So That a Tree May Live: What the World Wide Web Can and Cannot Do for Historians
Nicholas Evan Sarantakes, February 1999
What impact will the World Wide Web have on the history profession? This question and many others stemming from the advent of new computer communication technologies are of growing concern to the historical profession. The following essay is one scholar's attempt to explain ways in which the discipline can incorporate the new computer technologies into academic and intellectual activities. This effort focuses on the World Wide Web in the present tense. No effort will be made to predict or discuss long-term changes based on technological offerings in development, which may or may not turn out to have the impact that current hype predicts. My thesis is that the World Wide Web will help historians spare the lives of a few trees. Some but not all of the methods by which we communicate with one another, our students, and the public are better done on the Internet than in print. One should note the qualification in the previous sentence. In several areas of fundamental importance, a combination of social and technical factors limit the utility of this new technology, and will continue to do so for the immediate future.
The Web has already had an impact on the profession as a facilitator of research. Historians can now do most of their preparatory work before they leave home. Many archives have web sites containing much of the logistical information that individuals need to plan research expeditions: hours of operation, location, places to stay, directions, phone numbers, and other important items. Well-designed web sites can also speed up research efforts when they include listings of the depository's manuscript holdings and electronic versions of the finding aides. Instead of spending hours of precious time trying to decide what he or she wants to look at, an individual can arrive at an archive with a preplanned agenda—an important factor when one considers the travel and lodging costs of a research expedition. An example of an extremely helpful archive web site is that of the Eisenhower Presidential Library at http://redbud.lbjlib.utexas.edu/eisenhower/ddehp.htm. Another way in which the web page has facilitated intellectual investigation is its role in improving access to larger libraries for those of us working at small institutions. It is now possible to access and search the holdings of institutions on either coast, or even one on the other side of the globe, without actually having to travel. Some of the better library databases available through the Web are those of the University of California system at http://www.dla.ucop.edu, the University of Texas at http://www.lib.utexas.edu, and the mother of all libraries—the U.S. Library of Congress—at http://www.loc.gov.
A second major area in which the Web has started to have an impact is the manner in which we spread professional news and technical information. A number of historical organizations such as the American Historical Association at http://www.historians.org and the Organization of American Historians at http://www.indiana.edu/~oah have web sites that provide information about grants, fellowships, prizes, conferences, and the like. The Web, with its multimedia applications, also allows the scholar to present information in a variety of different formats. The graduate program brochure that many departments sent out to prospective graduate students as recently as eight years ago is a thing of the past. Most departments have web sites that provide more information than a printed document could ever hope to offer about courses, degree plans, graduate programs, and faculty (including office hours and electronic versions of vitaes). The best place to view history department web sites is the Center for History and New Media's index of departments at http://chnm.gmu.edu/history/depts.
Another example of online communication is the effort of many professional organizations to foster exchange by organizing a collection of links to relevant class sites. This effort is only possible because a number of instructors have taken to putting their syllabi online, with varying degrees of success. I believe a good example, at least in the field of U.S. diplomatic history, is a subpage of my own web site at http://www.tamu-commerce.edu/coas/history/sarantakes/stuff-coursematerial.html.
The Web can also take the place of some publications that mainly serve a technical function within the profession. Bibliographies are a perfect example, and Edwin E. Moïse, a professor at Clemson University, has created a site that should serve as a model for like projects. His extensive Vietnam War bibliography at http://hubcap.clemson.edu/~eemoise/bibliography.html is a topically arranged guide to the literature about the American experience in Southeast Asia. The advantage this bibliography has over published guides is the speed with which a user can find an entry. With the find command, available on most web browsers, individuals can use the site quickly and no longer have to wonder if their library will have this reference work on the shelves. (There are factors that limit the Web's role as an alternative to publication, which will be discussed a little later in this essay.)
The job description of most scholars includes teaching, and this is another endeavor in which the World Wide Web can help. The vastness of the Web now makes it possible for instructors to find and use information that might not have been previously available to them. The multimedia nature of the Web also makes it an important tool for presentations. Teachers can bring sound, video, and images—be they photos, maps, or drawings—into the classroom through the Web. Patricia Seed, a professor of history at Rice University, wrote a useful article about her experiences using computer technologies in the classroom that anyone interested in using the computer as a teaching device should read.*
It is important to note, though, that education is a social, interactive process and the Web is not a substitute for the classroom—at least in the present. Governors and state legislators, faced with budget limitations, have looked to the new computer technologies as a cheap substitute for the traditional college setting. This explains the existence of initiatives such as Western Governors University (http://www.wgu.edu/wgu/index.html).
The issue limiting the utility of this new venue is not one of technology, but of capacity. The software and hardware that allow people to communicate via both audio and video exist, and mainframe and personal computers are capable of processing large files. Most of the sites in cyberspace, however, are connected not with the super fast fiber-optic ISDN lines needed to support these programs, but with old-fashioned copper wires. This network was never designed to transfer the huge packets of information that live audio and video streams represent. When the Internet first grabbed the public's attention in the mid-1990s, modems were the bottleneck that slowed everything down. Now, with high-speed versions of these devices available, the infrastructure is the restraining factor. Given how long it took to create the framework for telephones, cable television, and wireless phones, there is no reason to think this will change quickly.
Although the Internet is an asset, it is important to remember that there are several areas critical to historians' work in which it will have little impact, such as doing research in primary source collections. Most of the documents we as historians are interested in predate the invention of the computer, and no electronic version of the item exists. The efforts of the archives staff at Carnegie Mellon University to scan the papers of Senator H. John Heinz III (R-Pa.) and make the bulk of the collection available over the Web (at http://www.library.cmu.edu/Libraries/Heinz/) is an exciting project that shows the Web's ultimate potential, but for now the expense in creating an electronic version of these documents makes this endeavor the exception rather than the rule. JSTOR (http://www.jstor.org), an effort to improve access to scholarly journals and help librarians circumvent the financial and physical limitations they face in acquiring journals, also shows the potential impact the Web could have in research. With the financial support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the JSTOR organization converted the back issues of 52 journals into a searchable electronic database. In history, the indexed journals include the American Historical Review, the Journal of American History, the Journal of Asian Studies, the Journal of Economic History, the Journal of Military History, and the William and Mary Quarterly. It is possible to conduct a keyword search for the text of an article or its title in a journal or a cluster of journals from the beginning of their publication to a point roughly five years ago, and then have an actual image of the essay displayed on a computer screen. Secondary research using this tool is fast and complete. In the future, historians studying the 1980s and later periods will have access to sites like these that will make a vast amount of information readily available in electronic form. It is very likely that scholars working on certain projects will never have to travel to an archive to access this material. How the profession will deal with this development, however, is a matter for debate in another decade.
Another area in which the Web will have little impact in the immediate future is the established method we use to communicate our scholarly findings—publishing. There are several reasons why we will continue to use paper and ink, the most important of which is the structural limitations of the Internet. Publishing the equivalent of a book or a journal on the World Wide Web would require the creation of large sites with huge files containing the text, photos, maps, and charts that would normally appear on paper. Again, the problem is not with the computers making up the Web, but the network connecting them. The Web of the present is groaning with overuse and brownouts. Stories of trying to visit a site, even a major site, and failing to get it to come up on the screen are quite common. In this regard, the traditional medium of print is still a far more dependable way to communicate than is the World Wide Web.
Immediacy is another reason why the published word will survive the Internet. A book or journal volume can be taken almost anywhere and read under a variety of circumstances. Eye strain is also an issue. It is easier to read words on paper than on what amounts to a television screen 18 inches away. True, printing a copy of the site is an answer, but when you compare cost of a subscription or book with that of large quantities of printer paper, there is the strong possibility that the user incurs a greater expense printing electronic publications than purchasing traditional materials.
Finally, there is the issue of certification, copyright, and funding. The World Wide Web is the best and worst source of information today. The amount and kinds of information available via computers is amazing, but anyone—an established and reputable professional or a sensationalism-seeking crank—can establish a web site and transmit their views. In the realm of publishing, editors and the peer review process provide some certification of merit and validity. What is the electronic equivalent? A digital version of a scholarly journal could easily transfer the practices and methods to the Internet, but could book publishing be shifted as easily? Publishing houses could, if they wanted, continue the practice of sending manuscripts to specialists in the field and publishing the finished text on their web sites, but this raises two closely related issues. In a legal sense, copyright law applies just as much in cyberspace as it does in print, but as a practical matter that just is not so. Anything put on the Internet can be copied quickly and easily in a way that makes the photocopying of a journal article or a book chapter in the library look like a slow and expensive process. The copyright holder will not see any compensation for the use of his or her words. The absence of financial reward is also important to the publisher, as operating a web site costs money. If the major purpose for the site's existence fails to bring in any cash flow, then the operator has to absorb all the costs of maintaining the site. Scholarly organizations could subsidize electronic versions of their journals, but could a publishing house, even an academic press, publish without any profit? Probably not.
In closing, the World Wide Web is a great tool for scholars, but we must remember that is all it is—a resource. It would be wrong to look at this new technology as a replacement for our current activities, but it would also be a mistake to turn a blind eye to the utility of this new phenomenon. The Web offers us the opportunity to move at a faster pace, and save a few trees in the process.
—Nicholas Evan Sarantakes is an assistant professor of history at Texas A & M University at Commerce. He operates the U.S. Diplomatic History Resources Index, a web site of links to material related to diplomatic history at http://www.tamu-commerce.edu. His e-mail address is Nick_Sarantakes@tamu-commerce.edu. An earlier version of this essay was presented at the 1998 meeting of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations and was also circulated on H-Net. The author wishes to thank Kayla Price for her comments on previous drafts. Even though she disagrees with many of the comments in this article, her input improved it.