U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Historians, Historical Knowledge, and Acknowledgments

AcknowledgmentsI’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?

Keep-Calm-and-Focus-on-Acknowledgments4. Per Loomis, do historians today read a book’s acknowledgments? What about readers in general, whether for history or other subjects?

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?

And finally…

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.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Check out this piece by Ronit Y. Stahl, published at Nursing Clio, about missing acknowledgments, especially pertaining to the work of women. The most pertinent material starts around paragraphs 7-8. – TL

  2. Interesting post Tim! I always read the acknowledgments. It all comes with looking the book over, reading the contents, intro, checking out the index. I think an index can be revealing of a time period and the changing rules of the culture. For instance, in Richard Hofstadter’s ‘Age of Reform’ the acknowledgments are in the back of the book and are only 2 pages but that is a very formidable pedigree of historians and social scientists he thanks! Whereas, Andrew Jewett’s acknowledgments go for 4 pages and I might add the pages are larger than Hofstadter’s book. Some of this undoubtedly reflects the personality of the writer but I wonder if there isn’t a conscious attempt to be more inclusive of influence or possible influence both from a social perspective and a legal one? I also wonder if acknowledgments aren’t used to provide a favorable impression upon the author as much as thanking those who’ve contributed.

  3. Thanks for continuing the conversation here, Tim!

    I’m not sure I would conclude that the growing length of acknowledgements is due to careerist name-dropping, though this is undoubtedly sometimes the case. I think it’s more interesting, regardless, to consider what acknowledgements sections can tell us about intellectual infrastructures. That is, as a source, I think they could be more revealing as a way to map the political economy of knowledge production: What are the contexts for association? Who and what supports what types of questions? How do projects become “parceled” or defined by these associations/support and how do certain types of inquiry become entwined through them? I wouldn’t suggest you can answer all of these questions through just this type of source, but it’s provocative to think about how some types of questions could become (sub)disciplined not by their content, but by the way in which professional coordinates are self-consciously defined.

    I’m thinking about all this as I write my acknowledgements, wary of the accusation of careerist name-dropping, determined to include everyone who contributed to the book, and burdened by the practical challenge of finding novel and interesting ways to say thank you. When I pull back, I find myself both describing the arc of my intellectual career and mapping various institutional and informal centers of support. At least, as a practical matter, that’s precisely how the acknowledgements are being organized, and I’m sure I’m not unique in this regard.

  4. Great post, Tim.

    My initial thought is that a longitudinal analysis of Acknowledgements would reveal their extremely gendered character. Books by male historians, for many decades, only mentioned one woman–she who did the typing of the manuscript, often identified as “my wife.” Feminism and the personal computer led to great changes in this convention–but the process (and resistance to it) is legible in books by men from the 1960s-1990s. (as in–“I would thank my wife, but we got a Macintosh”).

    In a more philosophical key–as Meredith McGill brilliantly points out, there is nothing like the front matter of a book in any other object produced by capitalism. The copyright and publishing information, with their explicit invocation of some powers of the state to punish those who use the object improperly–but not all of the powers of the state, as First Amendment and obscenity laws are not usually included with copyright information; a bio-political dimension: sometimes the date of birth of the author, often quite a lot of details about the “life” of the creator, mostly there because copyright became tied to a formula organized around the author’s death; and a series of notes on permissions, refusals, and funding sources.

    Acknowledgements are perfomative, and thus implicated in the politics of normativity. Because books are often business cards sent to hiring committees, there is still a risk, I think, that a queer scholar takes addressing their spouse in the conventional fashion, if the name of said spouse reveals a same-sex relationship. There would be even greater risks for a scholar to say: “marriage is bourgeois claptrap, I date whom I please casually, and would like to thank my friends and dog.” Or to reveal a polyamorous relationship, or what have you.

    On a final, affirmative note. The most noble legacy of the Acknowledgement is the tradition of effusively thanking librarians, by name. This we must continue, and commit to doing well (even in this digital age, where we do more searching by ourselves), because librarians are amazing and usually really are co-authors of every historical work.

    (PS: the other thing I read front matter for is to figure out whether an author with a famous last name is related to the other famous people. Does everyone do this?).

  5. Will probably write a post about this whole matter of acknowledgment later on my own blog, but briefly —

    For my dissertation, I’m putting acknowledgments in footnotes as I go — it’s the easiest way to make sure that I don’t forget to thank/credit someone for his/her help, and I don’t have to worry about listing people in any particular order. Also, I think footnotes, because they are crucial, are less likely to be skimmed past/ignored. At least I hope that’s the case! I do have some archival/MS/image permissions that I will need to list separately, but other than that, I wasn’t planning on having an “acknowledgments” section — just one more thing to get past a dissertation committee. But if/when the dissertation is revised/reworked into a book, I’d add a separate section for acknowledgments then, in addition to — or, if necessary, in lieu of — the many thanks scattered through the footnotes. I certainly hope we’re not in an “age where foot and end notes are being put online rather than in the paper text.” Footnotes are important, and so are acknowledgments, and for that reason I’d like to keep them together with the printed text — that, and it makes acknowledgments fun, like easter eggs or Cracker Jack prizes.

    • Since posting this comment above, I have gotten some very kind back-channel communiques from scholars who are concerned that I am (so far) doing acknowledgments in footnotes rather than in a separate section. No worries — nothing is final until it’s finally done, and I’m (unfortunately) a long way from having to think about how to format acknowledgments. But I do appreciate the advice, and the kindness of USIH readers.

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