AHA Activities

Lessons Learned: Five Years in Cyberspace

Robert B. Townsend, May 2001

When the AHA began publishing on the World Wide Web five years ago, quite a few of us got swept up in the “irrational enthusiasms” of the day. We were too quick to assume that paper publications would quickly be phased out, and that the freedom from the costs and constraints of fitting words and ideas between two paper covers would uncover a wealth of new historical archives and unleash a flood of new publications. After five years of confronting financial and technical realities, however, these naïve enthusiasms have given way to a more sober sense of the possibilities.

Certainly, electronic publishing has fulfilled many of our expectations. The AHA now provides more information to a larger audience, in a form that makes the information available faster and much easier to find. These advantages have even won over quite a few converts who initially dismissed electronic publishing as an annoying distraction.

Nevertheless, those of us who were hyperoptimists a few years ago have learned some hard lessons about the costs involved. Contrary to expectations, the electronic publication of historical scholarship is not a natural extension of good historical research and writing—it requires careful planning and realistic expectations about the choices and costs involved. Five years of working on projects like Gutenberg-e, the History Cooperative, and the AHA web site have given us an opportunity to measure the diverse elements that go into the production of online scholarship for historians.

A few years ago, it seemed simple and inexpensive to take all the documents we were creating electronically and convert them for publication on the World Wide Web. Even today, those who have not yet tried to publish materials on the web assume that it is practically free. To the contrary, a serious commitment to electronic publishing requires a significant increase in expenses to maintain a variety of computer programs and computers, and adjust to competition in a different salary scale—as we now have to hire and train web experts, not just editors. Our commitment to electronic publishing increased the cost of the AHA's publishing programs (not including the work of the AHR and the History Cooperative) by almost 20 percent over the past five years.

Moreover, in addition to the time spent copyediting and designing articles and other materials for the print publication, we now spend additional time encoding the text for the World Wide Web, proofing it for a variety of different browsers, and then adding links to related articles and materials on the site. And all this additional effort is expended only to do electronic publishing at the most rudimentary level. The finished product that appears on the Internet is essentially identical in form to the version that appeared in print, and takes very little advantage of the possibilities inherent in the medium.

Nevertheless, even this rudimentary form of publication provides a number of immediate benefits. From an author and publisher's perspective, the opportunity to break down many of the physical barriers to our audience is particularly exciting. The AHA now reaches hundreds of people every day that would never pick up a copy of the AHR or Perspectives. For our regular members, electronic publication eliminated the delays caused by mail delivery—so members on the west coast no longer have to wait to read job ads that members in the east read and acted upon nearly two weeks earlier.

At the same time, the freedom from the limits of paper has served to create an enormous and valuable storehouse of knowledge. We quickly discovered the advantage in publishing online our data on the historical profession, and providing access to an electronic archive of Perspectives articles to those who had thrown away their copies of Perspectives months before. Once collected into an electronic archive, readers can use the information more efficiently and creatively. Job seekers can now search the ads in many different ways (by category, subject, geographical area, and so on), thus solving a long-term debate about how to organize the listings in the paper version. On a more sophisticated level, the electronic archive of the AHR published by JSTOR allows us to do textual analysis on back issues of the AHR by quickly identifying where key words and terms were used, and allowing the researcher to assess how they were used and by whom.

However, these advantages can be overstated. While we are now reaching new readers who are seeking a particular piece of information, very few of the regular readers of Perspectives have changed their reading habits. Most of our readers still find articles by pulling the paper copy out of their mailbox, peeling off the plastic wrap, and flipping though the pages. Even though a few thousand people visit the Perspectives web site every month, calls and letters from members invariably refer to an item in the paper version.

As a result, the real value of most of the material that has been published on the web is in its contribution to a larger database of knowledge. This particularly true because there are so few cases where the technology has been used to transcend the traditional forms of the journal article and the monograph. Most online publications involve only a few small audiovisual enhancements or hotlinks, where availability seems to be the criterion for inclusion rather than substantive contribution to the argument or the scholarship. This makes it too easy for those predisposed to dismiss electronic publication as only being about “bells and whistles.”

There are few examples of what can be done to take full advantage of the medium, such as Thomas Thurston's “Hearsay of the Sun: Photography, Identity, and the Law of Evidence in Nineteenth-Century American Courts” (http://chnm.gmu.edu/aq/photos/index.htm) and Philip J. Ethington's “Los Angeles and the Problem of Urban Historical Knowledge” (http://cwis.usc.edu/dept/LAS/history/historylab/LAPUHK/index.html). Unfortunately, the exceptional nature of these publications only serves to prove the limited nature of most web publication. As these sites demonstrate, this kind of scholarship requires an enormous amount of thought and effort beyond the basic work of research and writing. Creating publications that are truly intended for the electronic medium requires conceptualizing the materials from the ground up.

Too often, for example, hyperlinks to another document are included with little or no guidance to the specific citation—rather like including footnotes without page references. As a general rule, a link to another text should be layered so the reader can go to both the specific passage in question and to the larger text to see how the passage fits into a larger context. Similarly, the use of audio and visual images tends to be equally haphazard. Few historians would drop a quote into the middle of an article or monograph without integrating it into the argument, clearly framing the purpose and reason for its inclusion. The electronic medium should not serve to lower the bar for audiovisual materials—including pictures. These should be integrated into the argument, clearly explaining why they were selected and how they fit into the rest of one's argument.

Beyond the costs and effort involved in preparing materials for publication, there is an equally thorny issue of how these materials are legitimated. Our analysis of the readership of Perspectives Online suggests that most have arrived there pursuing a specific piece of information. In that sense, readers are at most simply seeking the answer to a specific question, and really couldn't care less about how well the materials stand as scholarship.

Most of us still learn about the availability and merits of historical scholarship the old fashioned way—through book reviews in major journals (and now through listservs like H-Net). Over the past few years we have been discussing ways of dealing with the occasional submission of electronic publications for review. In the meantime, very few of the new electronic publications are being reviewed, assessed, or even widely publicized. The relative absence of this sort of critical attention makes it easier to dismiss electronic publishing as a passing fad or “MTV history.”

It is therefore incumbent on those of us with an interest in electronic publication to think creatively about how these publications will be integrated into the standard channels of evaluation and legitimation. Part of that involves a serious assessment of the criteria by which these publications will be assessed. Equally important, those of us involved in electronic publishing need to elevate the standards of what we produce. That starts with a more sober assessment of the time, effort, and costs involved, and a determination to create the best possible scholarship.

—Robert Townsend is assistant director for publications, information systems, and research, and editor of Perspectives.