I’m dragging an ongoing Twitter discussion, begun by Gabriel Rosenberg, right onto the blog—real time, as if WordPress and Twitter are compatible desktop applications. That conversation started with this provocation from Rosenberg: “I want someone to write a #USIH post on the history of academic acknowledgments, or the use of acknowledgments sections as sources.” Here are a few select replies and comments, from me and others* (in chronological order):
Andrew Seal: “Do you know of an example where an acknowledgments section was used as a source?”
Siobhan: “Am #volunpeer w. @TranscribeSI working on https://transcription.si.edu/project/6713 . Freq. only info on women coll. is in ackn. in Rose’s books.”
LD Burnett: “I am in fact citing acknowledgments as primary sources in one section of my #USIH dissertation.”
LD: “And pro’ly won’t write a separate section of my own. Am acknowledging help in footnotes as I go 2/2”
Rosenberg: “I don’t know that I do, off the top of my head. But people should. It’s certainly fair game and often revealing material.”
Rosenberg: “Fascinating. I’d really like to read a methods piece about acknowledgements as sources.”
LD: “Note to self: be methodical in citation of acknowledgments. 😉 But srsly, methods would need to contend w/ blurring boundaries of personal and professional, scholarship & relationship. Hence they can be problematic as sources. E.g. hard to read — or even recognize — absences in acks.
Erik Loomis: “Given that I have NOT read the acknowledgements to a book since grad school, I’m fascinated.”
Rosenberg: “Given that I have read the acknowledgements to a book since grad school, I’m fascinated.”
Loomis: “Yeah, but it’s basically a list of my friends, professors, and a few others.”
Rosenberg: “Picked up a book recently where the acknowledgements were exclusively permissions. Dang.”
Tim Lacy: “I definitely cited M.J. Adler’s acknowledgments in tracing influences.”
Lacy: “And I *ALWAYS* read a book’s acknowledgments, religiously in fact.”
So there’s the conversation. I should add that Rosenberg’s original query has been retweeted several times.
I see a couple of finer points here, as well as things in need of clarification.
1. Do historians cite the acknowledgments of each other, or those in “primary” resources? I raise this question with the full understanding that a history text can serve, for some, as a primary resource. In the context of my quote, it was about works of philosophy and education, by Adler. They were primary sources to me, and I used the acknowledgments to trace out Adler’s influences and his changing “community of discourse.”
2. In an age where foot and end notes are being put online rather than in the paper text (per the recent conversation’s about Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge, will acknowledgments also be moved/”outsourced”?
3. To Rosenberg’s initial question, how common or uncommon is it for historians to use acknowledgments in their work?
5. Do historians take the writing of acknowledgments seriously? I know I did. I think others do.
6.a. A book history question: When did the first “acknowledgments” appear in a book?
6.b. Are there histories of acknowledgments out there, say in “Book History” or some other SHARP (Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publication) works?
7. Is the role of acknowledgments in writing somehow unique or peculiar to intellectual history?
8. Let’s go philosophical: What ARE acknowledgments? Are they mere thank yous? Or are they something more important—i.e. signs of debts, essential to understanding an historian’s perspective? Are they functional and effective? Can they ever be adequate? What do acknowledgments substantially add to our historical knowledge?
Other thoughts? – TL
*I don’t like Storify, so I’m reproducing these by hand.