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From the Affiliated Societies column in the February 1999 Perspectives

H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences OnLine

Mark Lawrence Kornbluh, February 1999

The speed of technological change in computing and electronic communication over the past few years has been nothing short of breathtaking. Seven years ago few outside of computer science had ever heard of e-mail. Five years ago, scholars were just beginning to connect with mainframe computers using 2400 baud modems to send messages and access gopher sites for information. Three years ago, the potential of the World Wide Web was just beginning to be imagined. Three years from now, we will laugh at the current bandwidth and the long delays to download information in the same way that many today tell tales of their earliest experience with computers without hard drives and word processing programs where one had to type in each formatting command.

Given this unsettling rate of change, it is not surprising to find a lack of perspective. Heralds of change trumpet the transcendental value of the new technologies to liberate critical thinking, reform education, and transform universities, while jeremiads warn that education is being trivialized, intellectual property commodified, and the academy of scholars destroyed. In this hyperbole, academic discussion of the impact of the Internet reflects a popular discourse which alternatively values Internet companies at astronomical sums while lamenting that the only business making money off the Internet is pornography.

Rhetoric aside, for most academics the development of the Internet is valuable only to the extent that it assists them to do what they have always done—teach, research, and publish. H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences OnLine is a collaborative endeavor of teachers and scholars to do just that.

Beginning with a healthy skepticism about the values of new educational and communication technologies, H-Net has sought to exploit the myriad of ways that new technologies can serve us as teachers and scholars.

Interactive Networks

H-Net's interactive discussion networks have been at the core of this effort. Over the past six years, H-Net has grown to encompass nearly 100 networks in the humanities and social sciences and is continuing to add new networks at a rate of one to two a month. H-Net's networks currently have over 90,000 subscribers in over 90 countries.

H-Net's beginnings, and its continued strengths, lie with the editors of these networks. Based on the idea that the Internet is best exploited as a collective enterprise by academics and teachers who mediate an environment many regard as forbidding and hostile, H-Net's editors perform a vital gatekeeping role. They minimize the abrasiveness of faceless, remote communications and they assist academics to harness the Internet to their professional purposes. Unlike the other disparate discussion groups, web sites, and data sources available on the Internet, H-Net's resources are operated, managed, and controlled by working scholars and students. H-Net is best described as an international consortium of scholars who establish and coordinate electronic networks to advance humanities and social science teaching and research. It was self-consciously fashioned to provide a positive, supportive, egalitarian environment for the friendly exchange of ideas, scholarly resources, and teaching tools.

Much of the appeal of H-Net's interactive networks is about creating connections. The boundaries of status, profession, discipline, and nationality that demarcate academic life have far less permanency in cyberspace. As a result, bridges can be built. Some of these were intended from the start, others have been serendipitous. H-Net has always encouraged interdisciplinary networks, but the extent to which all of our networks—even those seemingly defined by disciplinary boundaries—have a broad interdisciplinary membership has been a surprise that H-Net editors now look to exploit. Likewise, H-Net has been an international endeavor from the start, but over the past several years, we have increasingly sought to develop international editorial teams and to publish in a variety of languages. We have launched new networks that publish in French (H-Fran&#231ais, H-WestAfrica), German (H-Soz-u-Kult), and Japanese (H-US-Japan) and added international editors to a wide range of existing networks. Internationalization remains a prime goal for existing H-Net networks and for future H-Net development, as we will continue to explore ways to publish in a variety of languages.

From the beginning, H-Net has sought to create an online environment that minimized status divisions and maximized the potential for intellectual discussion. That these discussions have appealed to a far broader educated public beyond the halls of academic departments, however, was a pleasant surprise. H-Net networks all involve large numbers of librarians, archivists, teachers, journalists, lawyers, and others. Just as the Internet can be used to bridge disciplinary and national boundaries, it is now clear that it is also serving to reconnect scholars and a broader educated public. H-Net has developed a range of partnerships with state humanities councils and will continue to build these linkages. We also have two new public humanities networks in development, H-Humanities, which will explore public humanities policy, and H-IntelProp, which will look at issues of intellectual property and publishing in cyberspace.

New Forms of Networking

As H-Net continues to launch new networks, we will also continue to diversify the way in which these networks interact with their subscribers. All H-Net networks currently have web sites (http://www.h-net.msu.edu) and most have web editors. As e-mail and the WWW become more closely integrated and bandwidth grows, H-Net will continue to explore the potential of the web to serve as a conduit for interactive intellectual networks.

H-Net's editors continue to broaden and deepen the resources that they provide for their members. Among the most important of these, and the one that takes fullest advantage of the possibilities of the WWW, is H-Net Reviews. H-Net networks pioneered online book reviewing and H-Net Reviews in the Humanities and Social Sciences (http://www.h-net.msu.edu/~reviews), has now grown to include a wide range of media from exhibits to software.

By the end of 1998, H-Net will have published over 2,500 reviews, with more than 500 reviews published by 1996, 800 in 1997 alone, and more than 1,000 since January 1998. While these reviews are assigned and edited according to the same standards used by major scholarly journals, because the reviews are published and distributed via the WWW and electronic discussion lists, the time between publication of a specific work and publication of the review is much shorter and the reviews often longer and more in-depth. Unlike print reviews, the H-Net reviews are also interactive and easily searchable by reviewer, author, title, subject, publisher, and ISBN number. At the end of each review is a place for comments about teaching the work being reviewed, or the review itself. This feature makes possible a dynamic exchange about the reviewed books and software with particular attention to their classroom use. The continued development of H-Net Reviews is a top priority for H-Net as more and more networks are adding review editors. We are also working to expand our international coverage and looking for partners outside the United States to facilitate reviewing of additional international titles.

H-Net is also exploring additional forms of publication. Several H-Net networks are looking to sponsor online journals and H-Net has a planning grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop an interdisciplinary journal that takes full advantage of hypertext and the multimedia capacities of the World Wide Web. Whereas H-Net Reviews basically uses the speed and economies of the Internet to enhance accessibility and usefulness of what has always been a basic feature of academic work, this new journal will endeavor to facilitate the use of new technologies so that scholars and teachers can publish in new ways, in ways that open up new insights.

Issues of Pedagogy

From the beginning, editors and participants on H-Net's networks have been interested in issues of pedagogy and ways to improve teaching. While the vast majority of the H-Net networks devote at least part of their attention to teaching as well as research, lists such as H-AfrLitCine (Teaching and Study of African Literature and Cinema), H-AfrTeach (Teaching African History and Studies), H-High-S (Teaching High School History and Social Studies), H-Survey (Teaching United States History Survey Courses), H-Teach (Teaching College History), H-Teachpol (Teaching Postsecondary Political Science), and H-World (World History) are all primarily devoted to teaching in a variety of education settings. Teaching will remain a high priority for H-Net as we continue to look for ways to use communication technology critically, not as a substitute for teaching, but as a way to assist teachers.

One such project is Historical Voices. With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, H-Net has undertaken this project to digitize speeches and sound clips of historical value and presents these on the WWW in a manner that facilitates use by classroom teachers. Working with the Michigan State University Vincent Voice Library and through cooperation with Jerry Goldman's History and Politics Outloud at Northwestern University, Historical Voices promises to provide a wealth of materials to teachers at all levels for use in their classrooms. H-Net hopes to take the lead in developing oral resources on the WWW and has proposed a major collaborative project to the National Science Foundation to create a National Gallery of the Spoken Word.

Free and Widespread Access

As the Internet continues to develop, and online resources become increasingly useful, it is essential that access to these resources remains widespread. As a democratic organization, H-Net is deeply committed to fair use for educational purposes and open access to the resources of the Internet. All of H-Net's resources are freely available and will remain so. Beyond this, however, as the largest online organization of scholars in the world, we are committed to playing an active role to ensure accessibility. This commitment has led H-Net to launch an African connectivity project that sponsors both training and equipment to facilitate the use of the Internet in Africa. Worldwide affordable access is essential if we are to continue to build a truly international intellectual community.

As significant as the technological changes of the past five years have been, even more rapid change lies ahead. The potential awaiting development far exceeds what we have accomplished to date. H-Net continues to seek to work with all historians and other scholars and teachers who want to learn the new technological methodologies in order to harness their potential for intellectual exchange, and to assist teaching, research and publishing. We will continue to push for faculty control of the uses of technology, and to insist that gimmicks not substitute for serious teaching and scholarly research. It is H-Net's aim to continue to facilitate exchange of teaching and research materials, bridge communication gaps between institutions and faculty, and to use new technology to enhance intellectual relationships.

—Mark Kornbluh is executive director of H-Net. He teaches 20th-century U.S. history at Michigan State University.