In my banter with one of my friends Lemont, who also happens to be a historian, we usually at some point digress into what I would tentatively describe as the historian’s version of a ‘Yo Mama’ face-off. Usually this is over the wonderfully pointless ‘rivalry’ between modern historians (say post-1945) and those of a more non-modern persuasion (take your pick from ancient to early modern or whatever).
Rivalry over what, you may ask? Well, let’s just say that most modern historians (actual and wannabees) have probably heard the epithet that we don’t actually study history. Instead, we’re just doing ‘current events’. I’ve certainly heard this from Lemont, who is a historian of Anglo-Saxon England (over 1200-1700 years ago, for the unknowning among you). My responses to him often fall back on the schoolyard-esque argument that if he has to dig up dirt to make his argument then he’s really desperate for sources.
(The response to that is, of course, to blame it all on the Vikings burning everything down, but don’t they get enough of a bad rap as it is?)
Point, Andrew? Well, I’ve always looked upon my historical work as having a bounty of source materials, since modern society just produces more garbage that people can/need/must save. In fact, we really have too many sources at times, which can just as easily blind us as a lack of evidence. But hey, who looks a gifthorse in the mouth?
But what is one supposed to do when there are holes even in this overabundance? This is the problem I’ve been dealing with in my dissertation work lately. Certain areas within my work suffer from a paucity of source materials, leading me to wonder exactly how I’m supposed to dig up some dirt to fill in those gaps. What is one to do when the executive committee papers of an Irish political party for the 1961-1975 period were destroyed in a fire? Aside from stalking old Fine Gael party members to see if they have copies in the nooks of their attics (doable, but not right now in the home stretch), I am left with the tried and true methods of building a circumstantial argument from a variety of others areas or simply acknowledging the gap and moving on. This really pisses off the anal completionist in my personality (I can hear my close friends and family snickering at this … shut up you lot).
If you are wondering why my dissertation isn’t done yet, here’s exhibit ‘A’ for you. This isn’t a hobby, you know.