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Author: James P. Niessen
Title: Librarians on the World Wide Web and the Field of History: "Comment" for Panel, The Changing Faces of Libraries and Library Services
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
August 2000

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Source: Librarians on the World Wide Web and the Field of History: "Comment" for Panel, The Changing Faces of Libraries and Library Services
James P. Niessen

vol. 3, no. 2, August 2000
Article Type: Article

"Comment" for Panel, The Changing Faces of Libraries and Library Services

James P. Niessen

[revised July 5, 2000]

Being a history librarian is exciting, but also uncomfortable. The excitement is seeing how professional practices and scholarly communication are being transformed; the discomfort comes from serving two seemingly opposed agendas. The library's agenda is to make propaganda for the new formats and tools, encouraging their use; but within the library you are a defender of the book budget, a reminder of how history is different, and maybe even a suspected Luddite. We have four complementary accounts of this bibliographic Zweifrontenkrieg.

Candace Benefiel paints for us the consequences of technological change within the library. Online databases, periodical indexes, and the WorldCat and RLIN union catalogs radically enhance our bibliographic access, and our users rightly appreciate the ease in retention of citations, interlinking within web-mounted databases, and electronic full text products. Joel Kitchens gives us an even more detailed overview of electronic products that are useful to historians. He touches on the innovative use of multimedia in a recent issue of American Quarterly, electronic monographs projects, and the most recent vision of Robert Darnton of how historical synthesis may be presented on the WorldWideWeb.

Among the new library services for historians are electronic reserves. There are really two variants: materials scanned and mounted locally by a library Reserves department, and electronic monographs available as an integral whole, as through netLibrary. Joel Kitchens also talks about netLibrary and electronic monographs, so I'll bring his question into this discussion: What does the electronic monograph mean for the future of history? Are we making it too easy for our users to grab text that is divorced from the narrative and evidentiary context that is so vital for history? Presumably, in doing this, we undermine the centrality of the historical monograph for the discipline. But isn't it a reality that most of us grab a book, even a monograph, to consult only a small part of it instead of reading it cover to cover? The interface for netLibrary is designed with this pattern of use in mind. Of course the deeper question we are trying to resolve is the economic future of the scholarly monograph. As troubling as it may seem on its face, the provision of monographs in electronic as well as paper format may make good sense. The On-Line Books Evaluation Project at Columbia University (for non-history books, it should be noted) found the online books were indeed used, but mostly if they were reference books or effectively serving as reserve copies for courses. Reference books, like periodical indexes, become far more useful in their electronic form if they are not merely digitized but converted into databases.

After a generally positive assessment of the new media, Benefiel concludes with an observation that I think all of us have made at the Reference Desk: students gravitate to electronic full text, and are apt to neglect resources not available in this format. Does faculty, also, place too much emphasis on electronic resources? That may be too "optimistic" in the case of faculty who are beyond the curve, but it may have its explanation in the insight that it is better for students to access material easily than not to access any at all. In my view librarians contribute to this imbalance because of their role in spreading awareness of these tools. It is challenging for the librarian to maintain an adequate awareness of traditional resources if her administration is setting priorities inspired by professional discourse preoccupied with new electronic media.

Toby Graham gives us a much-needed special collections perspective. When archives place collection descriptions and reference links on their Web pages, the impact of their collections skyrockets as inquiries come in from surprisingly far afield — that's been our experience at Texas Tech's Southwest Collection, . Descriptive data about primary material greatly facilitates planning for research trips, and even the long-distance ordering of material if the amount of material is manageable and it can be precisely identified. The freely available RLIN-AMC database makes possible the searching of composite subjects across thousands of repositories that would be far more difficult in the NUCMC paper volumes. Graham provided precise information about the records available in RLIN-AMC and Chadwyck-Healey's commercially available ArchivesUSA; information professionals also need to assess whether the latter's search interface and links are worth the additional cost.

Graham outlines the important debate over access to collections through MARC records in RLIN or WorldCat vs access through finding aids on the Web and Encoded Archival Description. Provenance and original order are significant not only for purist advocates of archival theory, but also for historians who want to examine a source in terms of the conditions of its creation and alongside materials created in the same agency or activity: context is important, as with monographs. This is what makes the Declassified Documents Reference System both a wonderful and a horrible tool for our students. The database provides rapid access to fascinating, politically significant documents of recent American history in facsimile images: but they are isolated documents, separated from their record series, and even cryptically so. The National Archives' NAIL database provides an ingenious compromise solution, combining deep, distributed searching across repositories, display of descriptions of individual documents and image displays, but linked to provenance and original order information. The online catalogue of London's Public Record Office (which indicated 8,432,984 records on June 22, 2000) provides a related but different solution, with searching in one repository only but across both collection and document descriptions.

Graham asks: Do digitized collections permit serious historical research online? As with the online monograph, there are good grounds for skepticism. The expense of digitization requires that higher-use items predominate; significant historical research must, by definition, go beyond these. The large quantity of material already online suggests that online collections may indeed make a significant impact on research as well as the undeniable impact they are making on pedagogy today. The granting agencies and coordinating bodies for digitization projects, like the Digital Library Federation and the German Research Society , need to consider the needs of teachers (digital collections as an electronic reserve) and also the evolving needs of researchers in a changing disciplinary landscape.

Tom Izbicki asks us to think about how library-faculty outreach is changing in the new environment. Electronic communication is improving not only the speed and effectiveness of outreach and information exchange, but also the need for this communication. There is a proliferation of new products, and also an uncertainty about their value. Harpweek is an attractive product providing high-resolution images and excellent searching for Harpers' Weekly issues from the last century. But does its functionality and potential use justify the expense? Online resources are usually rented rather than purchased, so ensuring they will be used on an ongoing basis is more urgent. Izbicki notes how access to online resources and the creation of new ones prompt the broadening of the two-sided liaison relationship to a three-sided one, with I.T. personnel. One of the great gains of electronic communications that Izbicki doesn't mention is the benefits for the librarian of access to departmental home pages and class home pages, for learning about current faculty interests, teaching activities, and how professors are using the new media.

I'll conclude with a few remarks on the big question Joel Kitchens spotlights in his title. He writes near the beginning of his paper: "The intellectual content [of history] will remain the same though the medium may change dramatically." I'm not sure about this. multimedia journals, Darnton's multi-level historical work, your participation in electronic mailing lists, your use of e-journals, or how you teach online. Isn't it true that the new media, like keyword searching in a database, are most attractive in their facility to span disciplinary borders, creating unexpected and unconventional connections, and provide new means of envisioning history? Do changes in scholarly communication, driven by technology and economics, favor, and reinforce, changes in the discipline (the new, now middle-aged, history) that predate them? Cultural studies excels in making such connections, but it takes (at least at present) all kinds to make a history department. Are traditional political and diplomatic history, or their practitioners, less amenable to the new media or less likely to take full advantage of them? That is my open question.

Dr. James P. Niessen Vice-President for Research & Publications,
H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences OnLine
Librarian for History & Foreign Languages, Texas Tech University