I've been having an obsessive week. In my working hours, I have delightfully obsessed over an amazing report written in 1968 by Irving Brodsky on how JCCs were reacting to the urban crisis. I spent five days poring over each page. In my non-working hours, I could not tear myself away from my SimCity. I played for hours each evening, erecting skyscrapers and stocking cargo ships on a little grid illustrated within my iPad. The final rabbit hole that I fell down was a book I devoured in two days, Atul Gawande's The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right (2009).
In this book, Gawande argues that a well designed checklist can help trained experts reduce the potential for failure by highlighting some of the most easily missed steps in a complex procedure. This emphasis on the obvious or routine steps then frees more mental space for experts to consider subtlety, variance, or emergent factors in the given situation. I was familiar with many of the hospital/healthcare systems improvements that Gawande described because of my internship at the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, where I observed firsthand how the implementation of checklists improved patient outcomes in hospitals, clinics, and long-term care facilities throughout Western Pennsylvania. From The Checklist Manifesto, however, I learned about the origins of checklists in aviation and how industries like construction and finance have adapted them throughout the years to improve outcomes, mitigate risk, and increase efficiency.
All of that was interesting in itself, but the central question that kept me obsessively reading was: could a historian benefit from a checklist? And if so, how? Archival research is incredibly low-risk, for ourselves and others, and most of our work is done solo. We don't have people relying on us for their safety, nor do we often engage in collaborative endeavors that require leadership, team work, and communication. Yet, historical research is a complex, multi-step process that can be incredibly inefficient.
One essential characteristic of modern life is that we all depend on systems--on assemblages of people or technologies or both--and among our most profound difficulties is making them work.
My system--which I have written about extensively--must surely have flaws and failures. I may not see them now, but what about when I start writing? Will I find that my notes are inadequate or inaccessible? In what ways? I've decided to spend the next week breaking down my system into all of its essential tasks and outcomes, to see if it will be possible to take Gawande's advice and create a checklist that increases my weekly reading input and writing output.