October 8, 2010

open access / digital humanities

Reading time:
6 min. | 1240 words

[This post originally appeared on the WHA Digital Frontiers blog on October 5, 2010.  I’ve reproduced it here.  Many thoughts in this piece echo some early ideas I started considering in “Open Source Scholarship.“]

In an Atlantic Monthly article published in 1945, the brilliant engineer Vannevar Bush, who had served as the Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development through World War II, outlined the new tools emerging that promised to “give man access to and command over the inherited knowledge of the ages.” His essay, “As We May Think,” expressed an optimistic and ambitious future of machines that would aid scientists – and other scholars – in the tasks of their research. Bush envisioned a machine that operated like the human mind, which “operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts.” He called this machine a “memex,” and pointed to history as a way to suggest the machine’s possibilities:

The owner of the memex, let us say, is interested in the origin and properties of the bow and arrow. Specifically he is studying why the short Turkish bow was apparently superior to the English long bow in the skirmishes of the Crusades. He has dozensof possibly pertinent books and articles in his memex. First he runs through an encyclopedia, finds and interesting but sketchy article, leaves it projected, Next, in a history, he finds another pertinent item, and ties the two together. Thus he goes, building a trail of many items. Occasionally he inserts a comment of his own, either linking it into the main trail or joining it by a side trail to a particular item. When it becomes evident that the elastic properties of available materials had a great deal to do with the bow, he branches off on a side trail which takes him through textbooks on elasticity and tables of physical constants. He inserts a page of longhand analysis of his own. Thus he builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him.

And his trails do not fade. Several years later, his talk with a friend turns to the queer ways in which a people resist innovations, even of vital interest. He has an example, in the fact that the outranged Europeans still failed to adopt the Turkish bow. In fact he has a trail on it. A touch brings up the code book. Tapping a few keys projects the head of the trail. A lever runs through it at will, stopping at interesting items, going off on side excursions. It is an interesting trail, pertinent to the discussion. So he sets a reproducer in action, photographs the whole trail out, and passes it to his friend for insertion in his own memex, there to be linked into the more general trail.

The Internet, of course, has become our memex. But how history can be linked to and enhanced by the Internet is a topic still open for discussion. Can history be enhanced by the massive capabilities of machines? How might computers change the way we communicate in the humanities? The Internet, I would suggest, allows historians to query and explore materials in new ways as well as provides new ways to communicate what we discover.

When Edward Ayers and William G. Thomas coined the phrase “digital history” in 1997 with the founding of the Virginia Center for Digital History (VCDH) at the University of Virginia, the earliest institution devoted exclusively to history, they were part of a wave of scholars testing the potential for computers to influence research in the humanities. Scholars began exploring ways that hypertext, databases, CD-ROMs, and other electronic mediums could be used to communicate knowledge or generate new insights into scholarly work.

In some ways digital history required a new set of languages. The emergence of modern computers and servers allowed scholars to begin mastering new ways of communicating research. Professors learned mysql; undergraduates had knowledge of server-side scripting; designers aided scholars in thinking about presentation on the web; graduate students aided in document encoding. The revelation here is that no one could master all the skills necessary to write a piece of software or create a digital project – humanities computing was necessarily collaborative.

The growth of digital humanities centers initiated large-scale projects supported by large staffs of graduate students, faculty, computer science professionals, librarians, archivists, undergraduates, and many others that provided knowledge toward the successful completion of digital projects. Projects like the Valley of the Shadow was a multi-year project that eventually compassed several thousand documents. Other scholarly institutions such as the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, IATH at the University of Michigan, and the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln emerged to support digital humanities computing and scholarship. In recent years, graduate students have pursued smaller-scale projects completed in the course of a single semester or over a year in support of a Master’s thesis or Ph.D. dissertation. Digital works such as Andrew Torget’s Texas Slavery Project and several projects at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln illustrate the potential for scholars to produce interpretive digital projects under much shorter timeframes and manageable scopes.

The result of this explosion of digital historical material and interpretation on the web has the potential to reshape the ways scholars reach audiences. Open access historical work, through the web, becomes more visible, can be easily retrieved, potentially reach broader audiences, and thus have a greater impact than a book. Digital scholarship could reach thousands of readers in search of historical material. Scholars can also track usage on their projects and determine what people choose to read and use, a task impossible with a printed book (a purchased book does not necessarily equal a book that’s been read). It is in the interest of historians to provide unrestricted, open access to their work, because doing so increases readership and recognition. Open access means instantaneous access to research, the ability to correct errors almost immediately, and a radical democratization of knowledge production.

The web also holds the potential to develop new forms of narrative that reflect Bush’s idea of “associations.” Digital history completes the task required of any historian – providing an argument within an interpretive framework on a given topic. Computers allow historians to create distinctive forms of narrative that take full advantage of the interconnected, non-linear format of the web. History, writes Orville Vernon Burton, “is badly in need of models beyond the monograph for the demonstration of excellence, and where the scholarship itself is in need of new genres and new strategies for reaching new audiences.” Hypertextual history, Edward Ayers suggests, means historians must establish a coherent, layered analysis. The narrative potentials of digital history opens the door to new models of historical scholarship.

If our purpose as scholars is to share with others what we know and have learn about the past, then democratic access to scholarship should be our ultimate goal as historians. Digital technology gives us the tools to rethink the presentation and dissemination of historical scholarship. Although challenges and questions exist, that should not deter historians from embracing open access historical scholarship and sharing knowledge. “If historians believe that what is available free on the Web is low quality,” Roy Rosenzweig writes, “then we have a responsibility to make better information sources available online.”

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Greetings! My name is Jason Heppler. I am a Digital Engagement Librarian and Assistant Professor of History at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and a scholar of the twentieth-century United States. I often write here about the history of the North American West, technology, the environment, politics, culture, and coffee. You can follow me on Twitter, or learn more about me.

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