Open Notes, Open Book

Much of my book on the history and memory of the battle of the Crater was shared in some form on this blog. This site was used regularly to share my thinking about various questions and to solicit responses from readers. It worked out incredibly well. Consider this post from 2009 in which I first proposed thinking about the Crater as a slave rebellion. Reader feedback figured directly into how I thought about this concept, which eventually became the organizing theme of the first chapter of the book.

The other aspect of this sharing that I enjoyed was showcasing what I understand to be the process that goes into a historical study. I thought it would be helpful to give my blog audience and potential future book readers a behind-the-scenes tour of the challenges faced in writing history that leans more toward the analytical as opposed to a straightforward narrative.

I am now knee deep in my current book project on the history of Confederate camp servants and the evolution of the myth of the black Confederate soldier. The tentative title is, Searching For Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Enduring Myth and will likely be completed in early 2016. As many of you know I’ve been writing about this topic on this blog since 2008 and easily comprises the largest percentage of posts on this site. Much of what I’ve written is being revised for the book project, but the posts themselves live in an archive that is difficult to access in a way that tracks my own understanding over time.

Once I picked up this project after setting it aside for a time I started to think about ways to share the research process with the public. The subject of black Confederates is fraught with misunderstanding not only about the history, but about how to approach the rich repository of relevant primary sources that are accessible online.

I want to be able to track every aspect of the research process, including the slightest revisions in factual and interpretive understanding. Readers would be able to track the secondary sources utilized that broadly frame my understanding of a specific subject right down to the interpretation of individual primary sources.

The best example of this Open Sourcing approach can be found at Caleb McDaniel’s wiki site for his new book project on slave refugees in Texas. I recommend reading about what McDaniel calls “Open Source Notebook History.” It’s a natural extension of much of what I hoped to achieve through my blog posts about the Crater.

It’s worth noting that the goal is not to have people agree with my own conclusions; in fact, my conclusions may be the least important aspect of such a project. Again, it is the process of doing history that I believe would be valuable for many people involved in this debate to see.

The question that I am struggling with is what kind of platform to utilize. I played around with Github, but the interface is a bit too unwieldy for interested readers. Other possibilities include Google pages or some other free wiki software.

Is there value in such a project? I would love to hear your thoughts.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

3 comments… add one
  • Rob Baker Jun 8, 2015 @ 7:00

    Sounds like a digital publication of an annotated bibliography. There is always value in that because, like you said, it helps readers understand how sources shaped your argument. There is some research value in that, sure.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 8, 2015 @ 11:38

      Part of the problem I am facing is that I am thinking about this in the middle of the process. What I like about Caleb McDaniel’s project is that it is tracking the process from the beginning. I may choose a selection of key documents and reveal as much about my thinking over time as possible. I am still struggling with what kind of digital platform might be best utilized for this little project.

      • Rob Baker Jun 8, 2015 @ 17:44

        I can see how that might be a problem. I’m sort of dabbling in the annotated biblio. with my current project. Of course, I’m definitely not going as in depth as you seem to want to go with it.. I’m just posting updates on new material as I come across it on my blog and then adding that brief update to a separate page on my website. I look forward to seeing what you come up with.

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