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Things Historians Can’t Live Without

As a historian, what can't you live without?

Which invaluable, indispensable and priceless tool helps you carry out the work your profession demands?

To find out the answer to this open-ended, broad question, I asked this question via e-mail to historians from over 30 prominent universities throughout the United States and the UK. I encouraged humor in their responses, because what's history without a little laughter and self-deprecation?

Each quote is a separate statement given by a different historian. Here's what they had to say!

"What I can't I live without: ‘Access to the archives.’ My greatest fear: what will email (even worse, social media) do to the future of archives?"

-Professor Michael Cullinane, University of Wisconsin

"Don't laugh but the most important thing for me is a steady supply of small paperclips. I virtually eat these, much to the amusement of the office staff here. I use them to clip together notes which form the paragraph structure. I have used many tens of thousands of them during my career, I suppose."

-Professor Brendan Simms, University of Cambridge

"My research depends on the provision of publicly funded archives with adequate levels of professional staffing and appropriate legislative provision for access, plus a publicly funded higher education system which values historical research and entrusts academics to undertake it as a core part of their work. None of this is currently provided by the UK government."

-Professor Kate Peters, University of Cambridge

"The thing I can't live without is the dead, otherwise I'd have no one to write about! My cat is pretty important, too, as he oversees my manuscripts!"

-Michael Broers, University of Oxford

"Since I'm an ancient historian by training who now works predominantly on modern European (and particularly German) history, I couldn't do without my knowledge of Latin and ancient Greek - if nothing else, it makes me realise that having to read German all the time isn't all that bad...!"

-Dr. Helen Roche, University of Cambridge

"I think I need two things more than anything else. 1. My camera. As a contemporary historian I have to wade through large sets of documents and without being able to take pictures I think I might lose my mind. The second is probably bourbon for obvious reasons."

-Dr. A. Warren Dockter, University of Cambridge

"I could not do my work in the way I do without the BNF's Gallica website."

-Dr. Ruth Scurr, University of Cambridge

"In the spirit of fun, I have two things I don't think I could manage without:

●  A cold beer at the end of the day so I can watch the bubbles and think about central Europe. A good way to decompress.

●  A good mechanical pencil. It drives some archivists nuts because they think its a pen. It's my way of playing a role in the great historian-archivist rivalry that has gone on for at least one hundred years."

-Professor John Deak, University of Notre Dame

"I can’t live without undergrads who actually do all the reading in every course!!!!!!!!!"

-Professor Mary Furner, University of California, Santa Barbara

"I can't live without time."

-Professor Mériam N. Belli, University of Iowa

"I can't claim any of this is funny, but the one thing I can't live without is musical criticism, especially for classical and jazz -- in other words forms that can't be described merely by reprinting lyrics and then commenting upon these. I love how good critics describe what music does, how it conjures up melancholy and euphoria, how it creates its own narratives wholly on terms of its own. I love to linger over the images critics generate to these ends, especially when, as sometimes happens, an especially resonant geometry or metaphor invites comparison to historical events or processes I'm working with. So that's about all I got."

-Professor John Abbott, University of Illinois at Chicago

"I can't live without a view to the outside while I'm writing. Sometimes I look out to reassure myself that the material on my desk or computer screen (almost always pertaining to historical slavery) really is of a different time. Thank goodness for social change. I can't live without my colorful Post-it notes that proliferate with each new project and cover every inch of my desk. They always include an original note listing core ideas or approaches that I want to weave through a project. The list (on a sky blue Post-it that I still have) for my last work of history, The House on Diamond Hill, was: "grace, restraint, depth."

-Professor Tiya Miles, University of Michigan

"Highlighters to highlight entire books that contain things I need to remember."

-Professor Barbara Ransby, University of Illinois at Chicago

"A friendly archivist, because they've saved my behind so many times I'd still be buried in there without them."

-Professor Kevin M. Schultz, University of Illinois at Chicago

"I can't live without thinking of my father's oft-repeated mantra (invariably intoned whenever I had a complaint of any sort): 'They can kill you but they can't eat you.' History teaches us otherwise, but it's been a comfort to me nonetheless."  

- Richard J. Smith, Rice University

"I can't live without a high-power magnification lens, as it allows me both to read historical documents on microfilm, and to recognize the level of interest my children have in my work."

-Professor Govind P. Sreenivasan, Brandeis University

"As a historian I can't live without snark, LOL moments, and often right on point, in otherwise boringly earnest writing."

-Professor Dierdre McCloskey, University of Illinois at Chicago

"My mind!"

-Professor Laura Hostetler, University of Illinois at Chicago

"That's easy: Dixieland music (the only way to get through 4th century theology). More seriously, off-campus access to the library catalog. It's reached the point where I resent having to go to the library for something."

- Professor H. A. Drake, University of California at Santa Barbara

"These days what I could not live without is my computer and Google with the library a close second. However, I should point out that I work mostly in the U.S. 19th and 20th centuries doing urban and environmental history. Twenty years ago I would have given a different answer! And, a pad with a pencil and a pen are also indispensable."

-Professor Joel A. Tarr, Carnegie Mellon University

"I suppose the humorous answer would be OCD, the compulsion of the historian to look twice under every rock and three times under every stone."

-Professor Scott Sandage, Carnegie Mellon University

"Obviously, I can't live without real, terminal, definitive death. Historians interview the dead (much as people in your profession do with the living, and as you're now doing with me, probably not long before I expire). We interrogate the sources they've left for answers to the questions that perplex us. If immortality arrives, or spiritualism works, I'll be out of a job."

-Professor Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, University of Notre Dame

"I can't live without journalists eager to convey my research on race and gender in early colonial Latin America to an erudite but popular audience... oh wait. (Actually, I get more traction in Latin America, but wouldn't it be nice to speak to non-historians at home too?)"

-Professor Karen B. Graubart, University of Notre Dame

"I can't live without fuzzy socks because they keep my office building too cold and I can't write with cold feet."

-Professor Anne D. Lyerly, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

"I can't live without Google electronic dictionaries, much quicker than using actual hard copy."

-Professor Antony Polonsky, Brandeis University

"I cannot live without J. I. Rodale's THE WORD FINDER. Without it, my prose feels unembellished and I am at a loss for words."

-Professor Jonathan D. Sarna, Brandeis University

"Perhaps I shouldn't, as a historian, say I can't live without something that wasn't even in existence a short time ago, but for me it is now the Internet--I use it in more ways that I can list and, while the distractions of web surfing has slowed down the writing of my book underway about the Boxers, I've discovered some wonderful things about China and the world in 1900 to include in the manuscript via online searches that I otherwise wouldn't have known about."

-Professor Jeff Wasserstrom, University of California at Irvine

"No. 1 pencils, well and often sharpened."

-Dr. Randal L. Hall, Rice University

"Ctrl+F. Hands down."

-Professor Abby Cooper, Brandeis University

"Ice cubes-- they are refreshing… and a constant reassurance that we can, in fact, defy the second law of thermodynamics, at least in the short term."

-Professor Robert D. Friedel, University of Maryland

"The obvious. I cannot live without my books. It is like not having your children by you."

-Professor Touraj Daryaee, University of California at Irvine

"My answer is: A job. A steady income gives the stability, as well as food, housing, and books, that make research, writing and teaching possible. And there are far too few decent-paying tenured or tenure-track jobs around."

-Professor Margaret Garb, Washington University in St. Louis

"As a historian, I can’t live without high school teachers who forbid the phrase "based off of" -- but based on the evidence, there are few such teachers left, which may shorten my life."

-Professor Martha Hodes, New York University

"We need less chairs, and more couches."

-Professor Russel Jacoby, University of California, Los Angeles

"A second pair of glasses to read the screen all day and then be able to see a printed page again."

-Professor Howard Brick, University of Michigan

"I can't live without Google Earth. Not only does it keep me from getting lost, but it saves a ton in travel costs!"

-Professor Edward Watts, University of California, San Diego

"The present, without it there is no history."

-Professor Christine Hunefeldt, University of California, San Diego

"As an Africanist, I can't live without research money because flights to my research sites are pricey!"

-Professor Corrie Decker, University of California, Davis

"For my current project, a collaborative work with Frances Clarke on underage soldiers in U.S. history, I cannot live without Ancestry.com. Without digitalized census and military records, our project as currently conceived would be virtually impossible."

-Professor Rebecca Plant, University of California, San Diego

"As an historian I cannot live without texts. They are what I read and what I write, they are what I think about and what I think with. It is by words and grammar, by the cadences of sentences and the conventions of genre that we are connected to the past."

-Professor Christian de Pee, University of Michigan

"[I cannot live without] letterhead, as the recommendation letter for grad school is my most urgently in-demand form of academic writing."

-Professor Cathy Gere, University of California, San Diego

"I cannot live without a good bed. I am an historian of technology. Whenever my students ask me, ‘Professor, what was the greatest invention of all time -- the wheel, the printing press, the light bulb, the internet?’ I always answer ‘the bed.’ Without out good beds Edison and the Wright brothers would have been nothing. Without rest, you cannot create. And without a good bed I cannot write about the creators."

-Professor Loren Graham, Harvard University

"The past tense. And verbs. But mostly the past tense."

-Professor Colin R. Johnson, Indiana University

"I can’t live without meditating in the morning…. It helps me keep my brain and my heart working… I also like Zotero which helps me keep my data in chronological order – a must for a historian, don’t you think?"

-Professor Elizabeth Wood, MIT

"I need to smell a document from the time period I am working on."

-Professor Jimena Canales, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

"I can't live without giant binder clips, which enable me to read on the elliptical machine at the gym."

-Professor Katherine Crawford, Vanderbilt University

"As someone who writes on the diplomatic culture of premodern Europe, I can't live without the news. Writing with an awareness of current world problems makes me write about the past in more responsible ways. It always pulls me back from the seductions of mere antiquarianism."

-Professor John Watkins, University of Minnesota

"A comfortable pair of shoes and a light computer: I almost always use some combination of public transportation and walking to get to archives."

-Professor Peter Guardino, Indiana University

"My Iphone! Not only because it lets me have a mobile office and provides endless distraction but because it contains my ScannerPro app which I use on archive trips. Waiting for it to learn to also make coffee, then it would truly be the perfect device."

-Professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat, New York University (Twitter: @ruthbenghiat)

"I can't live without pen and paper, all so 19th century I know, but I need them to keep track of the many usernames and passwords required to enter the portals where so much of our 21st-century research resides."

-Professor Michael Stoff, University of Texas at Austin

"Dead people."

-Professor Wendy Gamber, Indiana University

"Undoubtedly my chaise longue, aka fainting couch. It is where I read student papers, upon which I really do faint; where I read through documents and sources for new projects; or where I read through my manuscripts for copy-editing and preparation for publication. I could not be a historian without it!"

-Professor Rebecca Karl, New York University

"A pair of headphones: When I am in the archives, I do not want to hear my neighbors chatting about the price of gas or latest corruption charges, so I bring my own soundtrack to reading historical documents."

-Professor Maria Bucur, Indiana University

"I cannot live my professional life without: my curiosity, my skepticism, patience, and the 19th century."

-Professor George Gilliam, University of Virginia

"The news, because it keeps me going back to history."

-Professor Brian Balogh, University of Virginia

"Duh... the internet ...obviously!"

-Professor David Ludden, New York University

"The past."

-Professor Mark Roseman, Indiana University

"I can't live without my labradoodle, Clover, because she calms me and puts me in the right state of mind to delve into my writing."

-Professor Allyson Hobbs, Stanford University

"I can't live without late nights and early mornings - quiet times when I can think and write without interruption."

-Professor Jeremi Suri, University of Texas at Austin

"I can't live without the New Yorker because it shows me how to write without jargon."

-Professor Elizabeth Pleck, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

"My two cats, Mike and Dennis, who regularly jump onto the desk, block the screen, and lay down on the keyboard -- thereby ruining a lot of my clumsy prose and making me do it all over again, hopefully better the second time."

-Professor Bruce Levine, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

"I can't live without coffee. I can live in any place and in any era there is coffee. When I love someone, I say, "Coffee be upon you."

-Samer Ali, University of Michigan

"I cannot live without books!"

-Professor Hasia Diner, New York University

"Google books, because I can keyword search key memes over time, even in snippet view. I am from the pre-digital age and don't understand how we were supposed to know what was in all those millions of books."

-Professor Juan Cole, University of Michigan

"I can't live without dancing because I need a place where I can get out of my head and away from dumb invocations by politicians and culture mavens as to what "history proves."

-Professor Daniel Walkowitz, New York University

"A cigarette. I know, can't live with it, can't live without it."

-Yanni Kotsonis, New York University

"Bookshelves, without them how could I ever appear on PBS?"

-Professor Andrew Needham, New York University

"As a historian, I find that most successful work is born of easy access to a steady flow of red wine, popcorn, and quality Netflix series."

-Professor Kali Nicole Gross, University of Texas at Austin

"Smart, witty people around me."

-Professor James Denbow, University of Texas at Austin

"As a historian, I can't live without the Quablock quaderni I buy every time I go to Italy -- apparently, I think better when writing on beautiful, smooth foreign paper! Really, I became a historian just to stoke my stationary fetish ...."

-Professor Paula Findlen, Stanford University

"Mouse droppings. I love working archives, mostly looking at documents 500-600 years old. In all that time mice have managed to visit my documents, but they are much better visitors than paper-eating insects who leave holes right in the middle of crucial passages. Give me mouse droppings any day."

-Professor Edward Muir, Northwestern University

"As an historian, I can’t live without adjectives."

-Professor Kevin Boyle, Northwestern University

"The AutoCorrect feature on MS Word. Not only does it change "teh" to "the," but you can easily use it to create shortcuts. On my computer, "frev" automatically expands to "French Revolution," "asma" becomes "American Samoa," and "socyl" is "sociological." I have thousands of those."

-Professor Daniel Immerwahr, Northwestern University

"I can't live without a sense of humor; otherwise the human comedy is too often human tragedy."

-Professor H. W. Brands, University of Texas at Austin

"The librarians and the libraries -- both virtual and brick-and-mortar -- are absolutely essential at every stage. Zotero and Endnote for organizing sources. Paper and pencil for drafting the big picture and visualizing my arguments. I would also add kimchi -- midnight snack of choice -- as long as you don't snark about me being Korean!"

-Professor Ji-Yeon Yuh, Northwestern University

"I have wrestled with this a bit. I thought first ‘fire in the belly’ - feeling viscerally uncomfortable unless tracking down something elusive. Then I thought ‘a nose like my dachshund’ - a dogged pursuit. Finally, I think ‘the hunt’ captures a bit of both. I get caught up in the chase, and I love the many different venues in which that occurs - archives, secondary sources, struggling to make sense of things on long walks and while I should be paying attention in meetings. And I also find that on more occasions than I would like to admit the whole pile winds up in the trash can, another one that got away. It is still so entrancing, even after decades - a demanding, frustrating, fascinating craft."

-Professor Sarah Barringer Gordon, Penn Law

"I cannot live without the National Archives and various state historical societies, museum libraries, and university repositories of manuscripts."

-Professor Joseph Glatthaar, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

"I'm a history professor so the most invaluable thing I have is that I have lived broadly and so I actually HAVE a history."

-Professor Mary Corey, University of California, Los Angeles

"We--there are two of us which doubles our needs-- can't live without bookcases and library sales--the problem now is that we now have to sleep in the garage."

-Professor Gina Morantz-Sanchez, University of Michigan

"Honestly, Facebook and other social media have become pretty indispensable for me as a professional historian. I'm able to engage in ongoing discussions and debates, set up panels for conferences, and ask for advice from colleagues all over the world, in real time, with incredible ease."

-Professor C. Joseph Genetin-Pilawa, George Mason University

"I can't live without reading the paper constantly: current events stir-up the past."

-Professor Claudio Lomnitz, Columbia University

"Well, of course, in my case, the answer is simple. I can’t live without my dumbbells. After reading a book or editing a long op ed for HNN my head begins to ache and I no longer can think. To get the blood rushing to the depleted centers of my brain I walk across the room and lift loose weights for a few minutes. One and two, and one and two. This goes according to a workout routine I came up with a few years ago when I began writing my latest book. It happens several times a day. Someone looking in on me might think I’m a dedicated athlete. Hardly! I’m usually in a state of desperation when I resort to lifting. At that moment I am so low on mental energy I’d have trouble reciting my phone number."

-Rick Shenkman, George Mason University, and Editor of HNN

"Cannot live without the dead."

-Professor Ali Yaycioglu, Stanford University

"I can’t live without the tobacco industry’s secret documents, because (as an agnotologist) I’m eternally fascinated by the depths of human depravity, deceit, and denial."

-Professor Robert Proctor, Stanford University

"Alas, I'm about to take off for a ten day vacation. I can't do without a vacation!"

-Professor Matthew Connelly, Columbia University

"When you start all you cannot live without is a library and a typewriter. But now many years later I have become hooked on Google Advanced Book Search, which opens worlds I never suspected existed. Try it."

-Professor John Connelly, University of California, Berkeley

"I would definitely have included coffee if it weren't already taken. I can't live without the company of my cat, Biscus, while I'm working at home. He disturbs me, because cats don't really like you to read on screens, but it is entertaining and a reminder that there's an outside world. Also Paul Fridolin Kehr's book Papsturkunden in Spanien, a reference work of letters from the popes to Iberian recipients before 1198. Probably too tedious to explain why, but for certain aspects of my studies as a medieval historian of Spain, it is like the Bible."

-Professor Paul Freedman, Yale University

"This is rather boring, but I couldn't function without reading glasses."

-Professor Harold James, Princeton University

"I can't live without my ass. It is the only part of my body that fits in the chair in front of my computer."

-Professor Martin Sherwin, George Mason University

"As a historian, I cannot live without a big, full, juicy, and information-packed footnote."

-Professor Carlos Norena, University of California, Berkeley

"Exercise, to counteract all the time sitting still thinking, reading, writing.


-Professor Elena Schneider, University of California, Berkeley

"I’d say Google Translate, but I can of course ‘live’ without it, the same way I did before it existed: use a dictionary."

-Professor Margaret Anderson, University of California, Berkeley

"Skepticism. Skepticism is the core of the profession."

-Professor Michael O'Malley, George Mason University

"A precious Texas History Permit, to make sure my work remains politically acceptable."

-Professor Peter Stearns, George Mason University

"I can't live without Grateful Dead music, which is the sound I like to hear while I am working. I can't live without lowbrow television shows which are essential to taking my mind off the writing. I can't live without some time at the beach with my kids which is the one place I don't ever think of my work. I can't live without the work of the classic historians, like Richard Hofstadter, who continue to inspire and remind me why I do what I do."

-Professor Julian Zelizer, Princeton University