Monday, September 30, 2013

Information Overload: Historians’ Edition

Jonathan Rees

Norge Refrigerator advertisement, 1953.
So I have a new book out.  It’s on the history of the American ice and refrigeration industries and the research and writing only took me thirteen years. Why would anybody work on any subject that long?  Well, to be fair, I have published three other books over that same time.  Still, I developed a few serious problems along the way that really slowed the entire writing process down to a crawl.

The first problem was picking the right level of focus for my work.  The very first documents I looked at were ice and refrigeration industry trade journals.  These are giant periodicals, available bound together in only the largest libraries, and written primarily for the refrigerating engineers who used to make what is now a mostly forgotten industry function.   Being something of a perfectionist, I was determined to understand everything they understood, from how ammonia compression refrigeration works to what the heck “raw water ice” was.  As I no longer live near any of the largest libraries in America, getting time and resources to do this research, let alone understand what I was reading, took an awful lot of time.

The second problem I faced was figuring out how to turn the story of these industries into a coherent narrative.  Biographers have the luxury of beginning at birth and ending with death, or maybe their subject’s legacy.  Describing the history of an entire industry, as well as all of its related industries, proved much tougher.  My solution was to adopt a refrigerating engineering conceit known as a cold chain, which is basically another way of saying that I started at the point of production and ended at the point of consumption.  I didn’t figure that out until 2006.

So what explains the extra seven years?  Part of it was information overload.  Sometime around the time I figured out how to organize everything, Google Books went from being a pet project to a research revolution.  All of a sudden, it was like being back at the University of Wisconsin again.  I could get any obscure tome I wanted faster than it used to take to walk to campus and hit the fourth floor of the Engineering Library for my precious trade journals.  With so much more to see, I felt obliged to read everything I could get my hands on.  I know it sounds like I’m whining, but the final book really is much better because of that effort.

The main reason for that was a choice I made in 2009.  I decided to make the book global in scope.  Yes, it’s called Refrigeration Nation (which is a reference to the United States) but to prove that America has always been refrigeration crazy I had to at least make a pass at what was going on throughout the world, which I did mostly (but not exclusively) through American sources.  That took more time still because even though I had more information at that point than I knew what to do with, I hadn’t been collecting the foreign evidence I needed to adopt this approach until very late in the game.

Research is fun.  That’s why I don’t regret a moment I’ve spent working on this thing.  However, I’m also convinced I’ll never write another book this same way again.  In an age when nearly every published source is both searchable and right
there at your fingertips, there is much less incentive to read everything available because whatever breadth of knowledge you develop will be far less impressive than it once was.  While some people might think this development a sad one, I look forward to reading history books that devote more time to organization, analysis and just plain old good writing.

Whether I just managed to produce such an animal is up to my readers to decide. 

Jonathan Rees is Professor of History at Colorado State University – Pueblo.  Refrigeration Nation:  a History of Ice, Appliances and Enterprise is making its way to distributors now.  If you can’t buy one immediately at your local bookseller or favorite online book store, it will be available very, very soon.


Randall said...

I hope you don't mind me saying that this was therapeutic, Jonathan. It's nice to know that projects like yours take a good amount of time and research effort. Makes me feel much better about my current book project, which I've been banging away on since 2009 or so.

I've never been able to work well on multiple books, articles at once. Maybe there is some secret to it.

Lisa Clark Diller said...

This seems like a fascinating subject and well worth the time. But, like Randall, I appreciate your honesty about ups and downs of the longterm project. I'm still trying to get my first monograph done and it is so hard to resist the temptation to try to read everything. I think teaching helps me sort out what is important, perhaps, but there is still the need to try to master everything. Increasingly, I agree, that good books won't need to be the "last word" on their subject....