From the Intersections: History and New Media forum in the May 2009 issue of Perspectives on History
Keeping up with the Web, 1997-2008: Women and Social Movements in the United States
Kathryn Kish Sklar and Thomas Dublin, May 2009
Many historians have leapt on board the fast-moving internet during the past decade. Others have explored its ever-evolving splendors in their particular fields of research. Most have used it to reach the new generation of web-oriented students. They, and even historians who have remained more observers than participants in the new media, now agree that the new technology has changed our scholarly and pedagogic worlds. Who could have imagined 10 years ago that personal computers would offer access to guides of most major archival collections in the United States? Or that the entirety of the American Historical Review could be searched for a central phrase in one’s research? Who knew five years ago that virtually all books in several of the leading research libraries in the United States would become available online? Yet while historians have been deeply affected by these changes, they have not yet developed a discourse that enables them to discuss and evaluate what they need from the Web. We talk about it constantly—“Have you seen the new site about....?”—but we remain wary of its enchantments. Web work is rarely rewarded in tenure reviews. Web-only publications are rarely reviewed in scholarly print journals. And we are still in a trial-and-error stage of learning how to bring historical skills to bear on internet technology.2
Thinking that we need more stories about those who have leapt into internet work, we offer ours as an example of rewarding web engagement. The good news is that our web work has been shaped by the same considerations that govern our print work: scholarly community, peer review, archival exploration, and classroom application. The bad news is that it is enormously labor intensive to apply these scholarly practices to the internet and therefore it is also costly.
We knew nothing about constructing web sites when we began to create our own experimental site in U.S. women’s history in January 1997. Kitty Sklar wasn’t even on e-mail, but Tom Dublin had worked with computers in historical research since 1972, when he used punched cards on a mainframe computer for the quantitative dimensions of his dissertation. Since we were colleagues (who were also married to each other), we felt we could rely on one another in this uncertain venture.
Our motivation was rooted in the scholarly community with which we had interacted since the early 1970s: historians of American women. We wanted to give that field an online presence at a time when it seemed that women’s history was not well represented on the main sites in U.S. history, such as Edward Ayers’s Valley of the Shadow about the coming of the Civil War, or Roy Rosenzweig’s History Matters.3 We saw a need and realized that it would only be met by scholars in the field. We also realized that we could not expect younger scholars who were more comfortable with the Web to make this commitment when they were trying to gain tenure and establish a place in the profession.
So we decided to create an online presence for U.S. women’s history by focusing on an aspect of women’s lives that overlapped with large themes in American history—women and social movements. Wanting to offer new scholarship as well as a new web-specific format for that scholarship, we hoped to develop a model that could be widely adopted by colleagues elsewhere. Rather than one big site we imagined a hundred small sites, each of which would offer document projects like those that Sklar began to coauthor with students in her undergraduate seminars.
Each student in the course completed her own document project, transcribing the documents and learning the necessary HTML for the placement of her project on the course web site. Document projects focused on a historiographic question derived from the secondary literature on a given topic, usually one related to change over time. Drawing on the ample microfilm collections available in our university library, each project offered 20 to 30 documents that addressed its question. An introduction and document headnotes guided readers through an argument related to the question. We placed our first document project on a public web site in December 1997.
Our first experiments with document projects achieved the goals we sought, offering new knowledge in a format that combined selected primary sources and interpretation of the sources. Monographic in focus and permitting exploration of a question in depth, document projects proved to be an effective way to combine the historians’ craft of working with documents and the internet’s spaciousness that permitted publication without the usual constraints associated with print publication.
The transition from the course web site to the public web site was unexpectedly labor intensive because we discovered that undergraduate students could not (especially in a semester’s time) complete document projects that were authoritative. We had hoped that the document project format would permit students to author professional or nearly professional work, but that hope proved overly optimistic and we had to become coauthors of the projects in a second stage of extensive rewriting. But the rewards were great. Our first project, “How Did African-American Women Define Their Citizenship at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893?” used fascinating documents to explore new answers to the question, and invited visitors to navigate among the documents, interpretation, annotations, images, and links to other internet sites. Student enthusiasm, NEH grants, and support from our university allowed us and our small staff to complete 28 document projects for our public site during the next three years. Around this time we began to develop “teaching tools” for individual document projects, which made the site more user-friendly for students and teachers.
The second stage of our plan (conceived at the time as the final stage) evolved in ways that were different from what we had anticipated. Expecting to show colleagues how to duplicate our efforts and create their own document projects and web sites, in 2001 we received NEH funding to collaborate with a dozen historians of American women who agreed to teach a similar course at their home institutions and generate document projects that they would place on web sites on their own campuses. The collaboration began with a two-day training workshop in Binghamton in July 2001 that we called “women’s web camp.” Over the next few years these colleagues taught seminars that created innovative document projects, but no one managed to create a web site at her own institution. It was hard to find the time; collaboration with university technical staff was especially time consuming, and the need for editorial and technical assistance was greater than most had anticipated. We took the only path forward and agreed to publish their best document projects on our web site, mounting 11 document projects from nine institutions over a four-year period.
These unanticipated consequences created a mountain of work. We assimilated it by adding even more hours to our workweek, expanding our student staff, and drawing heavily on the university’s technical assistance. Beginning to feel more like the web site’s captives than its co-directors, we nevertheless welcomed the inquiries of historians who wanted to author document projects for the site because that provided us with an alternative to coauthoring with undergraduate students. Historians and graduate students became interested in writing for the site because it offered an attractive venue for their work. By 2002 more than 2,600 web sites had links that brought the site to the attention of prospective users and the site was attracting about 25,000 unique visitors a month, mainly students whose professors assigned projects or portions of projects in their courses, but also scholars in a variety of disciplines who valued the site’s content. A review in the Journal of American History in 2002 rewarded our labors by concluding, “Attending to differences in women’s experiences across region, race, class, and national boundaries, these editorial projects are at the cutting edge of current scholarship in U.S. women’s history.”4
Praise like this made it hard for us to abandon the site when we saw that we would soon run out of funding. Because we were no longer experimental, we could not expect additional NEH or other grant funding, but we had grown too big for our costs to be covered by the modest support we received from the university. After our energetic fund-raising efforts produced only limited support from publishers like Houghton Mifflin and ProQuest, it seemed likely that we would close our shop. We had created a model for others to follow and felt good about the commitment we had made, but we were working unsustainable hours and neglecting our print publications.
As we were considering the web site’s demise, in March 2002 Stephen Rhind-Tutt of Alexander Street Press contacted us about the possibility of co-publishing the web site on his server. As a publisher of the most innovative and extensive range of online materials related to U.S. history, he had noticed the phenomenal use our site was attracting and thought he could market it as a library subscription on terms that would allow us to fund our editorial work in Binghamton and expand the site significantly. We were initially dubious—because we considered ourselves craftspeople and thought his firm couldn’t match our attention to detail, and because we’d come to like the idea of moving on to other projects. Our strong pipeline of submissions awaiting publication, the need to meet our payroll obligations, and the challenging prospect of dramatically improving the site soon decided the matter, and instead of closing the web site, we launched its unforeseen expansion.
This experience taught us that nothing is “free” online. Our initial funding strategy was one that many pursue: donated faculty labor augmented by university and grant support. Although “free” to users, such sites are governed by a few decision-makers who may or may not meet users’ needs. We failed at the second strategy of finding sponsors who might fund the site in exchange for advertisements or the public relations benefits of their sponsorship. Without planning for or even knowing about the third option of funding through library subscription, we learned to respect this strategy because it succeeds only if the site meets users’ needs. In that regard we came to see it as the most democratic means of funding online historical work. Library subscriptions shift the costs of scholarly access from individual scholars and students to academic institutions, requiring libraries to create new budgetary categories. This is a big issue for librarians that historians are now beginning to understand.
In 2003, working with Alexander Street Press (ASP) staff, we thoroughly reworked the appearance and functionality of the site as ASP rekeyed and indexed the document projects and moved them to their server. In March 2004 we became an online journal, publishing two document projects a quarter. Finally, we could afford to employ a copyeditor and we created a national editorial board and a peer review process for submissions. ASP’s search engine and indexing made the site much more robustly useful and we were able to expand, adding book reviews, web site reviews, and news from archives. We also decided to publish 5,000 pages a year of full-text sources, beginning with 20,000 pages of publications generated by the woman’s rights and woman suffrage movements, 1830–1930, including the proceedings of the three female antislavery conventions in the late 1830s, the proceedings of the women’s rights conventions held between 1848 and 1869, and the six-volume History of Woman Suffrage, edited and published by suffrage leaders, 1881–1922. Excited by these additions, in 2006–07 we published all the proceedings of the annual conventions of the National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, 1874–1898, and in 2008 added selected publications of the League of Women Voters, 1920–2000. All are indexed, searchable and linked to a powerful database with information about the authors and related documents on the site.
This expansion altered our work process as coeditors. Although we continue to solicit submissions, network with prospective authors, and secure the needed permissions (a complex and crucially important aspect of our work), we do less copyediting and proof reading. We also rely on an engaged and supportive editorial board for valuable labor in the editorial process. Stepping back and taking a larger view, new possibilities emerged. In 2006 we began work on what has become the “Scholar’s Edition” of the site, which includes all the publications by national, state and local commissions on the status of women, which were created after John F. Kennedy launched the President’s Commission on the Status of Women in 1961. We fathered the publications of hundreds of local, county, and state agencies from hundreds of academic and state libraries across the country, providing unprecedented documentation about changes in women’s lives and feminist struggles in the decades after 1960. The database contains some 2,000 items and more than 90,000 pages. The “Scholar’s Edition” also includes all five volumes of Notable American Women, a biographical and bibliographical treasure that will enhance online research in all periods of U.S. women’s history.
Following encouragement from faculty users, we also began to develop the site’s international dimensions, including a series of projects about Japanese and American women, beginning in March 2009, which offers scanned Japanese documents and their English translations. We are now creating a transnational edition of the site, “Women’s Transnational Agendas, 1840-2000.” which will include 150,000 pages of printed and manuscript sources pertaining to women’s transnational activism world wide. Although we could not have imagined it when we set out in January 1997, 12 years later the Women and Social Movements web site offers some 90 document projects, with more than 2,600 documents. Including document projects, full-text sources, the state commissions database, and five volumes of Notable American Women, the Scholar’s Edition includes 140,000 pages of women’s history resources.
Our circuitous route carried us from one unintended consequence to another, following the internet’s surprising trajectory more than any plan of our own. Yet throughout that process we were guided by a strong network of historians of women, by our commitment to authoritative scholarship, and our goal of developing a site that could be used by scholars as well as students.
—Kathryn Kish Sklar and Thomas Dublin are professors of history at the State University of New York at Binghamton.
1. The editorial web site associated with this project is at http://womhist.alexanderstreet.com while the subscription web site—most easily accessed through the web pages of subscribing academic libraries—is at http://asp6new.alexanderstreet.com/wam2 for the Basic Edition, and http://asp6new.alexanderstreet.com/was2/was2.index.map.aspx for the Scholar’s Edition.
2. For a thoughtful exploration of the possibilities for historians, see John McClymer, The AHA Guide to Teaching and Learning with New Media (Washington, D.C.: American Historical Association, 2005).
3. William G. Thomas III and Edward L. Ayers, “An Overview: The Differences Slavery Made: A Close Analysis of Two American Communities,” American Historical Review 108 (2003), 1298–1307, and the accompanying online version at www.vcdh.virginia.edu/AHR/. This article and online companion reflect the much larger online archive that Thomas and Ayers constructed collaboratively at the University of Virginia—“The Valley of the Shadow” at http://valley.vcdh.virginia.edu/. For the History Matters web site, directed by Roy Rosenzweig until his death, see http://historymatters.gmu.edu/.