‘It remains the case that world historians largely rely on secondary sources rather than on their own primary research’, writes Patrick Manning in the ‘Methods and Materials’ chapter of his overview of world history.1 ‘Largely’ rightly reminds us that some world historians do proceed from primary sources, but the view of the research process as a second-degree one is widely shared in world history and other ‘large-scale’ attempts to write history, like big history or global history.2 Such endorsements have fuelled fears that the adoption of a wide horizon implies a growing estrangement from original material. Thus Bartolomé Yun Casalilla noted that ‘Global history involves a clear movement of the historian’s laboratory, from the archive to the library.’3 The recent success of a synthetic essay like that of Chris Bayly seems to support this view.4 Here, I argue that transnational historians cannot move their laboratory away from original material, whether archival or not. It is when they inch their way through the original material that they see circulations, connections, relations and formations taking shape, and it is when they are in the position to reorganise data, reassemble documentary evidence and gather new material that they can reconstruct their operation and impact. It will not do merely to collate data and evidence that others have dug out and organised from a perspective that did not aim at answering the ‘big issues’ mentioned in the introduction to this book.
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