Review of History Hunting: A Guide for Fellow Adventurers by James W. Cortada M.E. Sharpe
James Cortada leads a deeply interesting life. His professional career combines an obsessive love for history with a flair for business. Cortada’s academic credentials are impeccable and include a Ph.D. in Modern American and European History. His professional career took a different path, and he held leadership positions at IBM for more than 35 years. The son of a diplomat, he was an experienced world traveler at a young age, a practice he continues today. He believes that his alternative career path has enhanced his historical faculties. Finally, he is the author of more than 60 books in business, information technology and history.
History Hunting is, in his words, “intended to be both a memoir and a practical introduction to the historian’s endeavor.” The book is divided into ten chapters. Each begins with an epigraph—a quote designed to draw the reader into chapter. The bulk of each chapter includes a variety of Cortada’s personal experiences as a “history hunter”. These stories are followed by a section entitled “Lessons Learned”, which outlines his best practices as discovered through experience. The last section is entitled “Getting Started” and is intended as an action plan for both novice and experienced practitioner. This section often includes a short bibliography of in-print materials and useful websites. Endnotes appear on the last page of each chapter. Surprisingly missing from this book are sustained referrals to his other writings, but he explains early on that his purpose is not to promote his books, but to promote historical research. Throughout the book, Cortada successfully maintains the conviction that history hunting is an enthusiastic game, best shared with others.
Cortada’s first chapter takes the reader on a tour of his earliest brushes with the historical, which he describes in almost mystical terms. These begin in Basra, Iraq, where a young Cortada is introduced to the story of Sinbad the sailor. He is drawn into the story via a potential artifact, a simple piece of glass that captures his imagination. His next story describes his first foray into field and research history, when as a freshman in college he is pulled into an historical excavation of a potential Confederate campsite in Orange County, VA. A discussion of the centrality of “place” in research reveals both the strengths and weaknesses of Cortada’s writing. Throughout the book he emphasizes the importance of relationships—history hunting is conducted as a social activity. The weakness is that the storyline jumps between time and place, making it occasionally difficult to follow. In this chapter, the reader is also introduced to the primary lessons of historical research, the importance of first hand encounters with object and places, historical record and understanding historical context. The section on “Getting Started” includes advice for finding local history resources, thinking and working like an historian and practical advice on visiting a battlefield. This section is particularly timely, as the book is published during the Civil War Sesquicentennial. One issue of concern here is that the websites listed may not be viable after 2015, when the sesquicentennial is over.
Many historians seek the Perfect Project, and in Chapter 2, Cortada discusses his own such project, his dissertation on U.S.-Spanish Diplomacy 1855–1868. So what makes this topic perfect? Cortada has three criteria: at the time no comprehensive book on the subject existed, the importance of the topic extended beyond national history to international history, and there was an existing, readily available yet unstudied paper trail. Here Cortada emphasizes the importance of relationships when doing research. The chapter begins with a visit to a secondhand bookstore in Barcelona during the early 1970s. The owner, Don Joseph Porter, is an old family friend, who in the “tradition of service” helps the young historian find worthy research materials. In a nod to changing technology, he includes a section humorously entitled “Research in the Olden Days”, where he describes other encounters, including the Madrid Royal Academy of History (formal and academic), the British Public Record Office (cold but with microfilmed records), the British Library (large and magnificent) and the Paris Foreign Ministry (a place where speed doesn’t seem to matter.) He notes that the internet has replaced much of the “place, time and travel” so important in previous years. His search brings him to Spain’s censored news articles. Here Cortada makes perhaps his most provocative statement, that censorship is “good for historians.” While it sounds counterintuitive, in truth it was because of censorship that large quantities of papers were held by the Spanish government, ultimately becoming available to researchers. In the “Lessons Learned” section he charges historians with the responsibility to make research easier for the next generation by creating bibliographies and finding aids. One area that will undoubtedly lead to much discussion in academic circles is his discussion about self-publishing. Cortada takes the position that self-publishing is good, something that is debated in academic circles today. This chapter brought nostalgia for my own dissertation process, and I could have benefitted from his succinct recommendations for working on that perfect project.
Chapter 3 is the weakest in the book. While the topic is interesting, looking at the Information Age in historical context, the writing gets bogged down in the minutia of process. Essentially, this is a discussion of the challenges faced by those who study modern history. The perils include lost or destroyed artifacts and documents, the massive number of new materials created in the modern era, problems with accessibility of corporate archives and especially changing media and equipment. As one who remembers 5 1/4” floppy disks, I found this to be particularly relevant. Cortada also warns researchers about the need to separate the personal perspective from the greater context of the issue.
For me, the most fascinating chapter is “The Hunt for My Family’s History”. Reading it feels like a conversation with my own father, a historian by both profession and avocation. Cortada embraces family history, which he feels is both the most fun and the most difficult. Under the category of fun is the opportunity to involve the entire family. Difficulty is due to the many exaggerations and falsehoods that will likely be uncovered and the difficulty in finding records, many of which are divided among family members. He separates genealogy (who is related to who) and family history (the lives of those people). Family history involves five different elements. First, getting the geneaology right. Second, the creation of a family library or archive. Third, getting the biographies right. Fourth, engaging the entire family. And finally, recognizing the power of photographs. The best family historians keep family records current, as family is constantly in flux. Because family history can easily become the realm of imagination, he includes some best practices for correctly identifying one’s ancestors.
Chapter 5 emphasizes the theme of hunting, with a discussion of what he calls big game hunting, tackling the large scale project. His example, a Software History Project undertaken by the Charles Babbage Institute, reminds us again that history hunting is not a solo activity. Here, Cortada tells us that many colleagues in a large-scale project may not have a history background at all. Big game hunting requires excellent project management skills, the earlier accomplished the more successful the project. Teachers will appreciate his comments on information literacy and ethics in today’s technology driven society. Copying and pasting, plagiarism and improper citation is not acceptable in these projects or any others. Most helpful in this chapter is a guide of when to undertake a big-game approach to research.
In “Great Hunters I have Known” Cortada pays homage to historians, famous and otherwise, who have inspired him. These range from Pulitzer Prize-winning Jeffersonian historian Dumas Malone to George B. Oliver, Cortada’s history professor at Randolph-Macon College. These stories underscore his emphasis on history hunting as a social activity. What is most enlightening to both novice and experienced professional is the section entitled “My Turn, Your Turn”. Here Cortada turns his lens on IBM and behaviors of the good manager. Their role is to train the next generation of managers, to “protect their staff from making stupid mistakes out of ignorance” (153) and to improve staff networking skills. He believes strongly that these behaviors are applicable to the field of history. Ultimately, he places the onus of teaching onto all of us. In the words of this section’s title, it will indeed become our turn. Reciprocity is a key word here; do for others as they have done for you. This “Lessons Learned” section is fascinating as he delves into two seemingly divergent stories, that of an Amazon boy learning to hunt prey and the new attendee at an American Historical Association conference. Soon however, he brings the topic together by showing that each will learn their best practices by watching more those with more experience.
Chapter 7: Researcher as Archivist. Beginning this chapter with a quote from Nicholas Basbanes’ A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes and the Eternal Passion for Books is inspired. While the title appears to be about the responsibilities of any researcher, the story line is truly about Cortada’s own bibliomania. While not telling us exactly how many books he has in his collection, we find out that he is not opposed to buying nearly sight unseen books and journals from all over the world. Totaling the numbers given puts his collection well above 5,000 books, which begs the question at what point does collecting books become less a hobby and more of an obsession.
Cortada sees Chapter 8: “Into the Mind of the Historian” as a meshing of ideas presented earlier in the book. A primary theme here is recognizing that “we are prisoners of our values and worldviews.” We come to projects with “mental baggage”, and we have to remember that others do the same. I would say that as both historian and instructor this is my greatest challenge. Testing our plans with others can help us overcome our biases. The successful historian knows that research is a continuous process, meaning that they will always have a project underway. Here Cortada goes into detailed descriptions of his own projects, the sheer breadth and depth of which could be daunting to the newly minted historian. His discussion of the researcher as both hunter/gatherer and berry picker is a little confusing as the stories he selects could be an example of either style. Perhaps he means the difference between intentionally searching and the serendipity of some discoveries.
“Using History for Fun and Profit” advocates for applied history, using the past to anticipate the future, not as a series of recycled events but in its uniqueness. Through his story about a rejected manuscript, he shows how deeply divided this profession is regarding the foray of historians into the world of business. However, since Cortada is both business man and professional historian, this is a perfect melding of the two. He advocates that doing applied history is greatly beneficial to the historian as they can find new audiences for their work, improve their research and teaching skills, and, not least, find new sources of income. He outlines what specific tasks the historian can provide to a client. One section I would like to see more detailed is the section on path dependency. This concept explains how today’s decisions are based on the decisions and events of the past. He starts to describe how it can be used to interpret our own lives, but stops abruptly. I would like to see it expanded with personal stories similar to the rest of the book.
The final chapter is “The Future of the Hunt”. Cortada avoids “predicting”, but instead suggests what trends are worth following. The twentieth century saw a rise in quantitative history and numeracy. He expects this to continue and be balanced with analysis. Interest in genealogy and family history will continue to increase, and it is the family historians who will be best versed in information technology, especially social media. Of course, there are other opinions on how long social media technologies will be with us, so this is a future that is up for grabs. Self-publishing will continue to be a viable option, especially due to new technology in e-books and print on demand. The final section of this chapter, “Thinking like a Researcher”, would be a great stand-alone article and could be given to every student in every discipline. The emphasis on the internet and its power as a research tool, one which can be mastered, is timely and valuable.
In conclusion, Cortada has attempted to write a book for a broad audience. His work could appeal to a lay person, new professional or experienced historian. The lay person and new professional will find encouragement and direction for this vast field. The experienced historian will enjoy the reminiscences, finding congruence with their own experiences, and perhaps be encouraged to engage in some memoir writing of their own. This book could serve as textbook in applied history or museum studies courses, but would also make good reading in M.B.A. programs related to business history. The book does require patience to read as some stories do seem circuitous before making their point. However, the nuggets of wisdom are worth the wait.
Reviewed by Elise Schebler Roberts, Globe University
Edited by Karen Rosenflanz
(c) 2013 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 7, Fall, 2013. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]