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From the Viewpoints column of the May 2002 Perspectives

The "List": On the Coming Reorganization of Historical Study

Marshall Poe, May 2002

Though few are conscious of it, there is a specter haunting the traditional institutions of academic historical study. It is not the job crisis, nor the publishing crisis, nor the "standards" crisis. Rather, it is the humble e-mail discussion list. There are hundreds of history lists in existence today, and the number is growing rapidly. Interesting, you say, but hardly a revolutionary force. Yet if we see the history e-mail discussion list in a wider institutional context, then its potential to change the way history is done becomes clearer.

What is the institutional context of academic history today? It consists of many elements, but surely three of the most important are the history department, the professional organization, and, finally, the academic publisher. As any e-mail-savvy historian will realize, the e-mail list—and its partner, the Internet—is currently augmenting and in some cases even supplanting the functions of each of these "pillar" institutions.

History Departments and the E-mail List

Professionals work together. Lawyers have "firms," doctors have "clinics," and historians (at least those employed by colleges and universities) have "departments." The purpose of the history department is manifold. It allows colleagues in different historical specialties to share ideas, breaking down artificial barriers and leading to a kind of productive cross-fertilization. It permits historians to construct a program for the instruction of novices in the historical disciplines. Finally, it provides a sense of belonging for scholars who usually spend far too much time alone in some dusty library. Or does it?

I have worked in several history departments, and I would say that the departments with which I am familiar accomplish only one of these goals—teaching. My colleagues and I actively work together (or rather, we coordinate our separate activities) to teach undergraduates and graduate students. Beyond that, we see each other at faculty meetings to discuss administrative affairs, and that is about all. Our chairs tried mightily to get us to collaborate (by supporting faculty seminars and the like), but failed. Few seem to take an interest in work that is far removed from their own. And for good reason: there simply is no cachet in investing energy in "cross-disciplinary" research with someone in the department. It will probably win you neither advancement nor praise. As for the department as a kind of "community," I have my doubts. I suspect that most historians feel at least a sense of respect for their colleagues in the department, but little beyond that. In short, the department is a place to arrange teaching schedules and make sure everyone is getting paid equitably.

Contrast the department to your average e-mail discussion group. True, it does not provide a mechanism for teaching, but it handles collaboration and community nicely. Let me offer an example from my own experience. In 1998, a group of historians (of which I was one) created the "Early Slavic Studies List" (ESSL). We began with about 40 names of scholars who studied Slavic history, languages, and literature in the period before 1725 (the year Peter the Great died). Gradually, word spread. Six months after the inception of the list, we had about 200 participants from around the world. In 2001, we placed the ESSL on H-Net as "H-EarlySlavic" (see http://www2.h-net.msu.edu/~ess/). Shortly thereafter, the number of participants plateaued at about 400. Why? Because all of the scholars interested in early Slavic matters who had e-mail had enrolled. And I am reasonably sure that the e-mail-using set is only slightly smaller than the entire set of early Slavic scholars, even allowing for the difficulty of getting reliable e-mail in Russia. This is to say that for the first time, the tribe of early Slavists had gathered. And what did they do? They collaborated. There are typically five postings on H-EarlySlavic a week—participants hear from the community almost every day. Typical postings include questions about research (archives, sources, and so on); requests for bibliographic assistance; announcements of new publications, conferences, and funding opportunities; discussions of controversial topics; and recruitment for panels. And the list participants get results: there is almost always someone on the list who has an answer to a given question. Often the query and response begins a kind of meeting of minds—scholars discover that they are not working in isolation after all, but have a colleague in Milan who works on a very similar topic. And they continue their collaboration off the list (via e-mail).

Professional Organizations and the E-mail List

Like history departments, professional organizations are institutions that facilitate collaboration. They share relevant news (via newsletters) and they provide a forum for scholars to present their work before those with similar interests (in topic-specific panels at conferences). These are important things, no doubt. But are professional organizations accomplishing them?

I belong to several professional organizations, and from my experience the answer would have to be "Yes" and "No." The AHA, for example, lobbies in my interest, though not in the interest of my particular field. I enjoy reading Perspectives, though again the articles and information in it do not generally touch on my particular scholarly interests. I have given papers at many "annual meetings of" this or that historical society, but I confess I have not followed up with any sort of sustained collaboration with my co-presenters. To my mind, the most important function of the AHA is social—every year the organization throws what amounts to a large get-together for historians. This characterization is not to denigrate the other activities of professional societies. Rather, it is meant to point out what they do best, that is, provide a collegial forum for comrades in history to meet, swap stories, and do a little history.

E-mail discussion lists cannot accomplish this social task. The other functions of the professional organizations—and particularly the news and collaborative functions—are, however, being assumed by little clusters of e-mail-apt scholars pursuing like interests. Again, let me return to my personal experience to illustrate how this is happening. The idea for H-EarlySlavic was originally proposed at a meeting of the Early Slavic Studies Association (ESSA), which itself was taking place at the annual convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies (AAASS). Almost as soon as the list was set up, a surprising thing happened: H-EarlySlavic outgrew the ESSA. The ESSA has several dozen paying members (almost all American). It puts out a short newsletter twice a year. About 25 of its members meet for about two hours at the AAASS each year, discuss the discipline, and then go to dinner. H-EarlySlavic, it will be recalled, has over 400 members (from all over the world), is open for business every day, with all of its members in attendance. We early Slavists still rely on the ESSA to represent our interest in the AAASS. And we also enjoy the annual meeting and dinner very much. But H-EarlySlavic is now clearly the primary medium for news and collaboration.

Academic Publishers, E-mail Lists, and the Internet

In principle, academic publishers serve a number of vital roles in professional history. They are the gatekeepers, ensuring—by thorough vetting—that only the best historical scholarship is presented to the reading public. They are heralds, transmitting the message of their authors far and wide. And they are certifiers, bestowing prestige on historians and ensuring advancement in the discipline. There is no doubt that they do all these things. But are they doing a good job?

Again, yes and no. Academic publishers are in a bind today: they are supposed to publish important scholarship, but important scholarship does not sell very well. This dilemma has caused them to cut corners. Again, I will use my own experience to illustrate what is being done. In 1996 I finished a monograph on a topic in early modern European history. I sent the standard letter proposing the book to a whole slew of academic publishers. All of them, save one, passed on my proposal. Most explained that their refusal to publish my book had nothing to do with the quality of the scholarship, but rather was the result of financial constraints—monographs on remote corners of the long ago do not sell well. The gatekeeper clearly has interests other than the dissemination of knowledge. Fair enough. The one press that did express interest in my book sent it to be vetted. After a number of months I received the reviews, both of which recommended publication with amendment. I revised the book and it was accepted for publication. When my book (which, I should say, was very well edited and produced) finally appeared two years later, it cost about 50 dollars.1

With this experience in mind, I decided to conduct an experiment in publishing with my next book, a two-volume effort in early modern Russian history. It had a very small audience and I was certain most university presses would shy away. If one picked it up, I would have to wait a long time to see the book in print and it would cost more than most of the audience (Russians) could afford. This is what I did. First, I formatted the electronic manuscript like a book: with a cover, a table of contents, running headers, and so on. Then I produced a PDF (Portable Documentary Format) version using Adobe Acrobat. The software needed to read PDFs is free and works on almost any platform. The entire process of creating the PDF book took about an hour, and the result looks exactly like a paper book on the screen, only better. The PDF allows you to "navigate" the book much more easily than a paper book, the graphs are in color, and you can also make electronic annotations. Not to mention the fact that it can be reproduced in seconds for free and sent around the globe by e-mail attachment. With the book "in hand" I needed to have someone else vet it. So I sent it to several colleagues and asked them to review it. They did and I made revisions. Now I had to "publish" the book. Putting on my marketing hat, I specified the "target audience": clearly, early Russian historians. Happily, I had a list of them—all of them—the H-EarlySlavic. I uploaded the book to a web site and sent a posting to the ESSL announcing the book and inviting interested parties to download it for free. And download it they did. Soon I was getting feedback from the experts. I made further adjustments to the book (easy to do, because it's electronic). From the first step to the last, the entire process of making, vetting, publishing the book took about a week. And the book is free, everywhere, all the time.2

I should add that publishing a book on the web is no real bar to publishing it in hard copy with an ink-and-paper publisher. Shortly after I issued the web version of the book in question, I made arrangements for it to be published by an academic press.3 Why would a press publish a book that had already been published on the web? The answer is plain: an e-book and a printed book (or article, or what have you) are different things. The one is, in essence, a "preprint" version of the other, accessible to those who would like to sample the book (and then buy the hard copy) or those who cannot afford the printed book (my colleagues in Russia). Officially sanctioned "preprint services"—discipline-wide web archives of papers destined for publication—have long been important in the hard sciences. It would be very unusual, for example, for a paper in physics or math not to be published on the web before it came out (formally) in a journal.4 Perhaps we should think about a pre-print service for history?5

The Future

For some of us, the future of academic history is now. We collaborate online, do research online, and publish online. The one-time "establishment" institutions of history—the department, the professional organization, and the university press—seem somewhat antiquated in the era of the Internet. Yet each of these venerable institutions will have a role to play; it will just be narrower than in the past. Departments will still teach and hire; professional organizations will still hold conferences; and university presses will still publish beautiful, expensive books. Yet the collaborative and communicative aspects of each of these institutions will be augmented and even supplanted by micro-communities of scholars with like interests. Sooner rather than later, the e-mail list will become a central pillar of the historical profession.

—Marshall Poe teaches history at Harvard University (mpoe@fas.harvard.edu).

Notes

1. Marshall Poe, "A People Born to Slavery": Russia in Early Modern European Ethnography, 1476–1748 (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2000).

2. Marshall Poe, The Russian Elite in the Seventeenth Century, 2 vols., available at http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~mpoe/AnnualCompBD.pdf (vol. 1); http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~mpoe/StatBK.pdf (vol. 2).

3. Marshall Poe, The Russian Elite in the Seventeenth Century, 2 vols. Forthcoming (2002) from the Finnish Academy of Sciences.

4. For examples, see the Los Alamos PPAA for physics (http://www.lanl.gov) or Cogprints, a PPAA for the behavioral sciences (http://cogprints.soton.ac.uk).

5. For more a more detailed discussion, see "The Success and Failure of Pre-Print Servers" (http://www.uba.uva.nl/nl/projecten/b-preprints/wp1succes.html). Also see the articles of Steven Harnad on the PPAAs (http://cogsci.soton.ac.uk/~harnad/intpub.html).