“Guide on the Side”: Historians’ Role in the Digital Sphere

Leaving seminar on Tuesday, my mind began wandering, trying to figure out what would happen to the traditional, “credible” historian as more and more voices joined the wicked web of the digital world. I was having difficulty organizing my thoughts and answering the questions I kept coming to, however, the readings for this week addressed many of these questions and even some I hadn’t yet gotten to.

Chapter 9 of Weinberger’s Too Big To Know first spoke to my deluge of thoughts and questions. Starting on page 183, he recommended five ways in which we (historians and network users) can get the most out of the new Network of Knowledge: 1. Open up access, 2. Provide hooks for intelligence (metadata), 3. Link everything, 4. Leave no institutional knowledge behind, and 5. Teach everyone how to best use the Net (Weinberger, 183-85). As soon as I read these suggestions, I immediately thought back to my primary concern—if access us opened to everyone, what becomes of those who have made a profession and life out of becoming experts in their fields, publishing credible works, and managing and preserving the discipline they love?

As if on cue, Writing History in a Digital Age targeted and provided answers, or at least recommendations to address my worries (and the worries held by many historians. The book serves as a beta-test of sorts—seeking to demonstrate to historians a different approach to publishing. This approach focused on three fundamental elements: the book was born digital, benefitted from peer review, and is open-access (Nawrotzki, Dougherty, 2-3). Through the creation of this book, the Editors hoped to exemplify how digital publishing could improve upon traditional publishing, as well as keep pace with the shift to a networked knowledge world. I immediately wrote down the questions: “Does this type of open-access, open-review, digital book only work because it was a collaboration of essays?” “Would it work if there was only one author—or rather, is it suggesting the time of solo authors has passed?” I grew increasingly unsettled, as this suggestion seemed to contradict everything I believe about scholarly publishing. Sure, scholars publish collaborative works, but most often, they focus their efforts of researching a topic they consider important and establishing their argument for why in a monograph. In fact, these efforts are often imperative to being hired and/or gaining tenure. So how can this book suggest that the next stage of publishing is a collaborative, digital state? It wasn’t the prospect of “digital” that most concerned me—though I prefer hardcover books that allow you to leaf through the pages, I recognize the convenience of the digital world and have no problem accepting the publishing of books via this medium. However, it was the collaborative, open-review and open-access proposal that I found most disturbing. Academic historians write to share their ideas and get/maintain their professions—with the shift from traditional publishing, could new forms of publishing even “count” in the eyes of the committees that hire and grant tenure (Nawrotzki, Dougherty, 10)? And beyond that, historians provide the expertise and credibility that is trusted. If anyone can publish anything online, and historians are no longer publishing traditional scholarship, what will be the determining factor for what is credible or true?

Thankfully, several of the authors addressed these concerns. The editors recommended a “hybrid” academic press that possesses an open-access policy—something along the lines of the University of Michigan library-press partnership. The hope is that hiring and tenure committees would still recognize these hybrids as sufficient peer-review journals, while at the same time, historians would be able to adopt the methods of the digital age. In “I Nevertheless Am A Historian”, Leslie Madsen-Brooks recommends a “sage on the stage” role for historians that would encourage more thoughtful participation in historiography (Madsen-Brooks, 60). Stephen Tanaka, in his “Pasts in a Digital Age”, suggests that historians have an opportunity to make their expertise “available and relevant to an audience that, whatever its assumptions, possesses a deep, abiding investment in the importance of the past” (Tanaka, 71). Finally, and perhaps most poignant (for myself, personally), was the recommendation given by Alex Jennings and Jonathan Jarrett in “Only Typing? Informal Writing, Blogging and the Academy”:

We have to give up being authorities, controlling our discourse, seeing ourselves as experts who possess bodies of knowledge over which we have mastery. Instead we have to start thinking of what we do as participating in a conversation, and [sic] ongoing process of knowledge formation. What if we thought of academics as curators, people who keep things up to date, clean, host, point, and aggregate knowledge rather than just those who are responsible for producing new knowledge (252)?

Perhaps there is something to the idea of taking on a curatorial role, but the description above seems like a passive, if not partially insubstantial part. It’s odd that this comment stood out and concerned me most, as, based on my Public History viewpoint this would be a seemingly ideal transition. And in ways, maybe there are aspects of this recommendation that could be adopted quite effectively. But I’m not ready to give up the image I have always had of the historian as the archaeologist of information. I recognize the necessity of transitioning into a new form that fits into the web of the digital age for fear of getting left behind. However, I am not so sure anyone has come up with the best channel through which to do so. And so I’m still attempting to grapple with the prospect of making the transition and the complete transformation of the way history is done.

3 thoughts on ““Guide on the Side”: Historians’ Role in the Digital Sphere”

  1. Carmen,

    I too, am struggling with the transition of history in the current digital age. In some ways it makes us question what we are doing, working towards becoming historians in the very near future. And I agree that the idea of having everything freely accessible on the web brings into question the very necessity of historians as we know and love them. I personally would love to be more of a “traditional” historian, with my books and my archives, with sources I can pick up, feel and touch. And yet, I don’t think we will be able to avoid the changes that are already happening in our discipline and unfortunately, it seems more changes are inevitably on the horizon. I think after doing this week’s readings that while I am still wary and apprehensive of the Internet, I can at least see some of its merits and the benefits it may ultimately bestow on the subject of history. Thus, I am mentally preparing myself for the changes ahead and I believe the best thing we can do to persevere as historians (and save our sanity at the same time) is to accept the digital age for what it is and try not to fight against it (no matter how difficult that may be).

  2. I’m glad these readings have prompted you both to think about how to leverage the advantages the networked age offers, even to those of us who love our dusty archives and (real) books! In a field where expertise on a particular subject is both highly valued and understood in almost proprietary terms (“this is ‘my’ research”), historians have to stretch a bit to recognize the advantages (and they are many!) to collaboration and open access. But we can do it! And opening ourselves up to new and evolving modalities of creating and disseminating historical work doesn’t mean we have to give up on the old ways. There are many rooms in the history mansion.

  3. I think this post is really thoughtful and thought-provoking. As I read, I started to wonder about how particular this view of digital networking is to certain disciplines, perhaps those that are discursive and “subjective.” For instance, should brain surgeons be open to dialogues and networking on the internet? Perhaps, but I’m hoping that at some point, they come to a consensus about how to operate on the brain, even if it is only a temporary one.

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