Monday, March 10, 2008


Every so often in the past few decades I've had to go through my accumulated collections of code and text and binaries and try to translate them so that they could be used on a new platform or new version of an operating system. In some cases, such as text files, it's always been quite easy. In others, it has been more difficult, or even impossible. The assembly language that I wrote for one chip, for example, won't run on any other. The KnowledgeMan database programming that I did in the 1980s dates me, but otherwise isn't of much use now. More poignantly, KMan doesn't even have its own page in Wikipedia. Now I'm in the process of moving all of my files to an open source revision-control system (more on that in a later post) and face many familiar problems. Once again, I'm discovering that open formats are a really good idea, and that in thirty years--if I last that long--the only sources that I will have to look back on my work right now may be text, XML and source code.

As I go through my files this time around, however, there are a lot of notes from writing my dissertation and publishing it. I'm reminded that I've created a few new careers by metabolizing a succession of older ones and metamorphosing into something different. And when I look through my archival notes and book notes and lists of ideas and questions, I see that most of my work didn't end up in the published book. Some of it was tangential, some was forgotten, some better forgotten.

I'm thinking a lot about the computational tools that historians might use to write different kinds of history. In methodological guides, the emphasis is always on keeping track of things, on proper notetaking and proper citation, so that you don't forget where something came from. Working with digitized sources makes it much easier to search and cite and archive, and easier to imagine that almost everything can be saved. But what if some projects are crucially dependent on a period of forgetting and reuse? What kind of tool would allow some sources to be lost, remake your tangents into something new, turn your caterpillar into a butterfly or a moth?

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