the perils of the keyword

usual disclaimer: hasty and unstructured thoughts.

I would have liked to attend that conference. Timothy Burke is a great and articulate voice to have on information management because he is wholly plugged into the digirati (the new literati). Search has completely revolutionized our conception of the archive — Burke makes a very accurate point that with our expectations of ‘User is King’,[*] we now expect to be taken by the hand and led to the information we seek. Fuzzy keyword searching is the prime culprit. Google is too good at fuzzy keyword searching; we type in “slave abolition” and we get a beautifully relevant locus of information. From this, we extrapolate digitizing history: if we can digitize everything, then everything is searchable, all possible loci can be drawn. From here: the infinite archive. Google books.

But what about the ‘alchemy’, as Burke puts it — the serendipitious search? What if the information I’m looking for isn’t anchored with a literal keyword? I have a concrete example here (unusually for me): my own thesis topic, which itself is a very unique keyword — the mui tsai system, a form of female domestic slavery practiced in China, Hong Kong and Malaya in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Because of the uniqueness of the keyword, locating information (particularly digitized or indexed primary sources) has been a piece of cake: I can keyword search ‘mui tsai’ (and all its regional variants) and be 100% certain that the search results will be totally relevant. From this I’ve come up with reams of colonial office records, boxed documents conveniently filed under ‘Mui Tsai’, newspaper headlines that practically leap out at me from the microfilms. Even in manual searching, my eye is totally conditioned to scan a piece of text and instantly see a mention of ‘Mui Tsai’.

so I spent three months immersed in mui tsai literature and came out with a ridiculously lopsided view of the system, one which regarded mui tsai as a singular and unique category of Chinese child female domestic slavery in the colonies at the time. I know everything about it now; the legislation, the typology of different kinds of Chinese domestic slavery/female servitude, the road to abolition, the chronologies, key players, the various discourses of the time that it’s set in (Chinese nationalism, feminism, modernity, anti-slavery, westernization), etc. Enough for a modest MPhil thesis, I thought.

Then during my midyear review, my secondary supervisor Chris Bayly casually pointed me in the direction of one book, in which the words ‘mui tsai’ do not appear at all — an analogous system in India — and suddenly the entire paradigm shifted; mui tsai were no longer singular, unprecedented or even fully Chinese at all, and suddenly there was a whole world of things I didn’t know. I would never ever have come across this book in all my searches and even readings in, under, over and around the topic.

another example: in my meanderings through the archive I sometimes pick up on things that aren’t relevant to me, but which my history colleagues are working on and would never have found if I hadn’t flagged it up for them. Serendipity on someone else’s behalf. Referral is a powerful thing; I’d argue that democratization of information via the search function is eroding at recommendational authority (I suppose in the most general sense, the difference between monarchy or catholic cardinal and pope selection vs. people power and protestant biblical study…or the difference between searching the library catalogue and asking a librarian) — and this erosion has started to be keenly felt online, which is probably why sites like and amazon recommendations are such hot stuff.

as Burke says, sometimes users don’t know what they want to know. As a fledgling historian of the digital search age, sometimes I think I’m too dependent on the keyword, and too impatient with the idea that I should have to sit down in the archives without the expectation that I should find something relevant in every box I open — and indeed demand this by delineating the boxes I receive by those perilous keywords. If I want to know something, I google or wikipedia it: instant answers. History researching is not — should not — be like this. I think I know this, but my MPhil thesis is by nature too readily pigeonholed by keyword, and I let myself slip somewhat.

[*] this has always struck me as a reformulation of “dictatorship of the proletariat”, which is interesting


3 responses to “the perils of the keyword

  • in honour of women's history month « a historian’s craft

    […] random goodies in the archive, without any particular reason other than that it interests me. and serendipitiously, this month is a good time to share one of them: two women’s day memorial songs, bellowed in […]

  • tentatively taking stock « a historian’s craft

    […] Contingency of sources. Sometimes a source viewed at the beginning of historical inquiry looks very different when viewed at the end of it (in which case, how can one simply take notes in the archive? — historical understanding too, it seems, is historical). Sometimes a source only appears relevant in certain light; for example, reading a certain book that causes you to realize the importance of a previously dismissed folio. What if I had not read that book? And what of all those folios I have dismissed because of all the books & contexts I have not yet absorbed? Also, to be wary of the perils of the keyword. […]

  • Jessica


    i came across this blog as i was looking for references to Woods commission report. OF course i was searching by keyword. I’m just doing a wee undergrad dissertation on the mui tsai but i was hoping you might share the book you advisor told you about?

    Many thanks,


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