Monday, January 16, 2006

Historical Topics in the "Long Tail"

[A newer edition of this post is available here]

Yesterday I posted a hack which allows you to quickly visualize what kinds of people have entries in the online Dictionary of Canadian Biography. I noted that the preponderance are male. They are mostly businessmen, office holders, politicians, lawyers and soldiers. This is comes as no surprise to me. I teach Canadian history and often have the following conversation:

"I'm surprised that I'm really enjoying your course!"
Me: "Why?"
"Because I thought Canadian history was boring."
Me (disingenuously): "Why on earth would you think that?"

But I know why they think that. Until they are exposed to the kinds of questions that practicing historians struggle with, they don't know how exciting the subject can be. (For more on the perception of Canadian history as boring, see Allan Greer's excellent piece from the Ottawa Citizen).

The image that I posted yesterday highlights the typical biographies in the DCB, but the more you study it, the more you begin to see what isn't typical. There are, for example, three slaves categorized as such in the DCB: an Inuk girl named Acoutsina, a young black woman named Marie- Joseph- Angélique, and a black man named Jack York. Now, although there were some slaves in Canadian history, they have not been a very prominant part of the national narrative until relatively recently. Marcel Trudel's 1960 L'esclavage au Canada français was an early exception to the general trend; now it has been joined by works like Denyse Beaugrand-Champagne's Le procès de Marie-Josèphe-Angélique (2004) and Brett Rushforth's forthcoming Savage Bonds: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France. The major survey texts, Conrad and Finkel's History of the Canadian Peoples, Francis, Jones and Smith's Origins, and Bumsted's Peoples of Canada now all have sidebars about slaves.

Again, this trend toward social and cultural history will come as no surprise to anyone who has been involved in the profession or taken a university-level history course recently. I see the interest in slaves, however, as an example of what we might call a "long tail" historical topic (to use some Web 2.0 buzzword compliance). That is to say that most of the biographies in the DCB are of businessmen (almost 25%), office holders (about 21%), politicians (18.5%), members of the legal profession (16%) and members of the armed services (almost 18%). On the other hand, people explicitly categorized as slaves account for only .0375% of the entries. (The reason I've been careful to say "categorized as slaves" is that a full-text search of the DCB brings up entries for a number of slaves who were not categorized as such: Joe, Marguerite Duplessis, Marie, Pierre, and others.)

In an earlier post, I suggested that one of the hallmarks of digital history will be that it will increasingly give us access to these long tail topics, if only we can find them. This brings us, however, to the historian's favorite question, "So what?" What is the significance of any individual, any event? In her 1996 presidential address to the AHA, Caroline Bynum said, "For surely what characterizes historians above all else is the capacity to be shocked by the singularity of events in a way that stimulates the search for 'significance'..." Having access to all of these singularities is going to force us to face questions that microhistorians have been facing for years, questions about whether we are dealing with ordinariness or extraordinariness, normality or abnormality, the rule or the exception.

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