Letters to the Editor

On "Doing History Digitally"

J. B. Owens, March 2015

To the Editor:

Seth Denbo’s valuable article on digital history (Perspectives on History, December 2014) neglected a major topic: collaboration. The creation and use of large databases and the employment of computational, digital tools frequently require collaboration among historians and with researchers from other disciplines. Other disciplines in which such research cooperation is common provide standards to avoid conflicts and misunderstandings, and they both teach these norms and socialize their graduate students to how they are applied. As the head of multinational, multidisciplinary historical research projects funded by the European Science Foundation (Humanities Division) and the US National Science Foundation, I have tried to convince the AHA Professional Division that historians now need such guidelines for collaborative work (www.academia.edu/685722/For_Historians_Collaborative_Research_Guidelines), since, in my opinion, we have nothing suitable.

The time for action has arrived. Our president-elect, Patrick Manning of the University of Pittsburgh, has led the creation of the Collaborative for Historical Information and Analysis (CHIA; chia.pitt.edu), which is dedicated to establishing the large databases necessary for research on world history. The same type of agenda drove my creation of our new geographic information systems (GIS) training manual for historians. The manual is available for free download, along with the data sets for all 14 exercises and free GIS software to support the first 10 chapters (www.geographicallyintegratedhistory.com).

When in 2002 we created the model for Idaho State University’s master’s program based on the use of geographic information systems (GIS), we specifically included among our goals the graduation of students who were effective collaborators. Moreover, to stimulate interdisciplinary crossover and collaboration, we encourage the students to obtain a graduate certificate in geographic information science (GISc) from the department of geosciences. The results have been especially good, and we would encourage colleagues in other departments to place a similar emphasis on graduating good collaborators as a means of connecting history to STEM disciplines and rethinking graduate education in history (to refer to two other articles in the same December 2014 issue of Perspectives).

The intellectual benefits of research cooperation, and especially of multidisciplinary collaboration, are huge. When those from different disciplines come together to confront the same research questions, new ideas often emerge from the resulting interactions. Funding agencies recognize this fact and are often willing to fund projects at levels unimagined by most historians.

To enable me to create and co-coordinate a large multinational, multidisciplinary project for The Evolution of Cooperation and Trading (TECT) program of the European Science Foundation, the National Science Foundation provided me with a large, personal grant for three years (Award #SES-0740345; $394,000). For responding with another multinational, multidisciplinary project for NSF’s Cyber-Enabled Discovery and Innovation (CDI) program, I became the lead principal investigator of a four-year project worth almost $1.8 million. Of that amount, my portion was $1,290,704 (Award #OCI-0941371; 2009-2013, extended to 2014). I will leave it to Professor Manning to report on the size of the large NSF award that he and his collaborators have received.

In conclusion, collaboration makes it possible to utilize the tools of digital history advantageously, stimulates creativity and the formulation of new ideas, and provides historians with the financial resources they need for their research. We need the American Historical Association to provide us with the necessary research infrastructure by establishing organizational guidelines for the major manifestations of collaboration: joint authorship and data sharing. I am an AHA Life Member, and I fear that my membership will expire before the organization does what is necessary.

J. B. Owens
Idaho State University


Seth Denbo responds:

I want to thank Professor Owens for his comments on my article in the December issue of Perspectives. I absolutely agree that the ability to collaborate “among historians and with researchers from other disciplines” is vitally important for doing digital history. Within the discipline of history, the value of collaboration has been hampered by structures of advancement that valorize individual research and publication over working with a team. Over the past year, I’ve been working with a
group of scholars as part of an AHA committee on the professional evaluation of digital scholarship by historians, and one of the main things we have discussed is the value of collaboration in digital history and the need for departments to be able to account for and evaluate collaborative work when it comes to hiring and promoting historians. The forthcoming guidelines that the committee is working on will encourage departments to find means for taking into account collaborative work and valuing it for professional credit.

But it is not just in digital history that the ability to collaborate is necessary. Skills that allow productive collaboration are also highly valued in the workforce beyond the academy. The AHA is engaged in the multiyear project Career Diversity for Historians. This Mellon Foundation–funded project aims to demonstrate how graduate programs in history can prepare doctoral students to pursue a wide spectrum of career opportunities. During the first phase of this project, the AHA identified skills (see www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/november-2014/career-diversity-for-historians) that graduate students need in the workplace; the ability to work collaboratively is one of the four key skills.


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