All of Tomorrow's Yesterdays: History Scholarship on the Web
Robert B. Townsend, May 2002
From the Publishing History column of the May 2002 Perspectives
It seems we have arrived at a point of general agreement that historical scholarship can be published online without losing its integrity or quality. But doing serious history online takes more effort and work than history that goes from the word processor to the printed page, so the possibilities of the online medium will remain stifled until we develop the institutional support and incentives to do it properly. Insofar as tenure and promotion remain tied to the production of articles and monographs, it seems vitally important to assess how online publication can extend history scholarship in new directions, while maintaining its integrity as good scholarship. To facilitate a new understanding, we need to do a better job of differentiating the types of scholarship on the web—and the function and value of each—to both sketch out what is possible and lay a groundwork for incorporating this form of scholarship into the academic reward system.
As a starting point, I propose three distinct categories of electronic scholarship—textual (materials that are simply reproductions of print articles), supplemental (articles and monographs that use hyperlinks to other primary and secondary sources on the web for illustrative purposes), and foundational (texts that are built "from the ground up" and fully integrate other electronic resources into their arguments). Janet Murray's notion of "additive" forms of electronic publication points us in this direction, highlighting the possibility that the connections within and outside these texts can have varying levels of power (and thus inducing and guiding—with different degrees of intensity—the reader to use a link). Unfortunately, her focus is on fiction, and offers little guidance on how these differences can apply to scholarship, which builds on the development of arguments and the mustering of evidence. The categories proposed here would measure online history scholarship by how closely the argument and evidence are brought together. This places particular importance on two factors: the level of interpretive guidance an author provides to readers in guiding them through the linked materials, and the depth of the related material created by the author.
Most online scholarship today is purely textual, consisting of materials that have already been published in print as articles, monographs, or books and have simply been converted to electronic form for display and distribution on the web. This material offers no hot links; no icons promising a soundbite, music, or some snippet of video. Nevertheless, such textual electronic scholarship is a crucial element in the legitimization of electronic publication in general, and provides an essential baseline for assessing other forms of online scholarship.
Both opponents and proponents of the medium tend to overlook the value of this material. The bibliophiles among us still talk about how pleasantly the sunlight dapples the printed page as they read beneath a tree, and they find it all too easy to cite some horrendous mishmash of shoddy text, broken links, and sluggish multimedia from their brief, skeptical encounters with the Internet. At the same time, proponents of the web tend to focus on the future potential of the medium for new forms of scholarship and in the process often overlook the value of the exceptional scholarship that is already available online.
The real value of most of the material that has already been published on the web is its contribution to a larger database of knowledge that allows wider and more immediate access to some of the best history being produced today. Readers with a substantive (but not necessarily academic) interest in history can immerse themselves in some the best and latest scholarship in the discipline, and no longer have to wait years for developments in the historiography of a particular subject to be integrated into textbooks and the secondary literature. And few scholars can resist the added value of keyword searching through the materials on J-STOR and the History Cooperative.
More important for present purposes, these publications serve as a baseline for assessing various other forms of scholarship that have begun to appear online. The growing legitimacy of this online material demonstrates that articles and monographs can make the shift to online publication without being fundamentally compromised in their scholarship. However, if scholarship is not degraded by such straightforward electronic publication, it is not greatly enhanced either.
When people talk about online scholarship, they typically cite what I've labeled supplemental electronic texts, materials that link to other texts and multimedia to simply enhance their own presentation. While it makes greater use of electronic enhancements than the simple electronic text, this is not a fundamentally new form of scholarship either. These supplemental materials usually consist of two types: links that move the reader outward, to materials somewhere else on the Internet; or links that take the reader further inward, into a deeper archive of primary documents and materials assembled by the author. As scholarship, these kinds of links take on two very different, and important, meanings.
Scholarship that primarily links to external data sources tends to be print articles that have been translated to the web with some effort to add supplementary links (the version of this essay on the AHA web site will serve as an example of this form). Links in the text and the footnotes allow for an added layer of depth—providing more immediacy to the footnotes and allowing the reader to engage in the larger argument in which the article is placed. However, as an interpretive act these links are still just references—they offer the readers a link, but no clear direction on whether or why the readers should follow that link, or what they should do and learn when they get there. While it does not diminish the merits of the material at either end of the link, any new contribution to scholarship remains essentially localized within the text itself.
A scholar can make a greater contribution to the field when the supplementary material is created through the addition of new layers of primary materials and secondary texts and analysis. One of the best examples of this archival form of scholarship is Robert Darnton's "An Early Information Society: News and the Media in Eighteenth-Century Paris."The multimedia components of this article enliven and enrich the text, offering the reader a much wider range of contexts for their reading. Moreover, the use of the medium allows for an added range of sensory ways of experiencing the text.
However, while such material can expand one's reading of the text, a crucial distance remains between the article and the supplementary materials. Some of the most interesting and innovative aspects of the web version of Darnton's article—an interactive map and audio versions of 18th-century French songs—are referred to only in passing in the text. This largely leaves it to the reader to decide how much or how little of the supplementary material to delve into, as the author never directs the reader to take a moment to view an aspect of the map, or listen to one of the songs, with a particular interpretive point in mind.
Some recent publications in the Journal of Multimedia History demonstrate the same illustrative use of multimedia and images. While they serve to enliven the articles and offer some additional materials for the readers' consideration, these multimedia elements are not integrated into the interpretive apparatus of the articles. The materials are connected to the articles largely through the captions or other text external to the scholarly argument contained in the body. For instance, Gerald Butters's essay "From Homestead to Lynch Mob: Portrayals of Black Masculinity in Oscar Micheaux's Within Our Gates," provides a number of movie clips which are a crucial element in his analysis, but he creates an interpretive argument that does not rely on the reader looking at the clips. Where he does a close reading of successive scenes, he feels compelled to provide a textual description of the crucial elements he has in mind—note for instance the sequential list of scenes in part 2. So looking at the movie clip becomes optional and extraneous from the argument.
This is certainly not to imply that these articles are any less valuable as scholarship, only that the medium has not fundamentally changed the message. Nevertheless, credit has to be given to authors who have taken on the added burden of including these supplementary materials. They have created a new archive of primary source material that other scholars can draw upon to make further supplemental scholarship possible. At the same time, the text is more open than a standard journal article, as readers can immediately do a bit of fact checking on the author and draw a few conclusions of their own.
The materials in such "supplementary text" articles simply need to be judged on two essentially different sets of criteria. The supplemental materials have to be evaluated as a collection of primary sources—assessed for their accuracy and quality of presentation—while the scholarship in the article or monograph has to be judged by the arguments and facts mustered within the text alone. As peer review is extended to these online publications of journal articles and monographs, the reward system of the academy needs to give both components their due as serious and substantive contributions to the field.
At the same time, scholars should consider the possibility of a third type of scholarship that fully integrates the primary and secondary aspects of the medium. There is a small but growing number of examples of history scholarship that uses the medium to truly transcend the kind of scholarship that is constrained to a printed page. Philip J. Ethington's "Los Angeles and the Problem of Urban Historical Knowledge" provides an ideal example. Ethington neatly summarizes the broad scope of his article, noting that "this web site—composed of images (still, panoramic, moving, and sequential), maps, short essays (epistemological, bibliographic, methodological, and conceptual)—is written as a totality; the verbal text and other media are meant to be encountered as a whole."
Ethington's article is conceptualized from the ground up to take full advantage of the medium, weaving together the narrative and the primary documents in the site. At a number of points in the article, Ethington directs the reader to view a particular group of images with specific interpretive guidance. Note for instance the interpretive discussion around different historical images of Broadway (just after footnote 11). The reader is guided through the images, not simply pointed in the general direction of some supplemental materials. To fully understand the argument, the reader has to move from text to image and back again. As a result, the medium makes possible a truly new type of scholarship.
However, this places an added burden on the authors, who confront the problem of situating the readers in a space where the text cannot be the only object of their attention. As a result, the issue of design surfaces in an entirely new way. The textual and supplemental articles typically take the same form as a print article, creating a fairly linear narrative that ultimately (one hopes) leads to a conclusion. The text on screen—like that on a printed page—also has to be read from side to side and from beginning to end. Only the hyperlinks really distinguish these texts from their print versions. In contrast, the "foundational" text must redesign the very structure of the text. Ethington, for example, addresses the complex requirements of online scholarship by keeping a thumbnail version of the image referred to in close proximity to its discussion in the text. The readers thus get visual clues (and easy access) to the material under discussion. Ethington's site also allows for a deeper exploration of the images. After the readers click on the thumbnail image, they are connected to an additional layer of interconnected images, which allows the readers to look at or manipulate the images for closer inspection.
As a result, the materials in such a site cannot be judged by the two disparate standards that can be applied to the textual and supplemental scholarship—one for primary source collections the other for secondary scholarship. The foundational form of scholarship requires a blended, holistic assessment that takes into account the quality with which the two have been joined.
With additional examples already in the field, new aspects of this type of scholarship will probably surface. But for the moment it should suffice to note that history scholarship can make a more substantive use of the Internet. As we develop a clearer notion of what scholarship on the web is, and what it ultimately can be, the profession can move forward with greater confidence about the place of such scholarship, and provide the necessary incentives and rewards to encourage further development in the field.
Robert B. Townsend is assistant director for publications, information systems, and research at the American Historical Association. The paper was initially prepared for Roy Rosenzweig's "Clio Wired" class at George Mason University, and subsequently presented at a panel on scholarly publishing at the 2002 AHA annual meeting. Special thanks to Roy Rosenzweig, William Thomas, and Frances Clarke for their insightful readings and suggestions.
 Janet Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998).
 Robert Darnton, "An Early Information Society: News and the Media in Eighteenth-Century Paris," American Historical Review (February 2000): 1.
 Gerald Butters, "From Homestead to Lynch Mob: Portrayals of Black Masculinity in Oscar Micheaux's Within Our Gates," Journal of Multimedia History, vol. 3, 2000.
 A point made far better by Darnton in "The New Age of the Book," New York Review of Books, 18 March 2000, 5–7.
 Philip J. Ethington, "Los Angeles and the Problem of Urban Historical Knowledge," American Historical Review (December 2000). Available online at .
 Similar examples can be found in the Hypertext Scholarship in American Studies web site at http://chnm.gmu.edu/aq/ and the forthcoming article by Ed Ayers and William Thomas, discussed by Frances Clarke in "Mining the Treasures of the Valley of the Shadow," elsewhere in this issue.