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Online Battles September 5, 2006

Posted by McStorian in ClioWired.
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In reading Daniel Cohen and Roy Rozenzweig’s Digital History, we appear to have come upon an on-line battle that I was not heretofore very familiar with.  I was certainly aware of certain academic sites that controlled material for a fee, and of sites that were geared more toward popular history (aka. the History Channel, which they mention many times in their introduction).  However, I was unaware that academics (at least those responsible for this book) were so opinionated about both.  I grew up with computers and learned to have a discerning eye when it came to resources, especially those on the web.  However, it seems to be a general rule that limited access usually means something is more credible.  For example, publishing a book is certainly limited access because 1. the book has to be picked up by a publisher and 2. it goes through a review period.  Therefore, although books aren’t necessarily the quintessence of truth and honesty, they’re still much more credible than “David’s History of WWII,” published on a website that probably cost him $2.99/yr to run.  Furthermore, the same seems to be true for pay sites where many primary source documents and scholarly journals reside on the Internet.  It seems that if historians want to keep their work credible and accountable, then journals and publishing houses are still the way to go.  And those businesses need to make money, obviously.  If historians began to only publish their work on websites and blogs, then it would become increasingly difficult to distinguish credible from incredible, because much of historian’s ethos comes from their backers.  If a historian is backed by the Journal of Southern History or LSU press, then that gives them a certain ethos and lets readers know that this is a work of scholarship worthy of endorsing through publication.  On the web, ethos might be gained by ones ability to make attractive web-design, not necessarily by their research skills.  In any event, I think it’s a good goal to have more historians make things accessible on the web, but it seems to me that money and a tradition of excellence speak much louder than accessibility. 

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1. tad - September 5, 2006

I don’t think that many people at all are talking about the complete switch over from academic publishing to just websites and blogs. But the issue of access is sorta crucial. As Historians, you’re dealing with lots of information that should be– by all rights– in the public domain. The ability of the public to access such documents, I don’t see as a threat…

What’s the harm of having free access to, say, census records, court records, etc., available to all?

The accessability issue also comes in when you look at the reduction of state and federal funding of institutions of higher learning. At my last University, UMass Boston, the subscriptions– which were direly needed ’cause it was a school with a small and less-than-spectacular collection– were so expensive that they literally haven’t purchased a book in four years or so.

It’s a less-than-ideal situation. Restructuring things using electronic technology is one possible inroad into ameliorating it…. or at least it could be.

Just my three cents.


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