On the edge (of glory?)

For Historical Methods this week, our readings focused on digital history and the changing world of historical publication—or rather, dissemination. I hesitate to use publication because of the connection the term has with paper-based media and other trappings of the “old way” of doing history. Let’s back up—there’s an “old way” of doing history?

Well, it seems that way from the viewpoint of digital historians. Here’s how things used to go: a historian did his research, typically in relative isolation or even secrecy, submitted a manuscript to a journal for peer review or to a publisher once he thought his work was complete, and eventually a bound hard copy of his work would appear in print. After that, all revisions ceased and the published book or article stood as a definite stopping point which would either remain unchallenged or be surpassed by future historical research. Historians’ achievements were measured in weight, essentially—the volume of published work (credible because it successfully ran the gauntlet of peer reviewers and editors) was a tangible measure of success in the field.

So what’s changed? In my last post, I talked about David Weinberger and his explications of the internet. This was another net-heavy week. In the spirit of the work we read, here are links to the online forums I’ll be referring to:

http://writinghistory.trincoll.edu/

http://www.digitalculture.org/hacking-the-academy/

Linking, by the way, is one of the most useful aspects of the new digital media. As Weinberger said when comparing footnotes and hyperlinks, “When knowledge was communicated and preserved on paper,…It’s not as if you could fit that other book inside your book. Now you can” (177).

What struck me most after reading through all this is the fact that I am a part of the cutting edge. We are studying history at a crucial moment—the world of our profession is changing, and we happen to be right in the middle of things. Yes, we are getting the traditional training (much as fresher historians may disparage the tired old “book a week, discuss” format); we are also among the first of a new generation of historians, learning how to handle the challenges and advantages of digital history as it seeps slowly but surely into the academy.

Another thing I wrote down as I read through Weinberger (sorry, no link—reading him on paper. Old school, right?) was, what’s the purpose of our writing? If our purpose is to get tenure (should we seek a career in academia) or to impress our peers with esoteric knowledge, there’s no need to change. But if we want to reach the largest group of people for whom our work will have some meaning—even if that meaning is not our original intention—then it seems we historians need to embrace the new way of doing things. Open access publishing on the web; interactive links; the ability for others to comment, and for my work to undergo continuous revision—these are the methods that may spell future success in the field. In a way, it’s liberating. Yes, I’d like to write a book—but I don’t want to have to.

[One last link—in case you don’t get the title reference! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=944tgGq_Cg0]

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