Sunset for Ideology, Sunrise for Methodology is an interesting post by Tom Scheinfeldt, director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason U, and one of the people behind Zotero, a great tool that we’re all interested in. He talks some differences in how history was done in the 19th century, in the 20th, and how it’s done now.
Late 19th and early 20th century scholarship was dominated not by big ideas, but by methodological refinement and disciplinary consolidation. Denigrated in the later 20th century as unworthy of serious attention by scholars, the 19th and early 20th century, by contrast, took activities like philology, lexicology, and especially bibliography very seriously. Serious scholarship was concerned as much with organizing knowledge as it was with framing knowledge in an ideological construct….
I believe we are at a similar moment of change right now, that we are entering a new phase of scholarship that will be dominated not by ideas, but once again by organizing activities, both in terms of organizing knowledge and organizing ourselves and our work. My difficulty in answering the question “What’s the big idea in history right now?” stems from the fact that, as a digital historian, I traffic much less in new theories than in new methods. The new technology of the Internet has shifted the work of a rapidly growing number of scholars away from thinking big thoughts to forging new tools, methods, materials, techniques, and modes or work which will enable us to harness the still unwieldy, but obviously game-changing, information technologies now sitting on our desktops and in our pockets. These concerns touch all scholars. Our Zotero research management tool is used by three quarters of a million people, all of them grappling with the problem of information overload. And although much of the discussion remains informal, it’s no accident that Wikipedia is right now one of the hottest topics for debate amongst scholars.