History and Technology

History and the Changing Landscape of Information: An Editor's Note

Pillarisetti Sudhir | May 1, 2007

Several times in its recent history Perspectives has focused special attention on a theme. Sometimes, this was the result of a deliberate attempt to gather a particular set of articles, as in the case of the April 1999 issue devoted to "Reel History" and put together by Robert Brent Toplin or the May 2000 issue that was dedicated to an exploration of the relationship between historians and the publics, which was guest edited by David Trask. At other times, the thematic issues put themselves together, as it were, the content of the articles suggesting a thematic unity even as they came in one by one and awaited publication. Two special issues, in February 1998 and 1999 that tackled the increasingly common but always complex intersection between history and new technologies also evolved in this serendipitous, but surprisingly successful sequence—articles first, theme later.

The issue you hold in your hands also was, in some senses, a product of such thematic self-determination, of articles from diverse sources with a multitude of perspectives on a variety of topics all coming together quite neatly—we like to think—under the rubric of "History and the Changing Landscape of Information." The theme was thought up by Robert Townsend, AHA's assistant director for research and publications, who keeps a close watch on—among a multitude of other things—the rapidly shifting terrains of historical information and its purveyors, and their impact on the practice of history, and, of course, on the fortunes of the AHA itself.

In its broad sweep, the theme is intended to embrace both new ways of dealing with emergent technologies (wikis, digital publication, bibliographic techniques) and innovative methods of using old modes and models of scholarly processing of information (traditional publishing, using libraries, training to be archivists).

If you are a linear reader (a concept, however, that is increasingly subverted online by the infinite progressions of hypertexts and the endless vistas of new browser windows) who diligently progresses from cover to cover, you may have already read the essay by Barbara Weinstein, AHA's president, who delightfully recounts her encounters with technology and touches upon the various ways in which new developments impinge on historians. And you would have also seen the brief notices about the AHA's own attempts (web pages, directories, the new blog) to keep track of the information landscape whose contours seem to be changing at a frenetic pace. All these serve to set the scene for more than a dozen other articles that follow.

Daniel Cohen, while providing information on a new and useful bibliographic tool he is helping to develop at George Mason University's Center for History and New Media, also raises interesting questions about collaborative creation of knowledge and social computing. In their own collaborative essay, Thomas Ewing and Robert Stephens describe the Digital History Reader, a social text for teaching history, produced at Virginia Tech.

But does digital publishing have a scholarly value? Will tenure committees recognize a scholar's e-publication? These are some of the questions that confronted the 36 scholars who received the Gutenberg-e Prize that the AHA awarded over a period of six years for facilitating the publication online of their monographs. Elizabeth Fairhead, who helped to coordinate the administration of the prize, reports on the discussions she had with the Gutenberg-es about the ways in which winning the prize affected their lives and careers. While Fairhead's interlocutors don't mention them in their conversations, it is highly likely that they too, like many historians, have found the discussion lists that H-Net maintains most useful. Mathew Gilmore's brief report on the history of the lists and their current state provides a useful glimpse into this network for debate and sharing information.

But how does one gather information from the internet? Edward Riedinger offers some useful tips, especially for categorizing the various online resources to make searching for information easier. What do historians do with all the information they gather when it is not being incorporated into journal articles, books, or classroom lectures? They are putting it to good use, it seems, in blogs. Anthony Grafton, the vice president of AHA's Professional Division, himself an occasional blogger, takes a look at the various blogs created by historians—some defunct, some dormant, and some very much active and compelling—while David Voelker discusses using a blog as a classroom tool. A blog, with its original posts and threads of comments and countercomments, creates a discursive community of one kind. Another kind of a virtual community, one created quite deliberately at the University of Maryland for students, is the topic that Bud Burkhard deals with in his essay.

Students are the focus also of the essay by Martha Hodes, who describes her experiences in introducing them to "experimental history"—a new way, in fact, of treating an old subject—while Ross Dunn reports on the efforts to create a new resource for a not-so-old subject.

One resource that is relatively new, and is increasingly popular is Wikipedia. While some faculties (like those at Middlebury College, for example) abhor it to the extent of banning its use in the classroom, others see a useful teaching tool. Christopher Miller describes how he learned to love Wikipedia in his history classroom.

Yes, the world of scholarship is increasingly digital; but not all processing of information is newfangled. We still have traditional archives and books whose tangible pages we can turn and crease and markup with marginalia. In their essays, which round off the thematic section of this issue, Joseph Turrini and Philip Freeman deal with significant aspects of the older forms of information storage and retrieval, with Turrini focusing on the training of archivists and Freeman offering helpful tips on publishing a book.

All these essays cover many topics. Yet, the information landscape is so vast and has so many strata that there are still many more questions that need to be addressed: What is the impact, for instance, of new technology on the monograph? Have ventures such as the ACLS-sponsored Humanities E-Book project or the AHA's Gutenberg-e program established the electronic book as a viable new medium that commands intellectual respect? Will the advent of better handheld e-book readers that can hold dozens of books portend the death of the old-fashioned book or the printed journal? Will the rapidity of e-journal publication (quickened by online peer-review processes aided by tracking software) transform the nature of the historian's article that traditionally took years to travel slowly from the brick and mortar archive to the printed page? How does the digital divide affect the history classroom? Some of these questions will be dealt with in the workshop the AHA is arranging at the 122nd annual meeting (January 3–6, 2008, in Washington, D.C.) to facilitate discussion of the intersection between teaching, research, and new media. And the topography of the information landscape shifts so rapidly that by spring 2008, who knows, entirely new questions may arise. That, as they say, will have to be another Perspectives special issue.


Tags: Scholarly Communication


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