This is the fifth and final post in a series in which I am hoping gain some insight on how the Internet the scholarly journal article in the field of history, as well as what kind of adaptations we might see in the future. Previously: The History of the History Article, The History Article and the Database, The Article, the Digital, and the Creation of Community, Publishing, Copyright, and Open-Access.
Since this series is supposed to be an examination of the scholarly journal article and how it has been impacted by the Internet, I now would like to look at some digital forms of scholarship with an eye towards specific ways that they have remediated functions that have been held by the scholarly article. I originally wrote “characteristics” rather than “functions,” but I think that functions gets more at the root of how traditional scholarly forms are being remediated online. After all, different characteristics can perform the same function, and when looking at remediation I think that it’s more important to see through the characteristics to what their functions are.
So, what are the functions of the scholarly history article? After looking back through my previous posts, I think that we can say that articles are supposed to make an argument, they are supposed to lend themselves to review by other scholars (by using footnotes, for example), they are supposed to demonstrate professionalism, and to create a community of scholars. I’m sure that I’m missing plenty of other functions, but these are the ones that I think are the most important. How have these functions been remediated in some of the (still largely experimental) forms of digital scholarship?
Digital Primary Source Archives
I’ll start with the digital primary-source archive (DPSA) because I think that it has, so far, been the most successful new form of history scholarship. I’m loosely defining DPSAs as websites that exist primarily to make a lot of primary sources available for examination. Allow me to give two examples. The first is The Valley of Shadow. Hosted by the University of Virginia, the makers of this cite have gathered a huge number of documents from the neighboring counties of August County, Virginia and Franklin County, Pennsylvania. These documents cover the period from 1859 to 1870, and are gathered from letters, diaries, census records, church records, Freedmen’s Bureau records, newspapers, and a few other places. The second DPSA is the Woodrow Wilson Center Digital Archive: International History Declassified. This archive focuses on presenting declassified Cold War documents from governments around the world.
So, how do these sites remediate the article functions outlined above? Well, it’s clear that neither site makes an argument in the traditional sense. There are implied arguments made through the way that the documents are organized, but these mostly just have to do with periodization. The Wilson Center’s site also organizes its documents along some general themes, but these are so broad that I would hesitate to call them real arguments. I suppose that one could also argue that the documents selected creates its own kind of editorial argument, but I’m not sure how I would begin to decipher such a thing. I would therefore argue that, if these sites make an argument, it is only in the most vague sense of the term. I’d be willing to be convinced otherwise, however.
Do the sites make themselves available for review? I would answer that yes, they do. Each provides extensive documentation for the primary source documents that it presents. In an article the footnotes are supposed to combine with the reviewer’s knowledge of the subject under discussion to make the article reviewable. In an archive, the documents are all available for perusal, so any reviewer can determine for themselves whether the archive has categorized the documents correctly.
Do the DPSAs demonstrate professionalism? This is hazier. Using the criteria from my earlier post, they definitely show the ability to conduct research and they probably show that the individuals involved are able to work well with other scholars, but I’m not sure how much they demonstrate the ability to stay on deadline or the ability to write.
Do the DPSAs create a scholarly community? As these particular two are constructed, I would say that they don’t. However, I think that this flaw, as well as a coupe of others, could be fixed if these archives created spaces for historians to contribute short (or long, I suppose) posts in which they make arguments using the sources that the archive has made available. This would allow the DPSAs to host scholarly discussions that brought together historians (and others) who were interested in the same topics.
As mentioned in an earlier post, a number of history of science blogs participate in a monthly “blog carnival” called The Giants Shoulders, wherein bloggers each month create a post, on their own blogs, that deals with that month’s themes. All of the various posts are then organized and presented by whichever blog is “hosting” that month, which allows participants and readers to look at the titles and brief descriptions of the posts related to that month’s themes. In this way the blog carnival serves the same function as the what Ethan Kleinberg claimed for the individual journal issue: it gathers a number of takes on a similar issue together to invite comparison. So, does this blog carnival remediate the function of a journal article?
Does it make an argument? Yes, each individual blog post makes an argument exactly in the sense that historians have traditionally understood it. Given that they are blog posts, and therefore shorter than traditional journal articles, I think that the main quibble (as far as argument goes) would be with whether the argument is developed enough. However, I think that reviewers can look through several (or more) blog posts and find a long and detailed argument of the kind found in journal articles.
Does it make itself available for review? Yes, I would say that the blog posts in the carnival make themselves available for review. In my experience, the hardcore citing discipline that has been drummed into historians carries over quite well into the blog form, where historians can provide links instead of footnotes, thereby actually making checking the sources easier for reviewers. (Many primary documents can’t be linked to, but that’s the exact same problem that’s always existed.)
Does it demonstrate professionalism? Blog posts meet all of Coclanis’ criteria except that the blogger can work will with editors and reviewers. But given Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s (to my mind) convincing arguments about the value of post-publication peer review, I think that an ability and willingness to work with peers can be demonstrated without much trouble in comment threads and future blog posts.
Does it create a scholarly community? Oh heavens, yes! In fact this is another area where blogs may have an advantage over the scholarly article. It may actually be easier to create a scholarly community in a space that encourages so much feedback and discussion.
So what has been the impact of the Internet on the scholarly article in the field of history? Well, after this whirlwind series of posts, I doubt that I’ve come much closer to really nailing anything down, but it seems to me that the traditional form of the article has been most impacted by the creation of article databases, as I first stated. These databases have changed a great deal of how articles are received, but very little of how they are produced. That may change as time goes on, but it looks to me like some or all of the functions of the classic scholarly article can be remediated into new online genres. These genres will be able to do perform some of these functions better than that journal article could, but this doesn’t mean that the article will (or should) ever go away. It’s just that it will be joined by newer forms that do their own kinds of scholarly work.