Video interviews with historians

In the mid 1980s Pat Thane, Alastair Reid and F.M.L. Thompson, the then director of the IHR, began a project to conduct interviews with leading British historians. In her article about the project, ‘Interviews with Historians’, The Historian, 36 (1992), pp. 18–20, Thane notes that ‘We decided upon videotaped rather than audio-taped or printed interviews … because aspects of personality are evident in expression and gesture as they are not in the written or spoken word’. In today’s multi-media world, this seems remarkably prescient, and the resulting interviews are an opportunity to see as well as hear the men and women who have shaped the discipline in the 20th century, many sadly now dead.

Not all, however, were naturals in front of the camera, something which was compounded by the limitations of funding and technology at the time (for example, only static cameras were used). Roger Adelson and Russell Smith reviewed the series for Albion in 1999, and concluded that ‘About half of the interviewees appear uncomfortable in front of the camera, which is understandable because historians are known more for what they write rather than for the personality they project’. However, ‘The very best interviews reveal the humanity of historical study by demonstrating how the lives of historians have affected their perspective on the past’ (R. Adelson and R. Smith, ‘Videotaped interviews with British historians, 1985–8’, Albion: a Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies , 31 (1999), 257–68).

Joan Thirsk

This reflection on formative influences is central to the interviews, during which subjects were encouraged to talk about their lives and careers, the interaction of the personal and the professional, and their thoughts about both their own research and the development of the discipline more generally (a very similar approach to the one taken by the IHR’s Making History project in the early 21st century).

A total of 28 interviews were recorded before funding for the project came to an end (it was supported over the years by the Nuffield Foundation, the Twenty-Seven Foundation and the Royal Historical Society). The list of historians included shows a balance of periods, and geographical and theoretical focus. And unlike many such groupings, women are relatively well represented. Thane remarked that ‘I have an especial interest in selecting female historians, to try to assess what differences there may have been between male and female experiences in the profession’.

Asa Briggs with Jose Harris
Alec Cairncross with Kathleen Burk
Hugh Clegg with Gordon Phillips
Donald Coleman with Negley Harte
Maurice Cowling with Michael Bentley
Phyllis Deane with Nick Crafts
Geoffrey Dickens with Bob Scribner
Geoffrey Elton with Bob Scribner
Moses Finley with Keith Hopkins
Margaret Gowing with Charles Webster
Christopher Hill with Penelope Corfield
Rodney Hilton with John Hatcher
Eric Hobsbawm with Pat Thane
Michael Howard with Brian Bond
Peter Laslett with Keith Wrightson
Oliver Macdonagh with Roy Foster
Rosalind Mitchison with Christopher Smout
Joseph Needham with Gregory Blue
Henry Pelling with Ross McKibbin
Harold Perkin with Pat Thane
Steven Runciman with Jonathan Riley-Smith
Christopher Smout with Christopher Whatley
Lawrence Stone with Keith Wrightson
Joan Thirsk with Ann Kussmaul
Dorothy Thompson with James Epstein
E.P. Thompson with Penelope Corfield
Michael Thompson with Avner Offer
Hugh Trevor-Roper with Blair Worden

All of the interviews are available on DVD from the University of London online store.

On preserving historians’ electronic ‘papers’

[Dr Peter Webster is engagement and liaison lead for the web archiving team at the British Library. He writes here in his personal capacity, as an historian of contemporary Britain.]

I should say straight away that I am neither an archivist, nor a specialist in digital preservation (in its strict sense.) But I am an historian, and professionally interested in the impact of the digital on our working practices; and during the working day I am on the staff of one of the UK’s main memory institutions. And I’m pleased to have been asked to write this piece by my former colleagues at the IHR, as while there is much going on at present relating to the management of research data, there is much less (that I know of) about the private papers of scholars. What is the infrastructure for preserving these materials, of historians, for historians? Is there even an infrastructure worth the name?

Straight away, there is a problem of definition – of distinguishing between what we might call research data and private papers. In the physical sciences, it is easier to spot the data; lots of numbers in tables, on computers, as opposed to the reams of transcribed or part-transcribed primary sources that I still have from my own Ph.D. And in the physical sciences there has been a much stronger culture of the re-use of data by other scholars. In order to test and refine a hypothesis, it helps to be able to repeat experiments, and for that you need the data. And so that data tends to be ‘cleaner’ – well-defined and structured, with appropriate documentation – and thus easier to share. And so there are services such as Dryad, a discipline-specific data repository designed for specifically this purpose.

Historians have been much less accustomed to this way of working. This is partly because our ‘data’ tends to be angular, asymmetric texts that resist being squashed into anything so restrictive as a table. And there is an attachment among many to the thick description of each source and all its meaning, particular to a time, a place and an individual, and a resistance to abstraction. (To paraphrase J. H. Hexter, the splitters tend to dominate the lumpers.) There are exceptions, but the cliometric urge is not as strong as once it was.

This attachment to the particular is something to be cherished, but I would argue that there is yet more scope for historians to think of their working materials as data, and thus as something that may be shared and re-used. The Old Bailey Proceedings Online is a fine example of a corpus of freely composed texts that has within it a dataset. Not all sources have the degree of regularity of structure that a set of court records has; but there is still much material that languishes on desktop machines that might be set free. But it would require us to think about reuse at the beginning of a project, rather than at the end.
And as well as primary sources that might be shared and reused, there is the question of an historian’s intermediate working materials, that mark the stages by which primary sources are digested and turned into writing. The London Review of Books recently published Keith Thomas’ account of his own working method, thousands of bulging white envelopes full of notes; Christopher Hill was famous for his system of index cards. As evidence of the working practices of a discipline, these paper systems are an artefact to be preserved. As scholars increasingly move to digital systems of managing notes and bibliography, some using proprietary software and some the cloud, we also need to think about how these are best preserved as evidence of how the discipline worked at a particular point in time.

And finally, there is writing. Historians of a certain age will remember a device commonly known as a ‘typewriter’ which impressed characters on a sheet of paper, by a mechanism operated by the pressing of keys. (You can see examples in museums sometimes.) And the use of the typewriter meant that, for every iteration of a piece of writing, there was a physical record. (The typewriter was, as it were, sub-optimally featured for corrections.) The ease of emendation of a word-processed document probably means that these intermediate versions no longer exist. But where they do (and I myself tend to keep numbered versions of articles to reflect each revision), they are a valuable record of the evolution of a piece of writing and the thinking that supports it, and part of intellectual biography.

But who should be preserving these materials? In the past, for the most prominent, an existing connection with an institution tended to lead to their papers being held there: the papers of Noel Annan now reside at King’s College, Cambridge, of which he was Fellow and later Provost; those of E. H. Gombrich at the Warburg Institute at which he spent most of his career. The British Library also receives a certain number of digital archives, but mostly from prominent literary figures, such as the recent deposit from the poet Wendy Cope. But there is a need for a more scaleable solution. Part of this is certainly the recent ventures in services that enable personal digital archiving. But these tend to require a certain level of skill in the issues involved (and for one to be not yet dead) and so there is a place in this new ecology of preservation for organisations, such as the IHR, with an established presence as a repository and clearing-house for a discipline. And as collections of discipline-specific materials grow over time, those collections would become in themselves more than the sum of their parts – part of the stuff of a laboratory for the history of history.

Female biographers and biographies of female historians

Here are a couple more interesting lists from Doug Munro – this time of female biographers of male historians and, below, biographies of female historians.

Female biographers of male historians

ANDERSON, Fay. An Historian’s Life: Max Crawford and the politics of academic freedom. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2005.

BAKER, Susan Stout, Radical Beginnings: Richard Hofstadter and the 1930s. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1985.

COLE, Margaret, The Life of G.D.H. Cole. London/New York: Macmillan/St Martin’s Press, 1971.

COLLEY, Linda, Namier. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1989.

FINK, Carole, Marc Bloch: a life in history. Cambridge: Canton edition, 1991 [Cambridge University Press, [1989].

FORSEY, Helen, Eugene Forsey: Canada’s maverick sage. Toronto: Dundurn, 2012.

GOGGIN, Jacqueline, Carter G. Woodson: a life in Black history. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993.

HALL, Catherine, Macaulay and Son: architects of Imperial Britain. New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2012.

HERNÁNDEZ, Maria Jesus Gonzales, Raymond Carr: la curiosidad del zorro – una biogfia. Barcelona: Galaxia Gutenberg, 2011; & Barcelona: Circulo de Lectores, 2011.

MOYAL, Ann, Alan Moorehead: a rediscovery. Canberra: National Library of Australia, 2005.

NAMIER, Julia, Lewis Namier: a biography. London: Oxford University Press, 1971.

OWSLEY, Harriett Chappell, Frank Lawrence Owsley: historian of the Old South. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1990.

SCHOFIELD, Victoria, Witness to History: the life of John Wheeler-Bennett. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2012.

SMITH, Charlotte Watkins, Carl Becker: on history and the climate of opinion. Carbondale/Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1956.

SOFFER, Reba N., History, Historians, and Conservatism in Britain and America: from the Great War to Thatcher and Reagan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. [F.J.C. Hearnshaw, Keith Feiling, Arthur Bryant, Herbert Butterfield, Peter Viereck & Russell Kirk]

STAPLETON, Julia, Sir Arthur Bryant and National History in Twentieth-Century Britain. London: Lexington Books, 2005.

STREET, Pamela, Arthur Bryant: portrait of an historian. London: Collins, 1979.

WOODBURN, Susan, Where Our Hearts Still Lie: a life of Harry and Honor Maude in the Pacific Islands. Adelaide: Crawford House, 2003.


Biographies of female historians (includes histories of the historical profession)

BERG, Maxine, A Woman in History: Eileen Power, 1886-1940. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

BOUTILIER, Beverly, and Alison PRENTICE (eds), Creating Historical Memory: English-Canadian women and the work of history. Vancouver: UBCPress, 1997.

COVERT, James, A Victorian Marriage: Mandel and Louise Creighton. London/New York: Hambledon & London, 2000.

CROWLEY, Terry. Marriage of Minds: Isabel and Oscar Skelton reinventing Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003.

DES JARDINS, Julie, Women and the Historical Enterprise in America: gender, race, and the politics of memory, 1880-1945. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

LOUGHLIN, Patricia, Hidden Treasures of the American West: Muriel H. Wright, Angie Debo, and Alice Marriott. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005.

LECKIE , Shirley A., Angie Debo: pioneering historian. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000.

REID, John G., Viola Florence Barnes, 1885-1979: a historian’s biography. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.

RIDLEY, Ronald T., Jessie Webb: a memoir. Melbourne: History Department, University of Melbourne, 1994.

VERNON, Betty D., Margaret Cole, 1893-1980: a political biography. London: Croom Helm, 1986

WEAVER, Stewart A., The Hammonds: a marriage in history. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997.

WHITE, Deborah Gray (ed.), Telling Histories: Black Women Historians in the Ivory Tower. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

Professor Patrick Collinson and his historical legacy

This Friday a symposium on the late Professor Patrick Collinson and his historical legacy will be held at Trinity College in Cambridge.

Patrick Collinson was Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge and by the time of his death he had become one of Britain’s foremost early modern historians. His first major monograph, published as The Elizabethan Puritan Movement (1967), transformed the way historians conceived the nature and role of Puritanism. His final publication, Richard Bancroft and Elizabethan Anti-Puritanism (Cambridge University Press, 2013) will be launched after Friday’s symposium.

Later this month Patrick Collinson’s final book for Manchester University Press, This England: Essays on the English nation and Commonwealth in the sixteenth century, will be published for the first time in paperback.

There’s also an extended review of Collinson’s autobiography, The History of a History Man available here.

Historians’ Auto/Biographies: What’s Happening Down Under

Monograph-length biographies of Australian historians, including historians of other nationalities with significant Australian connections, are not exactly numerous. They amount to 18 separate volumes, and even to reach this number involves a generous definition of who constitutes an historian and what constitutes a biography. One might even say that 18 such books is a paltry total, but another way of looking at it would be to say that this is a proportionally high figure – almost one biography per million of national population. Furthermore two of the more recent biographies are of a very high standard – namely Jim Davidson’s A Three-Cornered Life: the historian WK Hancock (Sydney, 2010) and Mark McKenna’s biography of Manning Clark (An Eye for Eternity: the biography of Manning Clark (Melbourne, 2011). By way of comparison, I have only been able to locate 11 biographies of Canadian historians, or a ratio of one biography for every three million of population. In Australia, by contrast, the total (and the proportion) starts to look appreciable when the seven edited collections dealing with one or more Australian historian are included.

There is nothing out of the ordinary about this corpus of biographies of Australian historians. In line with world-wide trends they have become more numerous in recent years; they are becoming larger and more deeply researched; they are becoming increasingly concerned with private as well as professional lives; and the thematic coverage is patchy. The parallels continue: whether or not a given historian becomes the subject of a biography boils down to the chance event of someone being prepared to be their biographer. Another sign of serendipity and individual initiative is that a journal will occasionally devote a special issue to a history, most recently the coverage of Russel Ward in 2008 in the Australian Journal of Colonial History. An interesting sideline to that project was the reluctance of potential contributors who disliked Ward to be involved.

Autobiographies of Australian historians are in another league, notable for their sheer quantity. If a generous definition is again applied, some 50 have appeared since the publication of G. V. Portus’s Happy Highways in 1953 followed by W. K. Hancock’s Country and Calling the following year (as against a dozen autobiographies by Canadian historians in the same period). The frequency of Australia historians’ autobiographies has been directly addressed by Jeremy Popkin [‘Ego-histoire Down Under: Australian historian-autobiographers’, Australian Historical Studies, 38, 129 (2007), 106–23] and he suggests a convergence of reasons. These autobiographies have often made an important contribution to national debates, not least on the recurring question of national identity. They are often of high literary quality and are recognised by literary scholars as having made ‘an important contribution to their society’s overall tradition of first-person writing’. The autobiographers are often prominent historians who are well integrated into the country’s intellectual and national life, and so have cultural authority. The cumulative effect is to impart historians’ autobiographies a respectability and legitimacy that encourages imitators. As Popkin says, one can now ‘speak of a genuine corpus of historians’ autobiographies, as opposed to a few isolated individual initiatives’. The genre is propelling itself forward under its own momentum. The downside is that Australian historians’ autobiographies are not an exportable commodity – they are little read outside Australia. Such are the trade-offs for living in an isolated country.

Such constraints are felt even more keenly in New Zealand. There are only two biographies of an historian – a large biography of J. C. Beaglehole and a much smaller one of the same historian. Unlike Australia, there are no multi-authored histories of history departments and there is no quasi-history of the New Zealand historical profession along the lines of Rob Pascoe’s The Manufacture of Australian History (1979). Neither are there edited volumes that deal with different historians or else a particular historian. Market forces largely explain why so little has been published on New Zealand historians. Such biographical work would have a small readership at home and an even smaller one abroad. Instead of gaining momentum and traction, there is a sense of being bogged down under the weight of its own inertia.

On the autobiographical front the picture is rosier. Four New Zealand academic historians have published their memoirs (W. P. Morrell, Keith Sinclair, W. H. Oliver and Nicholas Tarling). Sinclair and Oliver’s memoirs are well-enough known in New Zealand, because both authors achieved public prominence. Sinclair was not only an historian but a published poet who once stood for parliament. More notable is that four historians outside the academy have published their memoirs (Michael King, Philip Temple, James McNeish and Edmund Bohan). This suggests that full-time writers without an academic position and the salary that goes with it are prone to autobiography, precisely because they have to make a living. The autobiographers outside the academy have doubled the number of New Zealand historians’ memoirs. Even so, the total is insufficient to form a critical mass that would lead one to acknowledge that these books constitute a recognisable genre.  Half of the autobiographies have been published since 2009, which leads one to hope that momentum will take over and that imitators will follow.

Doug Munro

University of Queensland

Two reviews of ‘Hugh Trevor-Roper: The Biography’ by Adam Sisman

The first has just come out in the Dublin Review of Books, while the second is a re-release from the London Review of Books, and contains this classic description of Trevor-Roper’s reaction to Peterhouse and Maurice Cowling, spotted by my colleague Jonathan:

“He did not find it normal that fellows should wear mourning on the anniversary of General Franco’s death, attend parties in SS uniform or insult black and Jewish guests at high table.”

Worth reading for that alone…

Biographies of historians since 2005

Here’s another list showing how the genre has flourished in recent years, courtesy of the indefatigable Doug Munro – these have all been published since 2005. At the end are two more lists, of filial biographies and biographies of married couples.

2005.   ANDERSON, Fay. An Historian’s Life: Max Crawford and the politics of academic freedom. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2005.

2005.   MOYAL, Ann, Alan Moorehead: a rediscovery. Canberra: National Library of Australia, 2005.

2005.   PAYTON, Philip, A.L. Rowse and Cornwall: a paradoxical patriot. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2005.

2005.   REID, John G., Viola Florence Barnes, 1885-1979: a historian’s biography. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.

2005.   STAPLETON, Julia, Sir Arthur Bryant and national history in twentieth-century Britain. London: Lexington Books, 2005.

2005.   van MINNEN, Cornelis A., Van Loon: popular historian, journalist, and FDR confidant. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

2005.   WATSON, John Alexander, Marginal Man: the dark vision of Harold Innis. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.

2006.   BEAGLEHOLE, Tim, A Life of J.C. Beaglehole: New Zealand scholar. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2006.

2006.   BROWN, David S., Richard Hofstadter: an intellectual biography. Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

2006.   THOMPSON, John, The Patrician and the Bloke: Geoffrey Serle and the making of Australian history. Canberra: Pandanus Books, 2006.

2007.   HALE, Sheila, The Man who Lost his Language [John Hale]: a case of aphasia, 2nd ed. London/Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2007 [first publ. 2002 by Allen Lane The Penguin Press]

2007.   WATSON, Alexander John, Marginal Man: the dark vision of Harold Innis. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007.

2007.   WRIGLEY, Chris, A.J.P. Taylor: radical historian of Europe. London: I.B. Tauris, 2007.

2008.   MATTHEWS, Brian, Manning Clark: a life. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2008.

2008.    McKILLOP, A.B., Pierre Berton: a biography. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2008).

2009.   INGLIS, Fred, History Man: the life of R.G. Collingwood. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.

2009.   NADEAU, Jean-François, Robert Rumilly, l’homme de Duplessis. Montréal: Lux, 2009.

2009.   NEWMAN, Michael, Harold Laski: a political biography. Pontypool: Merlin Press edn., 2009 [first publ. 1993 by Macmillan].

2009.   SULLIVAN, Robert E., Macaulay: the tragedy of power. Cambridge, MA/London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009.

2010.   DAVIDSON, Jim, A Three-Cornered Life: the historian WK Hancock. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2010.

2010.   MILLER, Eric, Hope in a Scattering Time: a life of Christopher Lasch. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2010.

2010.   MIRRA, Carl, The Admirable Radical: Staughton Lynd and Cold War dissent, 1945-1970. Kent: Kent State University Press, 2010.

2010.   SISMAN, Adam, Hugh Trevor-Roper: the biography. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2010.

2011.   BENTLEY, Michael, The Life and Thought of Herbert Butterfield: history, science and god. Cambridge University Press, 2011.

2011.   GAULT, Hugh, The Quirky Dr Fay: a remarkable life. Cambridge: Gretton Books, 2011.

2011.   HAMILTON, Scott, The Crisis of Theory: EP Thompson, the new left and postwar British politics. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011.

2011.   McKENNA, Mark, An Eye for Eternity: the life of Manning Clark. Melbourne: Miegunyah Press, 2011.

2012    HALL, Catherine, Macaulay and Son: architects of Imperial Britain. New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2012.

2012.   FORSEY, Henry, Eugene Forsey: Canada’s maverick sage. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2012.

2012.   MUNRO, Doug, J.C. Beaglehole: public intellectual, critical conscience (Wellington: Steele Roberts, 2012)

2012.   SCHOFIELD, Victoria, Witness to History: the life of Sir John Wheeler-Bennett. New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2012.

2012    WRIGHT, Pattie, Ray Parkin’s Oddyssey. Melbourne: Pan Macmillan, 2012.

Filial biographies

BEAGLEHOLE, Tim, A Life of J.C. Beaglehole: New Zealand scholar. Welllington: Victoria University Press

COLE, Margaret, The Life of G.D.H. Cole. London/Basingstoke: Macmillan London, 1971.

FORSEY, Helen, Eugene Forsey: Canada’s maverick sage. Toronto: Dundurn, 2012.

HALE, Sheila, The Man Who Lost His Language [John Hale]: a case of aphasia, 2nd ed. London/Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishing, 2007. (First published by Allen Lane The Penguin Press, 2002)

MOREMAN, Mary, G.M. Trevelyan: a memoir. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1980.

NAMIER, Julia, Lewis Namier: a biography. London: Oxford University Press, 1971.

POSTGATE, John and Mary, A Stomach for Dissent: the life of Raymond Postgate. Keele: Keele University Press, 1994.

Biographies of couples

COVERT, James, A Victorian Marriage: Mandell and Louise Creighton. London/New York: Hambledon & London, 2000.

CROWLEY, Terry, Marriage of Minds: Isabel and Oscar Skelton reinventing Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003.

WEAVER, Stewart A., The Hammonds: a marriage in history. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997.