Computers and Software

Electronic Mail and Historians

Donald Mabry, February 1991

During the summer of 1990, a group of scholars debated a range of historical issues including the origins of agriculture, warfare, and walled cities. Members of this group also sought information about specific historical events and queried one another for help in locating sources and studies on specific topics. During the previous year they had discussed women's history, the uses of history, socialism, the history of Scotland, the Crusades, the invasion of Panama, and the origins of the Cold War. They announced forthcoming conferences; solicited manuscripts for scholarly journals; posted notices of job openings; and aided one another in obtaining access to historical electronic databases. This everyday occurrence would be unremarkable except that the participants were physically located in the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Israel, Finland, Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark, Ireland, Japan, Norway, Mexico, Brazil, Germany, and Canada. Moreover, each of these communications traveled from the contributor's locale to Finland and then back to all of the participants while a scholar in Germany served as postmaster. All are members of HISTORY@FINHUTC.BITNET, an electronic mail discussion group.

Although participation in an international electronic seminar such as HISTORY might appear to require the kind of knowledge possessed only by computer scientists, such is not the case. Anyone who uses a personal computer for word processing only has to learn a little more to use electronic mail (e-mail). E-mail is also easier and faster to use than the regular postal system. Instead of typing a letter or manuscript on a word processor, printing it, putting it into a stamped, addressed envelope, and then carrying the envelope to a mailbox, one simply connects to the local mainframe computer, opens one's e-mail account, types the address of the recipient, and transfers the text to the mainframe. The mainframe then forwards the e-mail message to the recipient's mailbox, whether the mailbox is on the local computer or on one ten thousand miles away. Normally, the message will reach the recipient's mailbox in seconds, where it will remain until the recipient deletes it. If the message cannot be delivered, the system quickly notifies the sender.

The full dimensions of BITNET/NETNORTH/EARN (henceforth cited as BITNET) are staggering. BITNET (Because It's Time Network), NETNORTH (Canada), and EARN (European Academic and Research Network) connect some 2700 "nodes" (sites) located in colleges, universities, research institutes, and such organizations as the National Archives and the National Institutes of Health. BITNET nodes exist in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, every Common Market national except the United Kingdom (which has its own e-mail system), Egypt, Yugoslavia, Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, among others. One can send messages through BITNET to any other e-mail system, be it academic, governmental, military, non-profit, or commercial, so long as that system is connected to the backbone network, the Internet. For individuals, the cost of this service is low or non-existent. Member institutions pay for the computer time, software, systems operators, and the dedicated telephone line that connects institution "A" with institution "B." Thus, the real expense of maintaining these interconnected computers is borne by the institutions, not the individual. E-mail accounts are almost always free to staff members, and often to students. To use the BITNET system, individuals need to supply only their personal computers, the modem, and the communications software necessary to telephone into the mainframe.

HISTORY@FINHUTC.BITNET (henceforth called HISTORY) is one of the many discussion groups or lists hosted on BITNET. Located at a Finnish university (FINHUTC) in the BITNET domain, HISTORY depends on a computer program called a listserv (list server) that receives all messages posted to it and then redistributes them to members of the list. These lists focus on specific areas of interest to the members who choose to subscribe. When one subscribes to a list, one automatically receives a copy of all messages posted to that list and can reply to any or all of those messages or post a new one for all other list members to read.

The topics discussed and the amount of member participation on HISTORY fluctuates. For example, someone raised the question of the definition of the pivotal events in history, certainly one of perennial interest to historians. Not surprisingly, the nature of the ensuing discussion was affected by each contributor's nationality and field of expertise, an important reminder that historical scholarship is not totally objective. While most list members simply read the postings, a few directed the discussion to the more narrow focus of the Vietnam War. Military historians and historians of twentieth-century United States politics came to the fore, as they and other list members dissected each other's arguments and cited authorities. This debate eventually led the group into a more general discussion of the origins of war, which in turn, evolved into a discussion of the relationship between the origins of war and the advent of agriculture, the possible reasons for walled cities (in which archaeologists participated), the differing views of prehistory held by archaeologists and historians, and back to a discussion of the historical development of weaponry and tactics. Not long before the war-related discussion took place, members debated the meaning of "modern history" and how one can distinguish between "modern" and "premodern." That discussion was led by medievalists, early modern specialists, social historians, and political historians.

Participation in such discussions, either as a contributor or as a reader, is easy, intellectually stimulating, and informative, regardless of one's particular specialty. The very diversity of the group makes such discussion particularly enjoyable. List members include the range from persons eminent in their respective fields to persons who belong because they like historical studies. Specialists must explain their thoughts so that non-specialists can understand. Period specialists can test their ideas against those of specialists who study a different period. Generalists often ask the questions that open new lines of thought. One can read only those messages in which one is interested or start the group on another topic by sending a message.

HISTORY is only one of the e-mail discussion groups of possible interest to historians. L-CHA@UQAM.BITNET, the e-mail discussion of the Canadian Historical Association Conference on Computing, focuses on ways professional historians can better use computers, software, and electronic databases to teach and do research. These discussions are of interest to "traditional" historians, not just those who use quantitative techniques. Like HISTORY, L-CHA is used to post conference programs, requests for scholarly assistance, and job openings. C18-L@PSUVM.PSU.EDU, an Internet list, is the discussion list for the Eighteenth Century Interdisciplinary Discussion. SHAKER@UKCC.UKY.EDU discusses the United States Society of Believers. HUMANIST@BROWNVM.BITNET is a technique-oriented list for humanists trying to choose the most appropriate software, hardware, and analytical tools although its members also discuss issues of general interest to humanists. Latin American historians can join lists devoted to the region or to specific nations. The number of lists of potential interest to professional historians is almost as diverse as the historical profession itself, for lists exist not only on BITNET but on other electronic mail networks as well. The local e-mail administrator, usually a person in the campus computer support office, can provide the information necessary to poke around in the various networks and lists.

E-mail lists perform another valuable service, that of locating the e-mail addresses of persons with whom one wants to correspond. Although each posting sent to one's electronic mail box contains the sender's name and address, one often forgets to make a record of it. Many list members only read messages or contribute infrequently. Because there are millions of persons using e-mail, there is no directory of users. A BITNET node administrator can explain the means built into the system to provide some directory assistance. Lists, however, maintain a directory of their membership and that list can be retrieved electronically. One can then send a private message to a person on that list to continue a discussion in private, pursue scholarly collaboration, or obtain information.

HISTORY members have used contacts made on the list for a number of professional purposes. These include:

  1. Determining the operating hours of a distant library or archive a member planned to visit.
  2. Obtaining a copy of a paper presented at a conference a member could not attend or a quick copy of a journal article not locally available.
  3. Learning specific information about a job announcement.
  4. Getting help in identifying bibliographic and archival materials.
  5. Identifying possible grants.
  6. Coordinating a grant when the principal investigators were in different campuses.
  7. Prompting a response from a contributor to an edited volume.

The value of belonging to an e-mail discussion list varies. List members can include the full range of people one finds on a college or university setting. Some lists, depending upon the activity of the members, are serious electronic seminars. Others resemble a faculty cocktail party or a student bull session. To determine which is which, one has to join the list and read the postings. If one is not interested in what the list does, then one simply resigns from it.

The procedure for joining or leaving a BITNET list is simple. One sends a message to the Listserv at the node on which the list is housed. For HISTORY, one sends the message to listserv@FINHUTC.BITNET. Leave the subject header blank. To join a list, put the following in the body of the note: SUB HISTORY [your name] Close the note and send it. To leave a list, in the body of the note type: SIGNOFF HISTORY [your name] or for a different list, substitute its name for HISTORY.

The ultimate value of the HISTORY list, and others like it, depends upon the willingness of professional historians to participate. At present, HISTORY has only 140 members, yet there must be thousands of historians in the world who have personal computers, can afford a modem, and would be provided with an e-mail account upon request. Their participation would broaden and deepen the scope of the discussion. With a larger membership, more departments would be willing to post job and programmatic announcements, and more professional associations would be willing to post programs. HISTORY might become the means by which professional historians throughout the world could communicate rapidly with each other and create a true community of scholars, unbound by institutional or national constrictions.

HISTORY's existence also suggests the need for more e-mail discussion groups for historians. Although its general nature is a strength, it is not an adequate forum for historians with particular interests, for they have to handle mail of little or no interest to them. New lists should be created to serve the specific needs within the international community of historians and those with related interests. Why not have one list for medievalists, another for specialists in French history, and still another for women's history? HISTORY could still serve as a general list while these other lists focus on more limited topics. Managing a list requires a few hours a week, but surely there are persons willing to perform this professional service just as there are colleges and universities willing to support such an endeavor because it would give the institution greater visibility.

In the meantime, HISTORY will continue to provide food for thought, contact with historians throughout the world, and, at times, a lot of amusement as contributors square off against each other as academics are so apt to do.

—Donald J. Mabry is a professor in the department of history at Mississippi State University. His E-Mail address is: DJMABRY@MSSTATE.BITNET (Internet)