In the evenings I’m reading through George Bancroft’s classic nineteenth-century work, The History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent. Bancroft’s narrative is strengthened by one of the features of the book’s typography. Take a look at this page from volume 1:
The margins of every page contain the dates of events mentioned in the narrative. Usually the date is a year, but they are often precise to the month or day. Here is a close up of one of the dates:
I haven’t seen dates in the margins of many other books; what few I have seen are from the nineteenth century. But these dates serve an important function in anchoring the narrative. The reader can figure out where the current discussion fits in the chronology, without the main text being cluttered with dates. I like to think that I’m an attentive reader, yet if I want to identify what dates are being discussed on a given page of any work of history, I have to flounder about for a few pages before I can figure it out. Often I’m uncertain about the dates, and I’m left with the suspicion that the author is uncertain too.
Perhaps dates are more congenial to a political narrative like Bancroft’s than to a social or culural history. Certainly, Bancroft writes about many more dateable events than, say, a cultural historian. Still, even social and cultural histories need more grounding in chronology than the reader usually gets, if only because “timing is important to historians—it’s the cleanest swing we get at causality.” Timing is also important to readers, because it orients them to the story the historian is telling.
The book’s other typological feature that helps a narrative is running heads. Here is a sequence of a few pages. Notice that the headers change given the topic of the current page:
Just to stick his finger in the eye of twenty-first-century historians, Bancroft’s book also has footnotes, where we are usually stuck with endnotes. Remember that all of these typographical features were laid out laboriously on a stereotype press by the printers at the Boston Type and Stereotype Foundry, but even with InDesign, XML, and all the advancements of printing since 1848, our printed books have much inferior typography, and our digital books still struggle with basic scholarly apparatus like footnotes, let alone marginal notations.
The problems of writing and displaying digital works of history are still open, and Bancroft and others might provide the hepful models. Perhaps historians can take a page from George Bancroft and try to figure out ways to anchor their writing—narrative or otherwise—in chronology.