Managing Knowledge

In June, I attended a fascinating conference organised by the Sir Michael Howard Centre for the History of War on the subject of ‘War in Historical and Contemporary Perspective.’ One of the many interesting papers delivered was one by Dr Tarak Barkawi of the LSE on the theme of ‘Theory and History in the Archives of War.’

One of the interesting comments Barkawi made was that as well as being a repository of knowledge, archives are also a place for thinking. This struck me as a significant comment and perhaps because I sit at a desk set in between an archive and a library it was also an obvious conclusion but not one that I have ruminated on very much. Nevertheless, this is a truism. As much as historians go to archives to examine files, we all, hopefully, use them as a place to think and theorise about our research. We all have a theory whether we admit or not. Furthermore, in my opinion, military historians arguably do not conceptualise about the nature of archives enough, but that is another discussion.

There is, however, a very practical flip side to the view of archives as a place to think and the issue of theory. This is how we manage the knowledge that we develop at these institutions. Specifically, here I am thinking about the physical management of the files we view and how we store that information. This is important because while we may think about our subject, we have to be able to come back to the raw data to access it to evaluate its significance in the course of our research.

I have previously discussed how I do the physical research, but more recently I have sought to develop a means of managing that knowledge and data in a meaningful way that allows me to access in the future. In short, I have begun using Zotero as my own collections management system or CMS. All archival institutions have a CMS, for example, Discovery at The National Archives. Zotero on the other hand is a free and open-source reference management software for managing bibliographic data. However, this is where it becomes useful. First, it is free and has been developed by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. Second, you can download metadata from the internet, which is useful for how I am now using Zotero. Finally, you can sync the data over a number of devices so that you can access the data in a number of places.

Given these advantages, I now use Zotero as my own personal CMS. In short, I am now in the process of going through all of the archival material that I have accrued over the past ten years or so and cataloguing them using Zotero. Using a separate folder for each institution, I can generate a label and description for each item. Once I have edited the entry with the representative data that I want to add, I then tag each document with relevant descriptors i.e. names, units, and themes. These will become more detailed as I go back through the documents but at the moment terms such as ‘RAF Staff College’ or ‘Marshal of the RAF Viscount Trenchard’ suffice. The key point here is that it allows me to undertake a quick search of material related to a theme on which I am writing. You can also cross-reference tags to see where, for example, ‘Trenchard’ and ‘Staff College’ are mentioned in the same document. Another advantage is that you can add notes to the entries, which is a helpful tool.

So there it is. While using an archive as a place to think, as historians, we also need a means to manage the mass of information that we process. I think I have found a method of managing this information, but this may not be the perfect system. However, for me, it is a significant step forward in the battle of managing the information I have collected over my years of research.

My Zotero library can be found here.

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