research

Open Notebook History

Posted by W. Caleb McDaniel on May 22, 2013

What would happen if historians made their research notes public? What would it look like to make our notebooks “open source”?

Some historians already do this, of course, after retirement or the completion of a research project. Many scholars deposit their research notes posthumously in the special collections or archives of the universities where they spent their careers. Many are willing to share old notes or sources with inquiring students or friends.1

But can these fairly common practices be considered Open Source history?

It depends on what you mean by that term. In the world of software development, the decision to release, or make “open,” the source code for a program can mean two very different things. In some cases, it signals that active development on a program has effectively ceased; open source is the elephant’s graveyard where some formerly proprietary programs go to die. In most cases, though, open source software (OSS) is code that anyone can inspect and change even while the software is in active development. It’s software that encourages collaboration and sharing at the earliest stages of a project’s life.2

Most historians who decide to “open” their research notes for public view more closely resemble the first kind of OSS developer than the second. As Andrew Berger has astutely observed, we are usually willing to share sources when we are finished with them, when the publications that they were gathered to support have been released, or when we are not “actively using” what we have found. But in this post I’m asking about a different possibility: what would it look like to make our notebooks digital and “open source” from the very beginning of a project?3

The Promise of Open Notebook History

The rise of digital media and web publishing software—some of it open-source—has made such a question imaginable for the first time in the long history of historiography. Open-source blogging platforms, curation tools, bibliographic software, and micro-blogging platforms enable historians to easily share information about our research as it happens. As Chad Black noted a few years ago, “we now have the possibility to construct and curate our research materials and process archives, what I call … the ‘Papers of You,’ in real time, and make it immediately available to those without the resources to gain access to our eclectic collections.”

The advantages of such a practice have already been well-articulated by the proponents of something called Open Notebook Science, a movement that recently received positive attention in the prominent journal Nature. Open Notebook Science (ONS) is the practice of putting one’s entire lab notebook online, so that other researchers have access not just to a scientist’s publications, but to the underlying data, methods, and experimental results that drive research projects forward.

Open Notebook scientists place a premium on sharing even the results of failed or small experiments, which often produce what scientists refer to as dark data. Biologist Carl Boettiger’s notebook is an oft-cited example of an ONS site in which all content is shared immediately or “without significant delay.” But some researchers may be required (by funding agencies, for example) to limit the amount of data they share. So supporters of ONS have also created a set of distinctive badges for their notebooks, with each one communicating different levels of openness. Much like the stepped licenses that authors can choose from the Creative Commons, these badges encourage scientists to be more open about their research even if they cannot make their entire notebooks immediately “open source.”

At first glance, the advantages of “open notebooks” may seem more obvious in science than in history. Sharing data makes scientific experiments reproducible, so that errors can be more easily spotted and corrected. But as the recent attention paid to an Excel error made by two economists shows, this virtue of transparent data has relevance for history, as well. And, as Chad Black has also noted, even the famous Bellesiles controversy could have been more easily avoided or settled if the notes taken to write the book had been available to anyone who wished to evaluate Bellesiles’s claims, or if Bellesiles had taken his notes with the scrupulousness that would come from knowing they might be seen.

Ultimately, however, the prevention of error is not the most exciting promise made by Open Notebook Science or Open Notebook History. Nor is it a very good recruiting tool. Academic writers are already a “paranoid” lot, as William Germano has recently argued; our writing is often hampered by the paralyzing fear “that someone is always watching, eager to find fault.” If all Open Notebook scholarship promises is more scrutiny from more potential fault-finders, it is hard to see its attraction.

A better way to frame the appeal of open notebooks is less in terms of fear and more in terms of what Black called “the better parts of academics’ nature”—our scholarly values of open intellectual exchange, integrity, and honesty. One can focus on the ethical value of sharing, as Black does. But it is also possible to justify open notebook practices in terms of their qualitative value to scholars. Sharing is something that tends to make scholars, qua scholars, happy; presumably it’s why we are in the business of writing, speaking, and teaching in the first place.

The movement of many historians on to platforms like Twitter, Tumblr, and Wordpress provides ample evidence of this impulse; we like to discover new things—links, sources, books, et cetera—and we like to share our eureka moments with others. When it comes to our own research, however, historians often delay the gratification of sharing our finds for months, years, and decades. And some finds—that pesky transcription, the identity of that little-known person, the odd letter stuck in the back of a folder, the carefully constructed timeline for a series of events—are never shared because they ultimately turn out to be tangential to our primary questions.

The result is a vast repository of knowledge and thought hidden from public view, a black hole’s worth of historical “dark data.” Venture on to any genealogical website and you will find “lay” historians sharing countless examples of their hard-won archival victories and findings, and with a joy and easy camaraderie that is palpable; professional historians, however, leave many of our notes sitting in dusty file folders, overstuffed hard drives, and stacked bankers’ boxes. The promise of open notebook history is the vast potential joy that could be ours if we chose to share our hoarded wealth.4

To be sure, this joy can be had in some measure without sharing our research while it is in progress. I can imagine a line of thought that goes like this: “It’s true that one historian’s trash is another historian’s treasure. So, once I’m done with my treasure, I’ll share my trash for those who might want it.”

But that thinking dodges the full implications of the fact that trash (and treasure) are in the eyes of the beholder: The truth is that we often don’t realize the value of what we have until someone else sees it. By inviting others to see our work in progress, we also open new avenues of interpretation, uncover new linkages between things we would otherwise have persisted in seeing as unconnected, and create new opportunities for collaboration with fellow travelers. These things might still happen through the sharing of our notebooks after publication, but imagine how our publications might be enriched and improved if we lifted our gems to the sunlight before we decided which ones to set and which ones to discard? What new flashes in the pan might we find if we sifted through our sources in the company of others?

The Promise of Digital History Notebooks

These questions would be moot, of course, if historians still lived in a pre-digital age. But available technology already makes it possible to disseminate notes widely. Even paper notes taken the “old-fashioned” (but still quite prevalent) way can be scanned and published online at minimal cost. Still, there are different ways of keeping “open” notebooks, each with distinct advantages and disadvantages.

Consider, for example, the digitized common-place book of the famous Boston abolitionist Wendell Phillips. This notebook is clearly no longer in active development (its author died in 1884), but when it was, Phillips used it to keep notes on a variety of subjects. He copied quotes, sketched outlines, pasted clippings, and drew links between things he was reading; in short, he did what many historians do as part of their daily work. Take a sample page from Phillips’s notes and you can get a quick glimpse into how his mind worked: a quote from a British review is followed by a parenthetical note to himself about how it could be used in one of his speeches; marginal annotations point to other passages that might be related.

Sample page from the Commonplace Book of Wendell Phillips

Sample page from the Commonplace Book of Wendell Phillips

Phillips did all of this on paper, a medium with several built-in liabilities—not least that a reader (himself included) could only consult his notes if he and the book were present in the same room. Thanks to the notebook’s digitization, modern readers are no longer so constrained; anyone with access to the Internet can now see what Phillips wrote without having to travel to the Boston Public Library in Copley Square, which is where the original resides.

But as a window into a working mind, Phillips’s paper notebook has other disadvantages that a slavish digital copy does not necessarily rectify. First, it seems likely that Phillips added notes to this page over time, since some markings are in pen and other are in pencil. But there is no easy way to tell when specific additions were made. Nor is it possible to know for sure whether Phillips persisted in seeing the connections that he sketched out on this page, or whether he changed his mind about them in a signficant way. Perhaps at some point he even “turned the page,” both literally and figuratively, and never thought of these quotes again.

Historians beginning their notebooks today can mitigate some of these problems with the use of relatively simple technologies. One is the hyperlink, a deceptively simple innovation so ubiquitous on the World Wide Web that its power is too often taken for granted. “Linking” items together on a website is not just a means of facilitating browsing; it is also a machine-readable way of doing what historians do all the time when we “link” sources, ideas, concepts and arguments together. The link, as Gardner Campbell has eloquently explained, is a powerful way to “symbolize ideas about relationship” and thus to symbolize the act of higher-order cognition itself. Phillips did a version of this by noting cross-references in the margins, but hyperlinks would have facilitated both his ability to navigate to related material and to see multiple layers of relevance by, for example, seeing all of the notes that linked to a particular source.

Hyperlinks would not have solved the other weakness of Phillips’s notebook: its inability to track, at a fine-grained level, changes to a page or to his thinking over time. Digital notebooks, however, could overcome this challenge as well. The solution here is version control, a technology familiar to the open-source software world and embedded (behind the scenes) in many of the tools historians already use. Microsoft Word’s “track changes” feature is essentially a version of version control, a way of seeing precisely how a text has been modified at a particular moment of time. Wikipedia’s “history” pages provide a more powerful version of the same feature. And as Konrad Lawson has shown in a recent Profhacker series on Github, programs like Git provide the most powerful version control systems of all, allowing their users exceedingly fine-grained views of when and how files were changed.

A history notebook kept under version control would, much like Carl Boettiger’s open science notebook, allow both author and reader to track the development of a project over time. But unlike a blog, which serves a similar purpose by timestamping posts and publishing them in reverse chronological order, version control would also make clear what the most current version of a researcher’s thinking is. An old blog post whose arguments have since been superseded or changed remains permanently in the archives of a blog; so does a page of notes kept under version control. In the second case, however, older versions are more easily hidden from view. Updates overwrite old notes while still making the older copies available to those who want to look closer.

For those who do want to look closer, version control may be able to unlock some of the deeper possibilities of Open Digital Notebook History. Historian William G. Thomas III spelled out these possibilities in a 2008 forum on “The Promise of Digital History,” when he wrote that

the digital medium offers a unique means to create interpretive and evidentiary models under continual change. Digital history should embrace the impermanence of the medium, use it to convey the changing nature of the past and of how we understand it. I consider such digital sites open research platforms where scholars can stage problems and continually modify their work, readers can view the research as it develops, and both can continually assemble new associations as an interpretive model is built.

For historians, the attraction here should be easy to see. We already believe in contingency, that interpretive models depend for their development on time and context. Unlike Open Notebook Scientists, our motive for providing our data will have less to do with a desire to make our experiments reproducible, and more to do with a belief that historical arguments are on a fundamental level irreproducible. Each one is the product of a particular person or group of people at a particular time and place. In this sense, open history notebooks under version control may represent the perfect marriage of medium and message; they can both enable us to develop specific historical arguments and communicate the general argument most important to historians, that the “nature of the past” and “how we understand it” are under “continual change.”5

An Experiment in Open Notebook History

The above considerations have led me to try an experiment: I’m going to see what it’s like to keep an open notebook for my new book project.

The platform I have chosen is an open wiki run on Gitit, which has built in version control by Git. This makes it possible for me to edit my notes locally in my own text editor, using Pandoc and Markdown, or online using Gitit’s web interface. Most importantly, however, Gitit automates the process of keeping track of changes I have made to individual pages or the site as a whole. The activity page, for example, keeps a running list of which notes I have changed, together with links that allow immediate comparisons between the latest version and the last one.

A screenshot of the recent changes page on my Wiki.

A screenshot of the recent changes page on my Wiki.

I’m calling this an experiment because I’m aware that there are potential downsides to Open Notebook History. Some of them came up in a THATCamp discussion on ONH held in January 2013. Konrad Lawson has also outlined some potential objections, together with some persuasive replies, in his recent post on forking the academy.

One concern often raised about experiments like this has to do with their implications for publication. Two questions may arise: What if someone “scoops” an idea before it can be published? And what if a publisher won’t publish articles whose data and sources are already so open and available?

The first question doesn’t strike me as a reason to abandon Open Notebook History, for the simple reason that a digital notebook of the kind I am describing will preserve, in what some might call excruciating detail, precisely when an author had an idea and where he or she got it. The second question is a more serious one, but its force can be deflected by a simple thought experiment: consider the file drawer full of your notes, jottings, photocopies, and scribbled upon napkins, and then consider the manuscript you are writing or have written with the use of these notes. If you have little trouble seeing that one of these things is not the other, I suspect a publisher likewise won’t confuse your wad of notes with the carefully crafted, argumentative narrative you present for publication. And if that remains a concern, it may be worth noting that Open Notebook Scientists don’t seem to have experienced a noticeable decline in rates of publication because of their choice to put lab notebooks online.6

Still, there are problems associated with keeping an open notebook, like issues pertaining to the copyright law governing sources, that I am still thinking about and will take time to resolve. One possible way forward is to do as Open Notebook Scientists have done and create a stepped system of notifications that communicates to readers how much of a researcher’s notebook or source base is being shared. These notifications could range from one that says, essentially, “if it isn’t in the notebook others can assume that you haven’t done it,” to more limited notifications that say clearly “others cannot assume that if it isn’t in the notebook you haven’t done it.”

Even if open history notebooks ultimately fall more often on the latter end of this spectrum, however, I think they hold out tremendous potential to create a rich back-channel of information about the work historians do. Enough examples exist to show that it is possible to create the “open research platforms” that Will Thomas spoke of in 2008; to demonstrate their utility, what’s needed is a critical mass of historians willing to try them out. The experiment could well fail, but we won’t know unless we try.


  1. In 2010, Deborah Kaplan wrote a moving account of how these impulses shaped the personal archive of her late husband, Roy Rosenzweig. Her essay, “The Afterlife of an Archive,” may be one of the best things I’ve ever read in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

  2. I may get in trouble in some circles for saying this, but I’d point to TextMate as an illustration of open source signaling a project’s senescence, while Vim is an example of an open-source project that remains in active development.

  3. Jason Heppler has a similar, excellent post that uses the “open source” metaphor to argue for open access publication by historians. Here I’m thinking less about open-access publication and more about open-access notes, which raise some distinctive questions and open some unique possibilities that aren’t necessarily discussed in conversations about OA.

  4. The recent ITHAKA report on historians’ research practices notes that “scholars are now amassing incredible personal libraries of digitized material, alongside the content they are producing as part of the research process (notes or writings),” which is probably an understatement.

  5. The sort of notebook I am imagining may also serve the secondary but not insignificant purpose of sharing with other historians our methods for conducting research. The recent ITHAKA report on historians’ research practices indicates that historians in training often learn about how to organize and keep notes in haphazard way. This is changing thanks to blogs like Profhacker and books like Writing History in the Digital Age, but it remains largely true that historians keep their research workflows largely to themselves and leave new historians to reinvent for themselves the wheels we are already using.

  6. Carl Boettiger reports that after three years, his open lab notebook “has seen six projects go from conception to publication.” In a recent interview, he also gave a thought-provoking response to the question of whether he feared being scooped: “That concern is there, but I haven’t experienced any scoops. I think it is an overrated fear, especially when compared with the risk of being unknown in your field.”