News

Before the Meeting: A Discussion about History's Electronic Future

Elizabeth Fairhead and Robert B. Townsend, April 2004

While many members were still packing their bags for the January meeting, dozens of historians, librarians, and computer “geeks” were already in Washington talking about the future of history and electronic publishing. A far cry from the dry conversation one might expect, participants described the workshops as “invigorating” and “some of the most interesting sessions I have attended at an AHA annual meeting.”

Approximately 150 people attended the two-day event that consisted of a full day of panels and a half-day of smaller workshops that focused on the concerns of particular groups connected to electronic publishing. The meeting originated from extended conversations among representatives from projects like the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) History E-Book Project, Electronic Publishing Initiative at Columbia (EPIC), History Cooperative, Virginia Center for Digital History, and Center for History and New Media. While they have managed to develop interesting and innovative electronic publications, the groups have begun to worry about how these initiatives will be sustained and developed over the long term.

To discuss these issues, and bring others with an interest in the subject into the conversation, the groups organized a pre-meeting event entitled “Entering the Second Stage of Online History Scholarship.” Roy Rosenzweig (George Mason Univ.), the AHA’s vice president for research, kicked off the meeting with the observation that “we are at a fork in the road of electronic publishing.” As the pioneering phase of electronic publishing comes to an end, scholars, institutions, and publishers are facing a new stage of electronic scholarship. This transition provided the focus for a conversation that covered issues such as the changing roles of the regular actors in the publishing processes, the new relationships between scholars and readers, the funding of e-publications, and the legitimization of electronic scholarship.

Day 1: Presentations

Kate Wittenberg, director of EPIC, who oversees the publication of the Gutenberg-e books; Eileen Gardiner and Ron Musto, co-directors of the ACLS History E-Book Project; and Michael Grossberg, editor of the American Historical Review and a co-founder of the History Cooperative, prefaced the workshop by introducing their projects and asking some framing questions so the participants could learn about and from projects with some miles beneath their electronic wheels. These are the scholars and academics who have “put their reputations on the line as they put their materials online,” said Rosenzweig.
The opening session focused on the specific concerns of authors interested in publishing scholarship in the new medium. Drawing on his experience as a recently published author in the Gutenberg-e program, Gregory Brown (Univ. of Nevada at Las Vegas) noted important changes in the way an electronic book is published. He observed that his own work, A Field of Honor: Writers, Court Culture and Public Theater in French Intellectual Life from Racine to the Revolution (Columbia University Press, 2002) required a much more collaborative process, drawing on the talents of publishers, technologists, and editors.

The need for extensive collaboration carried over into the presentation by William Thomas (Univ. of Virginia), who recently co-authored a journal article with Edward L. Ayers (“The Differences Slavery Made: A Close Analysis of Two American Communities,” American Historical Review (December 2003), online at the History Cooperative). Thomas discussed the hurdles involved in publishing the peer-reviewed article online. He reported that, like Greg Brown, the development process drew on the experience of a wide range of technical experts, as well as a contentious—but ultimately positive—relationship with reviewers at the AHR.

Benjamin Kohl, author of The Records of the Venetian Senate on Disk, 1335–1400, wrapped up the panel with a discussion about how the medium opens exciting new possibilities for collecting, disseminating, and ultimately using large databases of historical materials. Drawing on his experience in preparing a forthcoming collection for the ACLS History E-Book Project, he described a rich range of opportunities the medium opens up for authors and researchers alike.
Each of the authors returned to questions about the new relationships between author and reader. With the ability to include and incorporate extensive archival resources with scholarly work, the expectations of the reader and the responsibilities of the author are necessarily changed.

The second session of the day addressed some of the essential academic contexts for this electronic scholarship—the editorial review process, the academic reward system, and the classroom. AHR Editor Michael Grossberg described a wide range of new challenges that electronic scholarship poses for history journals as “gatekeepers” for the profession. Reporting from recent experience editing the article by Thomas and Ayers, as well as various conversations about how to review electronic monographs, he described a number of novel challenges that had to be overcome. Reviewers face new challenges when reading an article or book without a clear beginning or end. And there was a more fundamental problem in describing what has been published “in” the journal, when significant portions slip outside of the printed covers. According to Grossberg, the crucial question was “how to create works that engage, not alienate readers.”

Carrying the conversation forward from an administrator’s perspective, Peter Stearns, history professor and provost at George Mason University, noted that colleges and universities face similar challenges in determining how to fit these kinds of publications into the tenure and promotion process. He characterized the challenges as “difficult but certainly not insurmountable.”

Finally, David Jaffee, who teaches early American history along with interactive technology and pedagogy at the City College of New York and the Graduate Center, CUNY, demonstrated some of the pedagogical techniques he brings into his classroom and showed a range of resources and student projects that made a significant use of the medium.

Day 2: Smaller Group Discussions

The second day of the workshop allowed participants to discuss in smaller groups issues that were important to particular aspects of electronic publishing. The largest crowd gravitated into the discussion for authors, moderated by Gregory Brown, Benjamin Kohl, and William Thomas. This discussion allowed those looking to the electronic medium as a new resource for more traditional publication to exchange ideas and advice with authors interested in pushing the creative boundaries of the medium. The session broke into small subgroups so those interested in the theoretical implications of electronic publishing could discuss their issues, while authors interested in the more practical aspects of writing for the medium could get detailed advice on those issues.

Around 20 people participated in a session for journal editors, moderated by Joanne Meyerowitz, editor of the Journal of American History, and Christopher Tomlins, editor of Law and History Review. The discussion carried forward a number of the questions posed by Michael Grossberg the day before, discussing the difficulties in finding authors to produce articles that take advantage of the medium. As in some of the authors’ conversations, an important strain of the conversation dealt with fundamental issues about the form and future of history scholarship and the editor’s role in shaping that scholarship.
Kenneth Andrien, chair of the history department at Ohio State University, moderated a workshop for department chairs and administrators, which drew almost a dozen participants. Although different kinds of institutions were represented in that meeting, they seemed to arrive at a swift consensus that the problems and challenges they faced were similar. They agreed that departments and tenure committees need established criteria for reading and assessing electronic publications. Participants in the department chairs meeting also raised the issue of distribution, noting that exposure of scholarship is critical to the reputation of a scholar. They encouraged the AHA and other academic organization to re-evaluate the distribution of scholarship as essential to promoting e-publications in the promotion and tenure process.

These issues of distribution were being discussed in considerable detail next door, in a conversation for publishers and book editors, moderated by Ron Musto, Eileen Gardiner, and Kate Wittenberg. The participants in that conversation tackled the implications of the “second stage” theme, particularly the challenges of sustaining such large and costly enterprises into the future. They discussed the implications of sharing resources, and the sustainability of e-publishing, which raised the further questions of whether e-publications should be freely disseminated or “gated” for sale, and what the audience for such publications will be.

Beyond the policy level, there are a wide range of technical issues to be addressed. Abby Smith, director of programs at the Council on Library and Information Resources; Michael Jensen, director of publishing technologies at the National Academy Press and technology director for the History Cooperative; and Nancy Lin, electronic publishing specialist at the ACLS History E-Book Project, moderated the workshop for technical and program staff on such projects. In a conversation that most historians could only characterize as painfully technical, the discussion dealt with the problems of locating information in disparate projects and assuring that they will be fully available for scholars in the future. For a conversation replete with buzzwords like “standardization” and “infrastructure,” it highlighted some substantive challenges for the future.

The workshop concluded with suggestions for some next steps in the “second stage of online history scholarship.” In summary reports at a final plenary session, the moderators of the different sessions reiterated a number of the common themes and concerns that had emerged during the meeting. The moderators recommended increased efforts to promote and legitimize electronic publishing by actively engaging prejudices against the form, promoting high-quality work in the field, and developing clear criteria for assessing such work.

They also offered some practical suggestions toward the same end, such as publishing a directory of ongoing projects; developing resources for readers of electronic publications such as established standards for assessing electronic publications; further workshops to discuss strategies for reading non-linear arguments; and providing training for graduate students in the technical aspects of creating e-publications.

Now that the work of the “pioneers” is giving way to that of the “settlers,” as Ron Musto and Eileen Gardiner pointed out, “it is time to shape the medium to the needs of our scholarship.”

—Elizabeth Fairhead, a PhD candidate at Michigan State University, is a research associate at the AHA. Robert Townsend is AHA assistant director for research and publications.