By Alexandra Guerson and Dana Wessell Lightfoot
- Depth and breadth - As individual researchers, we are all bound by the constraints of what a single person can accomplish in a given amount of time. Traveling to archives is expensive and it is crucial for researchers to maximize the amount of time they have to dig through their sources. But much historical research requires reading through large volumes of material (sometimes very tedious material!), looking comparatively at a variety of sources, and considering how different types of documents fit together to tell a story. These issues are particularly acute when working with sources such as notarial records--predominantly contracts that regulate different aspects of life including marriage, death, business and financial transactions. A single notarial record tells us very little but hundreds and even thousands of them can be examined to map out patterns, link together community members, and consider familial networks across time and space. Collaborative research allows us to examine a much larger body of material than we could as individual researchers. It has provided us with the ability to look deeply at a given community (in our case, the Jewish community in the city of Girona during the late medieval period) and explore complex social, religious, familial, and gendered networks. At the same time, our own expertise in different types of medieval documentation has allowed us to expand our source base to look at a much broader variety of sources, thus providing us with the means to push our examination of these networks across multiple webs of connections from the individual to the institutional level.
- Archive buddy - You know those moments when you call up a manuscript that turns out to be faded or written in a particularly difficult hand? Having an archive buddy committed to the same project means having an extra pair of eyes that can be quickly called upon to decipher a difficult passage. But it is more than simply that. Working collaboratively means that not only do you have another expert in the specific hand or type of documentation that you’re using, but also one who is familiar with the confines of your given project and thus knows exactly why you are interested in the passage that is illegible or difficult to read. That person can help in deciphering the problematic text, but also share in your success at having finally figured out what is going on in your document and its importance to your research. Another potential benefit is for areas of study involving different languages - collaborators need not master all the same languages. In our case, we have, but one potentially can seek out collaborators that might open up source bases in other languages. On a more personal level, working collaboratively means you always have someone to hang out with outside of archive time, preventing feelings of isolation that often come of living in another place for weeks and months at a time.
- Avoid writer’s block and increase your productivity - This is arguably one of biggest benefits but also one of the most difficult to achieve for historians who are used to writing on their own. Writing collaboratively does not mean (necessarily or exclusively or at all) dividing up a work into various parts and each collaborator taking on one part. Digital technology now allows writers to write the same text together, in real time. This list, for example, was written using Google Docs with the two of us logged into our laptops, sitting across the table from each other. In order to overcome writer’s block, it means that you sometimes need to give up ownership of the words on the page and each co-author needs to feel comfortable in completing sentences or deleting/altering the other’s writing. In the end, it does mean less time spent staring at a screen trying to find the right words. We have, for example, been able to write a conference paper, from beginning to end, in one day and a forty-five page article in a week.
- Expand your horizons - As graduate students, we are all trained in specific fields of history that then become our areas of expertise. While teaching often forces us to move beyond those areas of research, the current academic structure of tenure and promotion tends to discourage scholars from moving too far from their own area because of the demands for productivity as a measure for success. Collaborative research removes some of the anxiety at having to master a new field of study, while simultaneously providing a safe space in which to explore a new area, guided by a known expert. While we are both historians of medieval Spain, Dana’s work has predominantly focused on lower status women’s history in the 15th century Valencia while Alexandra’s research has focused on Christian-Jewish relations in Catalonia during the 14th century. Each of us bring our expertise in these given areas (gender history and Jewish history), while at the same time we have provided guidance and suggestions of key texts to read in the others field. This combination has resulted in the dynamic analysis of historical sources, using the theoretical frameworks from our individual fields, allowing us to think comparatively on a much larger scale.
- Get more money! Granting agencies find themselves increasingly under pressure as public funding for humanities projects are often reduced. Many favour collaborative projects as a policy or may have grants specifically destined for larger collaborative work that is more ambitious in scope. Designing a collaborative project would mean qualifying for such grants. Together, you and your collaborators might be better candidates as well. In some cases, one candidate might have a longer history of publication while another may have had more success in grant competitions. The two might build an ideal candidate in terms of productivity and previous success in administering grants. If the collaborators are in different institutions, this would also mean being able to access different mechanisms of research support. In the end, collaboration can help provide funding from multiple sources that is crucial to the success of historical research projects at a time when scholars are under greater pressure to produce with increasingly limited resources.