Publication Date

March 1, 2000

Perspectives Section


This year, after extensive preparation and negotiation, the American Historical Review will go online with complete electronic services for its subscribers and institutional affiliates. To inaugurate this new incarnation, the journal unveiled itselectronic version of Robert Darnton's AHA presidential address—a rich and ambitious cybertext that transforms the traditional printed page into a multilayered, interactive excavation of the past. The Darnton essay, “An Early Information Society: News and the Media in Eighteenth-Century Paris,” features layers of graphics, photo reproductions, archival documents, Paris maps, and even sound clips for the reader to navigate, contemplate, and delight in. Audiences can also participate in a running online discussion with Darnton between March 13 and 27. You are cordially invited to tune in at the History Cooperative.

Of course, Robert Darnton—one of the preeminent scholars working on French history today—needs little introduction to an audience of historians. Darnton's writings—notably The Business of the Enlightenment (1979), The Great Cat Massacre (1984), and Édition et sédition (1991)—have dazzled countless readers and drawn a generation of scholars into the field of cultural history. On account of his clear expository style and lucid prose, moreover, Darnton—who has recently been dubbed “an academic folk hero” by Carla Hesse—has captivated a wide audience of nonspecialists.

During his tenure as AHA president, Darnton has focused on the current crisis in academic publication and, especially, the uncertain fate of the scholarly monograph. In a pathbreaking article in the New York Review of Books (March 18, 1999), Darnton encouraged scholars and publishers to embrace the electronic medium to save the monograph in an age of budgetary cuts and marketplace oblivion. At the same time, he recognized that elevating cybertext to the stature of the printed monograph would be a daunting task, particularly in the eyes of tenure-review committees. To meet this challenge, Darnton envisioned, first, the creation of high-profile awards that would transform outstanding dissertations into “e-books” (the Gutenberg-e Prizes inaugurated this year), and, second, the active contributions of established scholars who would use electronic publishing to showcase their most inspirational work, thereby enhancing the prestige of the medium. Yet Darnton did not imagine the Internet just as therapy for a sick industry of academic publishing. More important, he saw cyberspace as harboring virtually unlimited creative possibilities for historians, who could create textual “pyramids” of historical analysis that not only captured the past, but also created a running dialogue about the historian’s methods and craft. Not surprisingly, Darnton’s address proved an excellent vehicle for showcasing these possibilities, using modern information technology to reconstruct the information technologies of a previous period. Darnton provocatively argues that every historical epoch can be considered its own unique “information age,” complete with its special practices, conventions, and mechanisms for spreading news, not unlike our present global news networks. Taking old regime Paris as a case in point, Darnton documents the ways in which information was communicated through the general populace, even outside the realm of print. He explores two major means of communication: the day-to-day banter at Paris cafés and the use of song to spread news and opinions about political events. This past world of communication would be almost impossible to reproduce in print, but can be fascinatingly resurrected in an electronic medium.

To realize Darnton's ambitions, AHR editor Michael Grossberg enlisted the assistance of article editor Allyn Roberts, production manager Gina Doglione, and myself, an editorial assistant. In addition, Jian Liu and Ann Bristow, two exceptional library specialists from Indiana University at Bloomington, were brought aboard. With Darnton’s guidance, the team (now christened “e-Darnton”) decided to focus on five layers of electronic text: a hyperlink connecting the AHA presidential address to an extended essay on Parisian song culture (also by Darnton); an appendix of police reports on gossip in local cafés; graphics detailing information networks as well as illustrative reproductions from the period; a map of Paris showing the location of each of the 29 cafés covered by police spies, with each café linked to a sample report; and finally, recordings and lyrical texts of 18th-century political songs in French and English.

The results are spectacular and the text is simple to navigate, but the creative process was complex and time-consuming. Throughout, the AHR was able to rely upon the expertise of Jian Liu, who was participating in the Association of Research Libraries Leadership and Career Program. (The e-Darnton project fulfilled the research component of his grant.) Naturally, linking the mass of graphics, illustrations, appendices, and supplementary text posed interesting technical problems. However, crafting a map of Parisian cafés and incorporating song material posed logistical difficulties. While one of Darnton’s graduate students hunted down musical references in Paris, an AHR editorial assistant scoured contemporary maps and guidebooks to find street locations for all the cafés.

Detail of the Plan TurgotAfter some deliberation, the team decided to use the Plan Turgot (housed at the Lilly Library), an immense map created in 1734–39 that portrayed the monuments and buildings of 18th-century Paris with astonishing detail. Having scanned the entire document into 44 separate files, Liu painstakingly reassembled the nearly two gigabytes of data to create a sweeping panorama of the ancien régime city. A file this dense would be unusable by most browsers, but Liu was able to compress the Plan Turgot into a more manageable format, thanks to Lizardtech MRSID software. As a result, web users will be able to browse the map, click on individual cafés, and actually “zoom” into sections whose detail will increase dramatically. The user can view each coffeehouse in its urban context, creating a striking topographic glimpse into the past hitherto unattainable in print.

The Parisian songs posed a different set of challenges. In this case, Darnton enlisted the talents of well-known French opera singer, Hélène Delavault, who has received considerable acclaim for her evocative cabaret performances, such as La républicaine (1989) and last year’s concert of songs, Le mot et la chose. With generous financial support from outside sources, Darnton brought Delavault to the AHA’s Chicago meeting to perform the material following the general meeting and presidential address on January 7, 2000.

In this cabaret act, Delavault was accompanied by pianist Jean-Louis Haguenauer, a visiting professor at Indiana University's School of Music. Earlier that day, the songs were digitally recorded a cappella in—of all places—Delavault’s hotel bathroom! These songs too are available on the web site. Finally, Liu is now developing software to enable an online discussion with Darnton that can be accessed by web interface and regular e-mail.

Darnton's daring intervention has clearly raised the standard of scholarly electronic publication. His provocative, innovative, and aesthetically pleasing web site will challenge and delight all audiences, regardless of their field or area of specialization. Because of the interactive features and captivating presentation, the web site will also make an excellent educational tool for history teachers, and it is readily adaptable for classroom use. Yet, as Darnton himself points out, his e-text is but one step into a vast, uncharted world of electronic publishing; we cannot yet begin to imagine the creations of a new generation of historians who initially craft their research projects with electronic possibilities in mind. Quite simply, it will encourage new and exciting ways of doing history. In the meanwhile, we can stand back, enjoy, admire, and applaud Robert Darnton's visionary approach toward history and historical writing.

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