearby a third year history grad student might be seen skipping away, “I’m off to the archives!”

I forge my first link this fall. Getting a summer head start on my procrastination, this week I sat down to read a few books on the craft of writing, including a simple but handy book of “writing tools” aimed mostly at journalists and fiction writers. Reading through the short examples of good writing, I realized that I didn’t really know what good writing looked like in history.

Don’t get me wrong. In historiography classes, I have read plenty of “classic” works, from a full range of “schools” of historical inquiry and their most radical theoretical rivals. A year spent mostly reading in preparation for oral examinations brought me in close contact – “reading” wasn’t always the best description of what that contact consisted of – with hundreds of history books, but in all cases my eyes were trained on the content, not the form. The only times I really paid much attention to form was when some theoretically ambitious works were so frustratingly obtuse that one wondered how these historians who claim sensitivity to the subtleties of discourse could have nurtured such talent for linguistic slaughter.

I can think of plenty of works of history that took an approach I liked, had an argument that persuaded me, or simply benefited me in my own research. However, I am embarrassed to admit, I can’t name any history books that I thought were well written. That is to say, I have apparently paid so little attention to the writing of history at the level of phrase, sentence, and paragraph, and so much to the arguments and their support instead, that I now feel particularly naked as I go forward in my own writing.

Of course, I suspect good writing in history resembles good writing everywhere else. Surely many of the lessons of good writing taught in a journalism class, at a college writing center, or in Mrs. Gould’s seventh grade English class back in Aberdeen, Scotland are applicable to the writing of one’s history dissertation. I am also doubtlessly influenced by the rhetorical strategies and sentence structures of at least some of the hundreds of works that I have read in the past few years. Hopefully that influence is partly born of an intuitive recognition of quality. Even if that assumption is flawed, it is too late for me to revisit those blissful days of wide secondary source reading now. But if I get a chance to speak to incoming grad students in my last two years in the program, perhaps in the form of a wailing spirit in the night, I think I will advise them to pay closer attention to the language of historical works; to occasionally wield the eyeglass, and not merely the sword when they confront the works both in their own fields and the broader historiography.

When Archive Digitization Goes Wrong

Last week I paid a visit to a wonderful archive in a medium sized city of Shandong province, China. There I looked up various documents from the 1940s for my dissertation research that are a bit more local in scope than those I have been looking at in the Shandong Provincial Archives here in Jinan.

The archivists were incredibly friendly, and warned me in advanced that they didn’t think they would have too much from the period I was looking at. After providing the letters of introduction that are required at most archives in China and having the way paved for me thanks to a phone call from a contact I made in Jinan, I was allowed to search for documents using their digital database. They even gave me a free lunch from their cafeteria on the first day and a free copy of a book they had published that I was interested in getting containing documents from the wartime period.

Unlike the provincial archives, this archive found their collection manageable enough to scan and store digitally copies of all the files and make them available for viewing by visitors in place of the originals. Unfortunately, I was not given the option of looking at the originals instead. Also unlike the provincial archives, the online search of their database seems to return results from a much larger proportion of materials that are found by searching for the same on their internal database.1 They did not allow me to save any of the digital TIF image collections of individual documents onto a USB drive2 but I was allowed to print documents and, after their contents was checked over by the archivist3, to make off with these environmentally less friendly non-digital printouts.

Unfortunately, almost everything that could have been done wrong with this digitization program and its presentation to the visitor did. So let me list of the issues as a warning to other, especially smaller archives, that might consider going the digital route. I have listed them from the least worrisome to most serious:

1) Environment: The computer designated for viewing of documents had a cheap monitor with little screen brightness (even when set to full) which faced a window where sunlight beamed into the room (even when I convinced them to partially lower shades), providing a horrible viewing experience and harm to the eyes. An uncomfortable mini-mouse, horrible chair, and a table with almost no spare room for visitors to put a notebook or their laptop made this a nightmare to spend any length of time looking at documents.

2) Software: The custom built database software had an advanced query system which is useful for advanced users and archivists but requires multiple stages to search and although I quickly got used to it, I think it would confuse users not used to such systems. Also, when it shows images of archive files, a lot of vertical screen space is wasted on software options and interface components, which leads to a great deal of scrolling at any zoom level that makes reading possible.

3) Page Numbers: At the archive in question I requested a lot of documents where essentially local versions of other documents that I had seen before from other districts. Having seen many originals of this kind I know most of them are one small A5ish sized sheets of very thin paper that are held together with string. Despite the age of these documents, surprisingly I have never run into paging issues at the provincial archives, mostly because I’m seeing them still stringed together. By contrast, pages were all over the place in these documents in their digital form. While it is possible they were already unstringed and in messed up order when the contractors got the documents, I suspect that they got messed up through negligence when the originals were unstringed in order to be scanned.

4) Indexing: This is a very serious problem I found with all but two of the 70 or so documents I looked up during the two days I was at the archive. Before coming to the archive, I used the online database I made a list of file names and file numbers for documents I was interested in. I brought these to the archive and looked up the same numbers in the internal database. Each file number, unfortunately, corresponds to a packet of multiple files ranging, at least judging by what I saw, from 15-50 or so in number. I could then easily locate the appropriate document by its file name and open the images directly in the system. To my horror, in all but two of the cases, the documents in the file images did not correspond to the file name. For each document I would have to hunt through the other dozen or several dozen documents in the same general area to find the images for the file I was looking for. Sometimes I was never able to locate the file, suggesting that those images are probably found in other file groups, if at all. Now, what am I supposed to do as a historian when I cite the documents I did find? I’ll record the correct file numbers, found in the database, but any other historian wishing to confirm the information I am citing will look them up and find a completely different document unless the archivists have gone in and fixed all the indexing issues throughout their scanned collection.

I asked two of the archivists about this issue and I essentially got a, “That is funny. Well, just hunt through the rest of them and find your document. It’s probably like that for this whole collection. We paid a contractor to have it done and didn’t have the resources to check all their work.”

5) Quality: The documents I’m looking at are Communist public security bureau reports and Communist party internal reports. Some of them are hand written or are characters carved onto a special surface that allows a sort of reproduction process frequently used in the 1940s (any printing history buffs know what this ancient photocopying method is called?). In either case, they are very difficult to read, faded with time, on surfaces that are themselves often in poor condition, and most importantly, written in tiny sizes. If you are going to digitize these kinds of documents, then, you need to digitize them with a much higher quality. As I mentioned in my posting on triage in the archives, I have had to sometimes completely skip some of the more hopelessly unreadable documents or those for which the pages per hour drops to a rate that makes the investment of time not worth it. I would say that this happens in perhaps 1/10 documents I look at here.

Now, take these same kinds of documents and scan them. If you scan them well, at high resolution and with color, then you can actually make those difficult to read but important sections more readable thanks to the power of zooming in on parts of the image. However, that is not what happened here.

The contractors here decided to take these extremely difficult to read originals and scan them in black and white (not even in greyscale!). Now I know the evidence seems to suggest that if you are going to run a massive scale OCR program on historical newspapers, for example, then black and white is not significantly worse than greyscale. However, OCR is not even worth trying on these hard documents, unless there are some major breakthroughs in artificial intelligence. If, however, you are trying to use human eyes to read difficult to read handwritten or carved Chinese characters on poorly preserved mediums, you need to preserve as much of the quality of the originals as possible. The cost benefit analysis done in this case resulted, in the case of many documents, in completely unreadable digital copies.

This really left me depressed. In the case of the completely botched indexing described in number four above, an archivist or the hired contractor can go back and meticulously re-index the documents so that they point to the correct images. Since some of the documents have visible page numbers, messed up page numbers might also be fixed in those cases. However, I suspect it is harder to go back and explain to the budget committee, “Ya, our contractor blew the scanning job and made thousands of once barely readable documents in our collection now completely unreadable to visitors. Can we pay to do the scanning all over again?”

I came back to Jinan yesterday morning and felt incredibly happy to go back to reading similar documents in my own hands.4 Digitization can do amazing things for improving access and preservation. When the Japanese national library set about digitizing all Meiji and now Taisho period publications I found myself complaining mostly about the slower speed at which I could browse or skim through the books. I didn’t find that readability itself suffered too much during the process. In a case like these far more difficult to read wartime Communist documents, however, sloppy digitization of these documents, only gradually opening up to researchers and historians, actually reduces rather than increases access.

  1. When I asked one of the archivists at the provincial archives why they did not provide full online access to the database, rather than a very small sampler of the full internal database so that visitors could come prepared with a list of documents to request, I got a bewildered and serious look, “Do you want to put me out of a job?” This answer only makes sense if you realize that one of the primary duties of two of the archivists is to sit at the database search engine and help first time visitors search for documents. Given the fact many of the, especially older, visitors are completely computer illiterate, however, I still believe their services would continue to be required to help elderly comrades who come to search for their records. []
  2. though, as was the case with the Korean national archive, it would have been simple enough for a less scrupulous person to do this given the access to the “Save As…” option in the file menu and apparent lack of any security on the machine I was given access to. In fact, in the case of the Korean national archive at Daejeon, web browser access was restricted but I was able to confirm, at least as of 2008, the DOS command line still gave me FTP access to my server where I could have uploaded hundreds of pages of Korean archive documents they were requiring me to wastefully print and pay for, had I been so inclined to disregard their rules. []
  3. A bizarre and surely unnecessary step, since the documents have been screened once when they were added to the database for classified information. I could easily note down in my notes anything I read in the documents before printing them so not letting me keep the print outs hardly serves to prevent sensitive or privacy violating information from leaking out. If privacy issues are primary there should be a system, like the one at the Korean national archive, which charges the visitor to process accessed documents to redact out the names of people mentioned. At the Pusan branch of the Korean National Archive I paid about $50 and waited three days to get access to some old police logs. It took that much time because they had to go through and erase the names and provide me copies. However, I’m still grateful I got access at all. Although this is an important issue that deserves consideration, I generally feel that the privacy laws of Korea and Japan are far too strict and that they seriously inhibit serious historical work from the 19th through the period I’m working on in the mid-20th century []
  4. Note to super friendly archivists: if you encourage a visiting PhD student to eat while looking at the documents by suddenly (and generously) giving him a handful of juicy baby tomatoes, you might end up with a bit of tomato juice on one of the pages of part two of the 1946 treason elimination report from the Donghai public security bureau of the Jiaodong district. []

A Night in Changdao

I’ve been outside of Jinan this week, traveling about a bit. Yesterday I caught a ferry from Penglai (蓬莱) to a group of islands known as Changdao (長島) county which I had been told were well known for their scenic beauty. I had a day left of traveling with no specific plans and it seemed like a nice quiet place to spend a day before I head back to Jinan for my last week in China. I arrived in Changdao late in the afternoon and after checking into one of the only hotels open before the summer tourist season starts in May, I wandered about the town a bit. I didn’t ever get outside the sleepy fishing town in the south of the islands either that evening or the next morning when I caught the ferry back to the mainland. Instead of making it out to see the Changdao National Forest Park and Changdao National Nature Reserve, instead I mostly roamed about the back streets of the town and port.

I couldn’t help noticing that the locals gave me more than the usual amount of attention with a much higher frequency of gasps, cries of “Laowai!” and in one case a mother in a grocery store giving a short lecture to her child, surely too young to understand, about what this monster in their midst was (“You have never seen one of those before, have you? Don’t be scared. A foreigner is someone from another country and they don’t all look like us…”). This is nothing new, of course, to those who have traveled outside the major cities of Asia and I simply attributed this to the natural curiosity for non-Asians I have experienced throughout the countryside of Japan, Korea, and China.

During that first evening, though, I learn something about Changdao almost by accident. Walking back to my hotel late in the evening I passed by a TV shop where my iPod detected a wireless internet connection. I stopped outside the shop to download some email, and, since I really knew nothing about the place I was visiting, at least downloaded the Chinese and English wikipedia articles for the islands on my little offline Wikipedia client on my iPod. When I read the article later that evening, I found the English page had these two surprising paragraphs:

Changdao Island is closed to non-Chinese nationals. Westerners found on the island are swiftly taken to the passenger ferry terminal and placed on the next ferry back to Penglai by the islands Police service. Islanders promptly report all “outsiders” to the islands police service. (First hand experience) Police explain the reasons for this, due to the high number of military installations on the Island.

The Changdao Islands are now open to non-Chinese nationals, including westerners This was agreed by the local and national governments as of 1st December 2008.

Given the fact that non-Chinese nationals have apparently only been permitted on the island since December, and the tourism season hasn’t really started, the relative isolation of these islands may not have been the only reason there was extra surprise at the sight of a (visibly identifiable) foreigner in their midsts.

The next day, I checked out of the hotel, and made my way back to the ferry terminal. On the way, I walked over to the nearby TV shop to download my morning email (I know, I’m an addict). A middle aged man across the street yelled at me to stop. None of the many townspeople I had come across the day before had stopped me but armed with my new knowledge about the island I nervously complied. He came up to me and asked me if I had registered with the police. I told him I hadn’t. He asked me what I was doing on the islands, where I had stayed, etc. I answered honestly. Although he was polite, he said he wouldn’t let me go until he had called the police to ask if I had registered yet. I explained I hadn’t registered but I had only arrived the night before1 and, at any rate, was now on my way to the ferry terminal to return to the mainland. “Ah, he said, but why are you going this way, when the ferry terminal is that way?!” Fortunately, a little more explanation made him understand that I simply wanted to walk a few more meters up the road to steal a wireless connection I had come across to check my email before hopping into a cab and going to the ferry terminal. At any rate, I avoided this concerned citizen’s detention, and the potential time-consuming process of going to the Changdao county police station to register myself.

Two notes to the Changdao authorities:

1. If I hadn’t downloaded that Wikipedia article, I never would have known there was any special status for the islands or any kind of military installations. Only the English wikipedia entry, and this 2005 blog entry from someone who was blocked entry some years ago alerted me to the fact, and only after I had checked into my hotel on the island. If foreigners need to take care to register when visiting the scenic islands or are subject to other restrictions, perhaps a sign anywhere in the ferry terminal2, or perhaps somewhere on the nice English language website for Changdao county where I am welcomed to the, “peaceful, sincere, civilized and beautiful Changdao for business investment and holiday!” If there is some kind of required registration procedure, can I recommend that one be able and asked to do this upon arrival at the ferry terminal or when one checks into the hotel (the hotel didn’t even look inside my Norwegian passport when I checked in). Finally, if a potentially military adversary like the United States really wanted to send a spy to reconnoiter your military bases on the islands, do you really think it would be a good idea to send an easily identifiable caucasian instead of one of its many citizens of Asian or similar complexion or even better, a hired local?

Continue reading A Night in Changdao

  1. I think foreigners are technically supposed to register with the police everywhere in China within 24 hours of their arrival, and I did register in Jinan soon after my arrival, but almost no tourists traveling in China register in every city they stay in, At any rate, this registration he spoke of is not thus a Changdao specific requirement. Technically though, I hadn’t yet reached the 24th hour and I was off the island before my time ran out. []
  2. I confirmed there is no special information in either Chinese or English posted about the status of the islands when I returned to Penglai[]

Triage in the Archives

I’m working on my last batch of documents in the provincial archives in Shandong. There are two challenges to doing my historical research here which I often think about. The first is the problem of access to both the archive and much of its contents. I have been very fortunate but I regret that it is more of a result of good fortune than anything else. This posting will focus on the other problem, the need for a kind of triage in the archives and the constant awareness of my own personal limits as a reader. It is a humbling experience, and I suspect many, if not most, historians, come to face it if they have spent much time doing archival research, especially dealing with documents not in a language they speak and read natively.

Language and Detailed Local Knowledge

I enter the archives here with a topic in mind, a relatively good understanding of the regional and chronological context for my topic of study, and a working knowledge of the terminology often used in the kinds of documents I will be looking at, in part thanks to the existence of a published collection of documents from the same archive (山东革命历史档案资料选编). However, I have two major disadvantages that I feel very acutely every day I come to the archives. One relates to my language ability; the other to the limits of my local knowledge.

Though I can read Chinese, especially when it comes to the materials in my particular field of study, I have two huge linguistic disadvantages compared to any native speaker of Chinese (and, to a lesser degree, native speakers of Japanese): 1) I read Chinese much slower, and more importantly, skim Chinese slower, than native speakers. I still have to occasionally look up words that cannot either be understood by context or safely ignored due to probable irrelevancy. 2) I do not have a lifetime of practice reading handwritten documents using cursive or radically simplified Chinese characters, which compose over half of the materials I’m looking at. This means that some of the many handwritten documents I look at here, where I do not have permission to photocopy or take photographs of the materials I am looking at, are partially or in a few cases completely impossible for me to read.

The second major kind of disadvantage I have relates to the fact that, as one archivist here put it to me sympathetically, “This must be overwhelming, since you have only had time to study Chinese history for a year or two before you came.” This makes it seem like every Chinese historian has studied Chinese history for decades and is thus many years ahead in terms of knowledge of the specifics of Communist party anti-treason campaigns in Shandong province, which is simply not the case. However, all other things being equal, I must come to terms with an obvious fact that lies at the heart of what the archivist was trying to point out to me: It is physically impossible for me to have found time to read more than a subset of the Chinese language secondary works or document collections that are related to my field in the short time I have worked on my dissertation, let alone read, as some graduate students and scholars here undoubtedly have, read the many other peripheral works that help one understand the context surrounding my topic. This is even more true since I am doing a transnational and comparative project that also incorporates Korea.

The only way people in my position can walk into the archive each day with some degree of self-respect is to convince ourselves that we have something unique to offer the study of our historical topic that gives us some kind of advantage relative to other scholars and students who might be working on a similar field here. Whatever this might be, our critical question, our comparative approach, our sensitivity to patterns etc. that might not be apparent to those working in other scholarly contexts, and so on, it gives us the confidence to go in and struggle through the historical materials and accept our weaknesses. In my case, I try to tell myself the contribution I can make is largely to be found in the way I “slice” the range of my inquiry and attempt to use that slice to answer particular questions. I remain open to the idea, however, that the “uniqueness of approach” claim may ultimately be an illusion, and as the quality of academic research here in China improves rapidly (I was really impressed with the breadth of reading and fresh approaches taken by some graduate students I have met here), some of the other advantages that foreign scholars coming to study might once have dared to claim are disappearing.

Even if one does avoid falling into complete despair, it remains an incredibly humbling experience to walk into the archive each day and be faced time and time again with one’s own all-so-apparent inadequacies. Below, let me share some aspects of that experience with some examples and the unfortunate but necessary steps I have to take in order to maximize the number of historical gemstones I can mine in the ocean of archival material available to me, despite my weaknesses.
Continue reading Triage in the Archives

A Proposal for a Powerful New Research Tool – Organizing Information for Dissertation Writing – Part 3 of 3

In the first and second postings on this topic, I described my approach to a lack of connections between my notes on my sources and my broader dissertation outline. I explained how I organized my material and how I’m trying to use my task management software as way to create a link between the increasingly large number of note files and sections of note files on individual sources and the broader outline of the dissertation I will begin writing this year.

In this posting I will describe a kind of outlining software that could largely resolve the organizational problem I have described in my previous two postings without having to navigate between several applications. These could be easily added as a mode or layer of features to existing outlining software out there. In this case I’m thinking of OmniOutliner, which is what I use, but I think the kinds of modifications I am suggesting could be easily added to most other outlining software solutions out there, or serve as a foundation of a new solution based on the organizing principles described here. The result, I hope, will be an environment which will allow researchers to adopt a smooth workflow which can unite the highest level of a research outline and the most tiny fragments of notes on sources or the sources themselves.
Continue reading A Proposal for a Powerful New Research Tool – Organizing Information for Dissertation Writing – Part 3 of 3

Organizing Information for Dissertation Writing – Part 2 of 3

In the first of three postings on this topic I explained that I have become increasingly concerned that there exists a vast and empty middle layer of organization between the various primary sources, notes, and ‘notes on notes’ I have on the one hand, and my dissertation outline. I have felt the need to develop some way, while I’m still out here in the field conducting my research, of better tying up the many individual fragments of information I find in the sources with the arguments I want to make in the written dissertation.

I’d be very interested in hearing about how other graduate students have sought to resolve the problem of connecting the large quantity of notes, outlines, and unprocessed raw sources with the grand outline of a huge writing project like a dissertation. Below I describe briefly how I have essentially integrated this process into my own task management routine.

First, let me describe how I have been organizing the historical materials I have been collecting in the field and while back at university. Read on for the details. Continue reading Organizing Information for Dissertation Writing – Part 2 of 3