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Author: Jeffrey G. Barlow
Title: Quality, Imprimaturs, and Rings
Publication Info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
August 1999

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Source: Quality, Imprimaturs, and Rings
Jeffrey G. Barlow

vol. 2, no. 2, August 1999
Article Type: Editorial

Quality, Imprimaturs, and Rings

Jeffrey Barlow

A paper presented at the national conference Of the Association for History and Computing, Philadelphia, April 1999

The World Wide Web is clearly here to stay. Not only is it a well-established cultural phenomenon, driving the stock market well beyond the bounds of reason, but even the most obdurate of scholars now see the necessity of at least taking it into account in their classes. The study first published by Dennis Trinkle in Perspectives, then in an expanded version in Volume II, number 1 of the Journal of the Association for History and Computing, is instructive in this regard. Trinkle outlines the results of this monumental survey as follows:

Eighty percent of those surveyed reported using technology in teaching, and forty-six percent state that they are now requiring their students to use email for course purposes. Forty-four percent also have begun requiring students to use the Internet for research exercises, papers, and seminars, though twenty-three percent of these later group expressed concerns about the reliability of information on the Internet.

To address the problem of quality many faculty report trying a variety of pro-active experiments. Fifty-four percent of the respondents have begun devoting class sessions to technical instruction and workshops. Many are offering students specific instruction on how to find and evaluate materials on the Internet. Respondents are also turning to printed scholarly guides to Internet resources....

Instructors are also creating their own web sites to help guide students to dependable on-line materials and provide other useful resources. Forty-seven percent of the respondents stated that they have developed their own course sites.

Trinkle's findings demonstrate several important points: we are using the Internet as teachers of history at least; but almost one quarter of those of us who do so are sufficiently concerned with the reliability of information to mention it in such a survey. And most of us are trying to teach our students how to find and evaluate material, another means of expressing a concern for quality.

This concern for quality of information is unavoidable. For historians, after all, our discipline begins with the questioning of evidence. I am aware, both from wide reading about the issue of history and the Web, and from the personal experiences of my colleagues who are skeptical, that probably the major reason why they are slow to incorporate the internet into their own teaching is, in fact, the reliability of the information found there. I have conducted workshops for several years for secondary teachers wishing a better understanding of electronically mediated teaching, and very often hear that they simply cannot trust the ability of their students to evaluate the wide range of materials found on the Internet.

The underlying problem is that the range of materials found on the Internet simply exceeds our ability to evaluate them. We know the standard bibliography in our fields; we have ourselves selected in large part the materials that become part of our library collections. But the Internet is threateningly unmediated. Our students are, we feel, adrift in a world of materials which they may well see as evidence from which to construct a historical account, despite doubtful provenance, the most egregious sorts of factual errors, biases which defy description, hidden agendas, unscrupulous motives, and so on.

Our primary response to the problem of reliability must be, of course, to do a better job of preparing our students to evaluate evidence. And as this merely parallels work we do anyway, it seems to be not so much a change as a matter of emphasis. I believe, however, that other avenues are also open to us, and we should at least explore them.

One means of contextualizing the problems presented by the Internet which is particularly appropriate to historians is to recall that we have seen similar issues arise earlier. O'Donnell's wonderful Avatars of the Word reminds us that the entire process whereby the book took its modern form was not uncontested. Even the initial transition from a primarily oral transmission of information to a written one itself met no little opposition, including that from no lesser a pillar of the western intellectual tradition than Socrates. The shift from papyrus rolls to the codex (book) form, a transition which occurred from the second to the fifth century, seems to have met little, if any, resistance. But the next important transition, that from hand-written to printed codices or books encountered many criticisms. Several of the reasons behind some of these were, as O'Donnell shows, quite valid. One such was a surprisingly modern argument —that printing would multiply errors that would have been corrected by scribes in valuable and rare hand-copied editions.

But the most noted attack on printing was, of course, that it would multiply errors of another sort: doctrinal ones. Although there are many early examples of the banning or censoring of works by the early Church—apparently the first formal enumeration of such was by Pope Innocent I in 405,—it was the rapid spread of Protestant works via the printing press which caused the Church to systematize its scrutiny of books. It was Innocent the VIII who decreed in 1469 that books should be pre-approved for publication. The list of books banned outright, the "Index" (Index Librorum Prohibitorum), was last published in 1948. In 1966 it was decided that no more such lists would be published. The Anglican Church, too, undertook, albeit relatively briefly (1586-1695), prior approval of publications and the banning of certain works.

As part of the process of approving books for publication an author was to submit his manuscript for scrutiny by the bishop of the diocese in which he himself resided, or alternatively, that where the book was to be published. The bishop (or his designated readers) then announced nihil obstat, (there is nothing against [publication]) and he then gave his imprimatur, literally "let it be published." These are still seen in books of especial import for a Catholic audience. The New Catholic Encyclopedia, for example, published in 1967, bears the Nihil Obstat of John P. Whalen, M.A., S.T.D., who was the Censor Deputatus of Patrick A. O'Boyle, Archbishop of Washington, who in turn added his Imprimatur in August of 1966.

To sum up this process as I understand it, the response of ecclesiastical authorities to the specter of the rapid spread of possibly erroneous printed works was to both ban certain works (a total of four thousand over the centuries according to Gardiner,) and to label those which passed scrutiny as "unobjectionable" via the Nihil Obstat, and then to license them for publication via the Imprimatur. The Anglican Church followed roughly the same process.

It would be unduly contentious of me to suggest that this process of censorship might inspire nostalgia in the breasts of some who contemplate the unbridled license of the Internet. But I think that these particular medieval processes at least deserve our close scrutiny in that they were one of the responses of undoubtedly thoughtful and learned men who in some regards faced problems similar to our own. They, too, were quite overtaken by change and were trying to harness it for their own ends while minimizing its power to disrupt their own institutions. And they, like we are, were primarily concerned about the "quality" of the written word.

For the Church, the necessary quality of a given work was that it be within the established limes of doctrinal authority. For us as contemporary historians, it is that the works should have the quality of being acceptable as research materials (or in the words of Trinkle's respondents, that they be "reliable")—that they meet, in short, our own doctrinal tests. Very much like the Innocents First and Eighth, we at the Journal of the Association for History and Computing have been trying to develop standards for the pieces which we publish. These standards (Exemplary Practices for Electronic Evidence) include the following strictures and related questions:

  1. An exemplary piece should have an equivalent of pagination for on-line documents so that they can be cited properly.
  2. A good site should have a statement on how the material was assembled and edited, and a statement of the purpose of the page or the central arguments of its contents.
  3. An exemplary site must have at least one identifiable author who can be contacted with regard to content.
  4. There should be a standard and familiar style of citation adopted. This style should meet what The Columbia Guide to Online Style refers to as the five principles of citation style: access, intellectual property, economy, standardization, and transparency. At the journal we have selected "Chicago" style after a flirtation with MLA in-line citations because although increasingly standard in printed works, an in-line citation may not conveniently be able to carry the amount of information sometimes needed to cite an unpaginated on-line document. For example, we hope that those referencing our documents will, if possible, cite the heading number in their notes, if a heading number is present.
  5. There should be bibliographic references that are consonant with the citation style.
  6. There should be clear statements as to when a document was last updated and references to when and how often it was previously updated. Should standards be worked out to create a sort of "edition" number?

    These principles follow in large part from ones familiar to or adapted from standards for hard copy publications. But e-publication on the Internet suggests new standards as well as raising additional questions:

  7. An exemplary site should be graphically good in layout. But by what standards?
  8. An exemplary site balances content and design, but to a historian in the present state of the field, content is much more important.
  9. An exemplary site should be intuitively navigable, but it is reasonable to expect the reader to take a few moments to understand the organization.
  10. Should an exemplary article contain a preformatted version of a correct footnote and bibliographic reference to that work which could easily be copied and pasted into works that reference it?
  11. Is it reasonable for this journal, and the Association for History and Computing, to attempt to set standards on these and other issues and advocate their widespread adoption, perhaps by some form of certification of "exemplary sites?" Should we create a "ring" of approved sites?
  12. What other important issues should be discussed in attempting to define such standards?

We also assume, of course, that such materials meet all the other standards set by historians for works published in hard copy.

And also like those medieval popes, we want not only to minimize the harm done by those rapidly proliferating works, but we also want to take advantage of the very mechanism which incessantly thrusts them at us, that modern press, the Internet. For us to make the Internet work to our advantage as a profession, or, to continue to belabor my ecclesiastical metaphor, as the College of Historians, we, too, should be proactive.

But we cannot exercise prior censorship. We can damn our students for their failures to follow our standards, but it is a modern sort of damnation, without even a whiff of fire and brimstone, at most a temporary inconvenience requiring resort to the registrar's "withdrawal without record," (the modern equivalent of Purgatory). So the electronic equivalent of theIndex Librorum Prohibitorum , the outright censorship of World Wide Web materials, is best left to the anxious multitudes of the various contemporary leagues for Internet decency.

It does not seem out of place to suggest, however, that perhaps the Nihil Obstat and the Imprimatur could be dusted off and adapted for our own enlightened purposes. Why should we not establish our own codes and certify that a site has met them? We effectively do the same for many hard-copy publications. The monographs which we most prize, those printed at university presses, must meet the test of peer review at a number of levels before being printed and included in our libraries.

One of the lesser known (to scholars at least) aspects of the Internet is the web ring. Sites organized around common topics such as studies of the Chinese philosophy/religion Taoism, are in effect linked together. One submits one's Taoist site to the administrators of the Taoist ring, and, if it meets their standards, one's own site becomes a part of the ring. Belonging to a ring consists largely of adding a navigation device to the bottom of one's opening page which permits visitors to quickly move forward or back to related sites, or even to quickly cycle through the entire ring in search of desirable material.

These rings are collated and indexed at several large meta-sites on the web. One of these, WebRing, purports to index tens of thousands of such rings. I ran a quick survey on their engine using the simple search term "history" and turned up 601 rings with the word in their title. Some of these are huge—the Afroamerican web ring (afroa—rings are indentified by a four or five character abbreviation) is comprised of 1639 distinct sites, including those devoted to music, sports, shops, as well as history.

Some of the history rings were quite serious ones, but none, so far as my brief search revealed, were the electronic equivalent of a university press, that is, fully peer-reviewed and conforming to exacting standards. Doubtless many of the sites included in specific rings do meet such standards, but most rings seem to be a melange of sites, apparently seeking a wide audience rather than a discriminating one.

The advantage for a site of membership in a ring is that it brings searchers for information in a particular category into one's site. After one of my student-developed pages on philosophical Taoism became part of a Taoist ring, traffic increased more than ten-fold and it continues to be one of the most frequently visited pages in my Asian Studies cluster.

For a project such as outlined here, each member of a ring would be permitted to join only after agreeing to meet and maintain high standards for reliability of materials, style of citation and so forth. A ring could, in effect, be composed of nothing but peer-reviewed materials if desirable, or those which at least attain some given level of confidence.

By combining the functions of the Imprimatur and the web ring, we could both certify that particular sites were valuable for certain types of historical research, or at least suitable for them, and facilitate the process of finding such information. We could develop, for example, a seal of approval granted by the Association of History and Computing. By itself such a seal would mean very little, but combined with a ring of related sites, it would be very attractive. Administrators of such sites, desiring an increase in traffic would submit their sites for review, and students searching for related material would traverse such rings of reliable information. We, of course, as teachers, would assign materials found in such rings, or at least suggest their use and link to them in our own pages and reference them in our syllabus.

The mechanics of this process initially appears challenging. I think, however, to take the journal of our association as an example, that we could systematically build such a ring as we reviewed materials. A positive review could result in our offer for such sites to join the ring, or better, rings—we should create subject specific rings whenever possible to facilitate research. Each ring could be maintained by an editorial board specific to that field, perhaps overlapping but not congruent with our own editorial board. After what I think would be a brief period, I believe that we would find sites requesting to join the ring. A pledge to adhere to standards such as those we are developing would probably be sufficient for us to provide the necessary materials. If we wanted to become truly inquisitional, we could watermark our imprimatur—the navigational bar—and periodically have the web scoured for unauthorized uses of it.

The expenses of creating a ring or rings could be met in a number of ways—one would certainly be to sell advertising of the dignified sort that we currently permit in our own hard-copy journals. One can also imagine a minimal charge for the privilege of being included in a highly successful ring.

The advantages for the profession of creating and maintaining such a structure of rings would be considerable. Not only would this help to minimize the problem of quality, but it would also probably bring a great many of the dubious and reluctant among our peers onto the Internet. In particular we need the participation of more well-established scholars. I have found remarkable the degree to which the conversion to the possibilities of hypertext by a scholar such as Robert Darnton, as revealed in his recent piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education, attracts the attention of some of my peers, who are now themselves licensed to consider the Internet "important." Publishers, too, would find some value in participating in some fashion in these efforts, because of the potentially huge audience.

But however we undertake to handle the problem of quality, we must face the fact that we have never really solved it in even the highly limited universe of printed publications. And with the Internet the challenge has grown exponentially larger. The Catholic Church, after all, had to ban but some four thousand publications over a period of 1500 years in its pursuit of orthodoxy. One cannot even estimate the number of the useless, unreliable, or downright dishonest sites on the Internet. It is certain that we will need a multi-pronged approach. I think that some sort of imprimatur of quality and an organization of such materials into convenient web rings should also be one of our approaches.

We should also be clear, though, that however honorable our methods, like those medieval churchmen, we, too, are engaged in a fundamentally conservative struggle which will be easily misunderstood. Some will equate refereeing or peer review processes with censorship in a realm largely marked by the absence of boundaries.


Books and Articles

  • Cross, F.L and E.A. Livingstone, (ed.) The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. (Oxford University Press, London, 1974.)
  • Darnton, Robert "A Historian of Books, Lost and Found in Cyberspace." <> The Chronicle of Higher Education. March 12, 1999. Volume XLV, Number 27, B4.
  • Editors, New Catholic Encylcopedia, (The Catholic University of America, 1967)
  • Gardiner, Harold C. Catholic Viewpoint on Censorship. (Hanover House, Garden City, New York, 1958.)
  • Harnad, Stevan. "Implimenting Peer Review on the Net: Scientific Quality Control in Scholarly Electronic Journals, " pp. 103-118, Peek and Newby.
  • Hayes, Brian. "The Economic Quandary of the Network Publisher," pp. 121-32 in Peek and Newby
  • Hurtado, Larry W., "A Consortium for Refereed Electronic Journals," pp. 202-212 in Peek Newby.
  • O'Donnell, James J. Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.) See David Staley's review at
  • Peek, Robin W. and Gregory B. Newby (ed.) Scholarly Publishing. The Electronic Frontier. (The MIT Press, Cambridge, 1996.)
  • Trinkle, Dennis A. "Computers and the Practice of History: Where Are We? Where Are We Headed?" Perspectives 37:2 (February 1999) pp. 31-4.
  • Trinkle, Dennis "History and the Computer Revolutions: A Survey of Current Practices." Journal of the Association of History and Computing, Vol. II, no, 1, April 1999.
  • Walker, Janice R. and Todd Taylor, The Columbia Guide to Online Style. (Columbia University Press, 1998)

Electronic Materials

Exemplary Practices for Electronic Evidence:


Jeffrey Barlow
Pacific University