These things take time

Last week, I spent a few days in the Dalton-Brand Research Room, at Duke University, skimming through the Samuelson papers. They make everybody excited there, and for good reasons. Samuelson was all over the place for about 70 years: in the academia, in the medias, in the arcane secrets of governmental policies. As a result, some of his papers read as mystery novels. There are many different plots intertwined there and you just want to read the end of the story – okay, I might be exaggerating a bit, but you get the idea. Of course, when one sees this kind of materials, he has many ideas for future papers and want to have them written – and published – as soon as possible. Accordingly, the Samuelson papers seem to generate a very competitive market. There will be a roundtable on “the prospects of writing on Paul Samuelson” at the next HES meeting, (at least) two biographical projects are being undertaken at the moment, and of course, there is also the perspective of the 2013 HOPE conference on MIT, which will hopefully result in a lot of new fascinating contributions, not only on Samuelson but on the many other important economists who interacted in this place where a lot of what constitutes the economists’ workaday toolbox has allegedly originated. There is this sensation that things will come out rather quickly but also an uneasy feeling of misplaced haste and pressure. Of course, I am not blaming anyone: that feeling has gotten all over me as well!

Yet, it is not without an afterthought that, soon after my return to Paris, I grabbed the copy of Robert Leonard’s Von Neumann, Morgenstern, and the Creation of Game Theory: From Chess to Social Science, 1900-1960 that I had ordered from my university’s library and which had finally arrived on shelf during my absence. Leonard’s book has been expected  for over a decade and it fully delivers on its promises. It does not rely on a forced grand narrative or on an overly repeated thesis. Instead, it is constructed  like an impressionistic picture, where individual paths and the larger context are subtly intertwined until they finally make sense to the reader. Robert Leonard is never where you expect him to be. When one anticipates pages on abstract formalism, Leonard depicts Chess games and the politics of Red Vienna, when one sees a critique of neoclassical economics, he describes a theory of social interaction and when one thinks of wartime reorganization of science and its aftermath, he tells the ending of a very personal journey. It is meticulously crafted, with an economy of words that makes every sentence necessary. Obviously, these things take time.

In the archives

Taking a quick break from my work in the Samuelson archives – so fascinating, believe me! – I can’t resist sharing the following, which I found in his correspondence files. Commenting on David Landes’ draft on Abba Lerner (subsequently published), as Landes explains that Lerner did not get a professorship in Britain in the 1930s, in spite of his having published 29 papers so far, Samuelson writes in the margin:

Somewhere, you should hint why Lerner never had the job offer Lange did. jew; socialist; bohemian; libertine; no team player; genius.

And he adds in the related letter to Landes:

History [historians] never get things right.

Source: Samuelson to Landes, February 23 1990, Box 84, Folder “Lerner Abba”, Paul A. Samuelson papers at Duke University.

Is it time?

More random thoughts about the wikileaks cablegate

Of course, there are all these discussions about the consequences of such disclosure for international relations, its influence on American and worldwide public opinions.

But what about the consequences on scholarly historical work?

Two random links to begin with:

“Why Wikileaks is bad for scholars “, by international politics Fletcher School professor Daniel Drezner

US embassy cables: a banquet of secrets in The Guardian , by essayist/ public intellectual/ journalist (?) Timothy Garton Ash

Any other reactions by scholars/ public intellectuals you’re aware of?

Is the forced “declassification” of such recent historical material, at such a huge scale, a blessing or a curse for international relations scientists and for historians?

Are they/we “equipped” intellectually to deal with such material, to analyze its context, its subtext, its “truthfulness” ? To make sense of it? To tell a story out of it? What does the material reflect: the course of history, actions, opinion, prejudices, decisions, other? How distinct/close   is/should be  the work of a scholar as compared with the work of these journalists at the NYT, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, who are trying to sort out these millions words, cut through it, report it, make sense of it to the reader? Is it their very short horizon? Does it mean it will necessary take the historian a 1/5/10 years immersion into the material to tell the story behind such and such cable? Is it at all possible? What will the exploitation of these cables say about the possibility to write contemporary history? Or if that material is unimportant/ unexploitable/ secondary/ flawed/ biased, why and how is it so?

Does any precedent exist in history/ history of science/ history of culture/ history of economic something? I mean, is there any instance you know in which the unanticipated early disclosure of some historical material have forced historians/ analysts/ journalists/ story tellers  to reconsider/ rewrite their stories?

Do historians/ scholarly archivists in relation to historians have any duty in the face of such flow of material (setting aside questions regarding the legality of the disclosure) : do they have to sort the material, provide finding aid, reference it?

And if these are not the right/ meaningful questions to filter what is currently happening, what else?


I was so close to have found my laptop’s new wallpaper here. It makes the glamour of our profession shine. Remember, historians are would-be Indiana Jones (or is it now Julian Assange?).

It’s just that the picture is of a too small size for a full screen display. After verification, no it is not. There are more uses than just a wallpaper though. If I were at Duke, I’d print it in A3 and display it on the RBMSC Library‘s front door. Not sure it would encourage economists to donate their personal archives, but it would certainly excite patrons’s interest!

Referencing dilemma – what to do?

I find it frustrating when in-text references read (Keynes 1973) or (Quesnay 1963). This leaves me to go and find the bibliographical notes to try and discover which works are being referred to and when they were written.  Often the when is significant to understand what is being said by Quesnay, or ‘which’ Keynes is writing – the 1943 Treasury Civil Servant or the young man frustrated with the Versailles Treaty in 1919. If an article then refers to Keynes several times from a ‘collected works’ edition, the time context is almost impossible to decipher as every reference is to 1973 and the reader needs to check page-numbers and chapters to find the original dates. Some authors add extra text before every quote and citation which reads “In year xxx, Dr. yyy wrote”.  I feel this makes the reading slow, tedious and I still have to double-check the years after reading a quote or citation. Such referencing, to me, does not work. But what might be the best practice for referencing translated and re-printed works in the text?

Having checked the brief Harvard guide (that’s the system I’m stuck with) there does not seem to be a rule… There is a rule for translated work in the reference section – using the original year first. Similarly for articles in edited volumes the original date is noted first, with the edited volume’s year of publication later in the reference. From this I infer that the reference in the text would be to the original year and not the edited work. So what do you feel is the best practice?

Let’s take an example: There is a poem by Voltaire written in 1736 entitled Mondrain, translated first by Tobias Smollet [as Man of the World] in 1901 and this translation is re-produced (ad verbatim) in a collected volume by Henry Clark in 2003, which I am using. All this detail is in the full reference at the back. The year of the poem matters to the exposition – as Voltaire will write for another 40+ years, so what do you feel is the best reference in-text? Is it (Voltaire 1738), (Voltaire 1901), (Voltaire 2003) or something fourth, or fifth with square brackets perhaps?

Zotero and scholarship for historians

I just discovered (thx to Micha Werner) an excellent software for bibliography. So far, I had tinkered with an Excel sheet and the mail merge functions of Word, which advantageously replaced Endnotes for the use I had.

But ZOTERO, developed by George Mason University beats everything:

Minority Report, directed by Steven Spielberg (2002)

– excessively user-friendly (you can start using it without training)

– not exactly a software, but an add-on incorporated in your Firefox browser

– detects automatically and imports in a click the references displayed on the webpages you are browsing (like your search results page on J-Stor or Science Direct)

– allows you to tag, comment, classify, link, import and export all your entries (e.g., from and to Endnotes)

– integrated to Word

– formatting styles for journals available in rapidly increasing numbers

– and in a very preliminary beta test: allows you to host all your bibliographical files (pdfs etc.) on a distant server. So that you access all your bibliography + files from any computer.

– free licence.

Endnotes is seriously threatened! (Thomson Reuters, which develops it, tried to fight Zotero on legal grounds – and lost).

I have never heard of senior historians of economics sharing their experience on organizing their archives and bibliography, as if it was dirty kitchen work, not worth revealing.

But PDFs, pictures from the archives, stacks of photocopies, interviews, photographies, correspondence…, all of this has to be professionally, or at least seriously, organized. Above a couple of hundreds of references (not mentionning thousands), it becomes hard to manage it in DIY mode.

Gaston Lagaffe, a comic strip created by Franquin in 1957

There are nice tools out there to do it, and they would be worth advertizing to the students starting a PhD. It will become all the more relevant that the archives used by historians are diversifying: entries of blogs, websites, emails, videos, files in all formats, softwares… digital archiving is a technical business. Zotero has been developed by the Center for History and New Media at GMU, and that should be an encouragement for historians of economics to board the train.