Proposing a Summer Blog Series on Sources

On Monday I will be submitting my application for the American Historical Association’s summer blogger competition. They’re looking for graduate students to blog about the sources they use for research, and I happen to already read sources and blog about them, so it seems like a great potential opportunity. At the very least, writing the proposal has helped me plan out some summer blogging that I’d want to do anyway. I thought that sharing a draft of my proposal would both give you some insight into how I spent my afternoon in the library yesterday and a preview of what I’ll be blogging about this summer. I’ve got until Monday to make edits, so of course I’d love to hear any suggestions for improvements.

My blog series, tentatively titled “Representing Place: Using Old and New Media to Write the History of a Chinese City,” will explore how historical research is enhanced through the use of sources that are both from different genres and are preserved through different media. This series will reflect my own efforts to draw insights from different layers of representation of Jinan – a provincial capital in eastern China that is the focus of my dissertation – and my own re-production of this layering as I write and speak about Jinan through different media.

I have chosen three sets of sources to write about for this blog series. The first is a local gazetteer (i.e. an encyclopedia of local history, persons, customs, etc.) published in the 1920’s. On one hand, my post will discuss the gazetteer’s own anachronicity: its compilers self-consciously utilized outdated literary forms to elaborate the connection between Jinan and the Qing Dynasty, which had been overthrown a decade prior to its publication. On the other hand, I will also discuss the present availability of this source both in printed form and as a digitized text in an expensive academic database.

The second source is a microfilm collection of letters written in the late nineteenth century by American Presbyterian missionaries, some of whom lived in Jinan and are the subject of one of my dissertation chapters. This post will address the intellectual value of reading sources written by cultural outsiders and the technical challenges involved in utilizing a large microfilm collection. I will also trace my own personal history with this source from when I first encountered it as an undergraduate ten years ago and how my understanding of how to best use it has changed over time.

The third source I will post about is a late seventeenth century landscape painting of one of the Kangxi Emperor’s southern tours as it passed through Jinan. Because of its fragile nature, this source cannot be displayed, but it has been digitized and published online by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Columbia University through an interactive website. I have also visited Jinan itself and have been able to personally experience the vantage point of the original painting, which was based on already existing maps published in gazetteers. Of course, I have also photographically re-produced this view, which is a reminder that as a historian I am not simply utilizing an already existing corpus of sources but am contributing to it as well.

The intellectual value of this blog series will be multi-faceted, but its most important outcome will be its argument that historians’ flexibility in their use of sources for research should also inform our open-mindedness when it comes to sharing the results of our research. If we can use a great variety of sources to research a single topic, then surely we can learn to discuss that topic through a variety of media. This diversification of intellectual inclinations and technical abilities should be the defining characteristic of writing history in the twenty-first century.

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