One of the comments we sometimes hear about living in the “digital age” is that texts are in a state of constant revision. For better or for worse, website content can change from one day to the next, and unless there is some sort of tracking in place (as on Wikipedia), the user won’t know what changed.

Yet this isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. Print books change in content, from one revised edition to the next. Sometimes the changes are clear, in the form of an added chapter, or documented in the new foreword by the author. Sometimes they are more elusive, woven into the original text like the near-invisible darn which restores a sweater.

C. Vann Woodward’s The Stange Career of Jim Crow (Commemorative edition) falls into the latter category. The content originated as three consecutive lectures given at the University of Virginia in 1954, edited by the author with some help from colleagues and published in 1955. For the paperback edition of 1957, the content was revised and a foreword added. Ten years later the book was again revised, not only with additional material in chapter form but worked back into the original text. A final revision, with yet another chapter, took place in 1973. The extent to which the main text was again revised is unclear.

It would, of course, be possible to hunt down all four editions and compare the content. With the help of a good scanner and quality OCR, it might not even take that long. Website revisions can be retrieved through caches, if one is lucky. The iterations of historical writing are (sometimes) discoverable.

QuickPost: Citations

I recently finished reading The Anatomy Murders by Lisa Rosner. It’s a very readable look at the early 19th century Edinburgh murderers Burke and Hare, offering a great deal of context both for the Edinburgh they inhabited and the culture of medical anatomy which motivated them. I may write more on it later.

What intrigued me was the citation style. There were no footnotes or endnotes, but in the back was a section for notes, with text in bold indicating what sentence or paragraph was being supported. At first I was a bit irritated, as it made it impossible to tell while in the main text whether she was working from a source. Then I realized that I, and I imagine others, have a tendency to thing “Oh, a foot/end note. This must be based in a reliable source,” which is decidedly not always the case.

I recently tried to find the source of a quotation only to be sent from one citation to another, backwards through publications until I got to the point where there were no foot or end notes, only a bibliography. I’m learning not to trust a notation so blindly.

Lost Causes

When I’m not reading history essays and biographies, I like a good mystery (I also like a good historical romance, but that’s a story for another time).  Today’s read is by an author who I’ve read before, Sharyn McCrumb, but a series I have not, starring one Elizabeth MacPherson. I’m reading the first in the series, Sick of Shadows (first published 1984).

There is a point fairly early in the book (page 47 in my copy), where Elizabeth is teased by her cousins for  knowing so much about the history of the MacPhearson clan and their participation in the ’45, fighting with “Bonnie Prince Charlie.” Her cousin Geoffrey comments:

“I congratulate you on your originality,” purred Geoffrey. “It seems you have been unable to escape the Southern weakness for lost causes, but at least you managed to avoid the conventional one. I would rather hear you go on about the Scottish Alamo than to hear about the Confederacy.”

This comment, made though it was by a fictional Southern cynic, gave me pause. I am a Southerner, in case I’ve not mentioned that before (North Carolina, in case you were wondering), and yet I have no great fondness for lost causes. Underdogs, certainly, but that can be put down to the influence of Robin Hood and being a geeky child in general. I confess that I don’t view the Confederate cause as a great Romantic story; but then, I also find Lord Byron rather trying and suspect I would be likely to tread on his foot if I’d ever met him at a party.  Likewise, I see nothing ‘bonnie’ about Charles Edward Stuart’s character, although he certainly was handsome and charismatic when campaigning with the elite of Edinburgh.

The men who fought in both armies interest me, and the women who traveled with them. Both armies contained people who had been disenfranchised, and I wonder what they hoped the future would bring if they won. How the wars affected the lives of ordinary people, the long-term impact, interests me far more than the movements of units or the personalities of the figureheads.

Sometimes my lack of passionate interest in the Civil War and the cause of Bonnie Charlie makes me wonder just what kind of Southerner and Scottish-descended-American I am. Perhaps a new generation, one with a different romantic outlook than the past. Or perhaps the kind who has always preferred Robin Hood and Little John to King Richard and his Crusaders. Or simply one who also happens to be a social historian.


In June of 2010, Oxford University Press is publishing a book titled The Passport in America: the History of a Document. The blub on the book in their Spring/Summer 2010 catalogue leads me to believe that this book should offer some insight into a topic I posted about earlier – what exactly makes a person a citizen of one nation and not another.

Hopefully by then I’ll have finished a number of the other books on my “to-read” shelf and will be able to snag a copy from one of the local libraries.  I am lucky in that the local university is funded by the State, so anyone with a state driver’s license can check out books!

Little Bitty Books

Today I went to the local U to their special collections (the joys of working for a historic site!). In one of the boxes I requested were books – three larger ones and then a series of small ones. I mean small – less than two inches wide and at best three inches tall. Most of them were almanacs, from the 1810s and 1820s, just a single signature, most likely stab bound to the marbled paper cover. The lovely one had a red leather cover, with a overlapping tongue that fit into a loop on the cover. The cover was lined with some fabric and had a little pocket inside the flap for a pencil. All of these had calendars, with blank pages opposite each month for your own appointments.The person (or people) who owned these books used those pages, and also wrote notes and addresses in the flypapers.

They were wonderful little glimpses into early 19th century material culture in the UK, into the way people used books and other printed material. It is so very much the way we still carry little notebooks around with us, catchalls of information – or, more 21st century, our pdas and cellphones.