My final post about my 18th century transnational sailor clothing project involves the topic of collaboration, something which I believe will increasingly become (and should be) the norm for historical research, and without which my own project would have been impossible. Even if ones fellow researchers are separated geographically, by experience, age, or the specific focus of their studies, they can offer essential content and perspective on one’s own personal study. I would argue that sharing fluency in the same language, and similar methodological approaches are necessary to this end, but outside perspective of any kind can only be valuable in challenging and adding to one’s own work. For instance, I have found myself frequently sending off pieces of my writing to peers who study science, to make sure that my writing is avoiding excessive jargon, and is intelligible to the ‘NPR’ audience that we’ve been advised to write for in class.
In the course of my recent work for this module, several people have played the part of academic co-conspirators. Matthew Brenckle, a friend and Historian at the USS Constitution Museum in Charlestown Massachusetts, has been one invaluable mentor who has been able to push me forward with a variety of primary material and secondary sources. Another colleague has been Kyle Dalton, who works as Public Programs Administrator at Historic London Town and Gardens in Edgewater Maryland, and runs a blog called ‘British Tars, 1740-1790’ (http://britishtars.blogspot.co.uk/ ) where he has compiled a searchable library of hundreds of primary visual sources depicting Anglo-American seamen. This has allowed my own project to enjoy far greater scope, given me images I would have otherwise lacked, and allowed me to focus on exploring French sources, while putting them in comparative perspective. Other specialists I’ve consulted for various subsets of my paper have included a historians of tattoos named Anna Felicity Friedman (https://independent.academia.edu/AnnaFelicityFriedman), the leading traditional English pipe-maker Heather Coleman (http://www.dawnmist.org/pipesale.htm), various 18th century tradespeople and material culture experts working at Colonial Williamsburg, and Laura Auger, a French friend and historical linguistic specialist who has helped me with translation issues in 18th century French. These individuals have filled my own shortcomings in specific topics where I lacked the necessary experience or time, and my own understanding has benefitted greatly from their help.
What then are the obstacles to collaboration, on this project or others? One is tradition and education, where a historian is seen as a lone researcher somewhere deep in an archive and group work is not stressed enough in higher-level academic training. One issue has been until recently technology, for instance if one considers how entirely recent advances in digital media now make sharing content and communicating across distance far faster and more comprehensive than in prior decades (for instance, Skype and Dropbox via telegraphs or letters). Another potential obstacle, and perhaps the most powerful is ego; historians are eager as anyone to claim ownership over the content they unearth, especially (if like friends who are antique dealers), their livelihood depends on their intellectual property. Yet all these obstacles can be overcome if there are the tools in place to work together and a common vision – and when collaboration happens, the study and writing of history can only benefit from it.