The Environment of Note-Taking: Mining, ca. 1700-1900

The Environment of Note-Taking: Mining, ca. 1700–1900

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The ledger of farmer and merchant Christomus Kirschbaum (1783-1846) shows that he invested some of his capital in “mining attempts”. The entry describes Kirschbaum’s environment in a very narrow way but is compatible with the many other entries, allowing for the coordination of economic activities across a large number of persons, objects and transactions. Source: Stadtarchiv Worms, 170/46, 200

This project on information processing in eighteenth and nineteenth-century mining addresses a fundamental problem of environmental history: how does one conceptualize human-nature interaction if opposing society and nature is as misguided as conflating the two?

Studying note-taking practices can help to rethink this problem. Written notes were taken when people found themselved faced with an overwhelming amount of objects, persons, and transactions that were relevant to them. When there was much to keep track of, their note-taking quickly became very complex and usually also more rigid. Note-takers then had to give their entries a standardized format so that they could be processed elsewhere in the system, and the high number of entries that were composed made it necessary to stick to strict routines.

The more effective these systems became to process things, people, and transactions, the more clearly they created discrete environments that humans could act upon. Note-taking systems could therefore build up boundaries between human action and a relevant environment. Importantly, these boundaries are not established by way of a priori reasoning of the historian; but rather they were established, sustained, and dissolved in historical processes that can be observed and described. Therefore, focusing on how scientific, administrative, and financial note-taking systems created environments for people to act upon might help to move on current debates in environmental history.

Mining is a particularly apt context to study this as it was capital-intensive, highly regulated, and increasingly dependent on scientific expertise, all of which contributed to good record-keeping. Furthermore, it was a human activity that had a visible impact on "nature," triggering reflection by contemporaries on the consequences of their actions from early on.