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Author: Ryan Johnson
Title: The Long Strange Trip It's Been
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
September 2003

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Source: The Long Strange Trip It's Been
Ryan Johnson

vol. 6, no. 2, September 2003
Article Type: Article

The Long Strange Trip It's Been

Ryan Johnson
President JAHC

2003 Presidential Address
American Association for History and Computing

As I have thought about what I might say in this address my thoughts have drifted back over the seven years I have been involved with the AAHC and the myriad of papers I have both listened to and delivered at these conferences. I also have some thoughts about the future of this organization and the challenges it faces, how to deal with these challenges as well as some possible new directions the AAHC can explore.

The six previous conferences of the American Association for History and Computing held between 1997 and 2002 featured a myriad of papers presented by a vast array of people including teachers at high schools, community colleges, liberal arts colleges, research universities, as well as publishers, content producers, librarians, archivists, computer scientists among the crowd. As I think back on all these papers, my own included, they fall into four main themes. I must admit that these themes are artificial constructs and a variety of ideas or presentations cross the boundaries between them. The themes are applied or practical, structural, technological (or product driven) and philosophical. Not only do these themes represent the vast array of materials presented at the conferences, my own work provides examples of each theme.

.01 Applied or Practical

These papers could be described as "How to's." This is probably the most common type of presentation from the AAHC's conferences. The dissemination of new ideas has always been an intrinsic part of what the AAHC has tried to accomplish. The presentations show the nuts and bolts of the integration of technology into the practice of history than the other types of presentations. They were often based in instructional practice and allowed the presenters the opportunity to demonstrate and discuss a wide variety of methods of instruction or other uses for technology. Most attendees left at least one session thinking "I should try that," having seen use of technology that they could implement in their own work.

My paper in 1997, "Historical Research Online: A New Ballgame" [1] represented part of my own personal transition from history to librarianship as a profession. The paper outlined some important concepts in conducting research in what was then, a new and growing medium. In 1996 and 1997, many of the online searchable databases were just appearing and librarians as well as researchers had to learn to adjust their research methodologies somewhat. This paper suggested some methods for researchers to use in selecting appropriate sources, creating effective search queries, evaluating results and avoiding common errors.

.02 Structural

Structural presentations are somewhat broader in scope than the Applied presentations were. They would often reach beyond the direct application of some idea in a classroom, to the development of program of instruction. They sometimes also represented methods of organization of information or the marketing of a resource or a program. These presentations also address methods of implementing solutions to some of the philosophical questions that can arise about which more will be written later.

I have two examples of structural presentations. The first in 1998 was "Integrating the Library: Combining the Paper and the Electronic and the Librarian's Plight" and second was 2000's "Robbing Peter to Pay Paul: Journals, Libraries and New Models for Delivery." Both of these dealt with the same general issue but in very different ways. Libraries were then and are still adjusting to multiple formats for journals.

By 1998 this question has passed from the philosophical, "should we have electronic journals?", to the structural, "how do manage and provide access to electronic journals?" The biggest issue of the time was how to organize access to a myriad of electronic titles, produced by a vast array of publishers into a single seamless package for library users. Since 1998 there have been some improvements in this area both technological and philosophical. Initially, many libraries were reticent to incorporate materials that did not reside on the premises into their catalogs. This is no longer the case. It has also become easier to include links to electronic material in the catalog records building a more integrated interface.

The second paper dealt with how libraries purchase electronic journals. There are a variety of models of delivery, each of which have pluses and minuses. There are aggregators, Proquest or Ebsco for example, which provide access to the full text of a wide variety of titles. While these are very useful tools for libraries and their users, these collections are not constant and often change without notice depending on the aggregators' relationships with the various publishers. These are also not archival. Journal publishers also sell libraries packages of journal titles. This is a practice where a library purchases a set collection of titles for a single price. Kenneth Frazier, Director of Libraries at the University of Wisconsin, Madison has referred to this practice as the "big deal" and argued in an article in D-Lib in March of 2001 that libraries should avoid this type of one size fits all arrangement. While these bundled deals do allow the rate of inflation to be predetermined for the length of the contract, they typically do not allow for cancellation of low use titles.

While the issue of format and how to deal with the digital information has been largely answered within the library community, just a few years ago these questions were being debated vigorously. These presentations outlined the issues involved as well as possible alternatives with pros and cons to each. Though many of the core issues have been settled, both publishers and libraries are continuing to explore a variety of options related to journal delivery. Just as my presentations outlined the structural issues involved in the changing nature of scholarly communication as it relates to technology and academic journals, many other papers examined other arenas in which technology is impacting how the academy functions, from distance education programs to the evolution of tenure requirements the structural changes that have faced education have always been addressed as a part of the AAHC's meetings.

.03 Technological (Product Centered)

Many individuals, organizations and companies have taken the opportunity to demonstrate some new product or innovation at the AAHC annual meeting. While these demonstrations range from academic examinations of changing technologies to thinly disguised sales pitches, the opportunity to see these new products and discuss them with their producers is a positive opportunity for both sides of the interchange.

My soiree into the technological style was 2002's "Tying the Web: Open-URL's and the Implications for Academia." [2] The Open URL was developed by Herbert Van der Sampel while at the University of Ghent. The purpose of this technology is to allow for dynamic linking between disparate electronic resources. This type of technology allows for changes in how information in the academic environment in particular is organized to be approached in entirely new ways. By establishing a set of rules under which information is interconnected, a library can provide links from indexes to the full-text of articles from a variety of publishers. This technology is still developing, but it truly showing great potential.

.04 Philosophical

The philosophically themed papers are those that step back and look at the issues underlying the incorporation of new technologies or methodologies into various aspects of higher education. They are generally less concrete than most presentations because they do not address a particular methodology or technology. While often some of the most interesting presentations, they are usually somewhat amorphous and do not always fit nicely in the larger conference panels but always added a lot to the meetings. The most important philosophical question addressed by the AAHC has been the role of digital publications in the tenure and promotion process. This one question has been a significant presence at several of the meetings and has resulted in some very interesting scholarship. [3]

I made two forays into the philosophical realm. These were "Organizing the Web: How to Find Order in Chaos" in 1999 and "Early Adopters vs. Luddites: Predictors of the Unknowable" in 2001. The first of these addresses something that is still something of question, namely how to find quality information on the Internet. Search engine technology has improved considerably since 1999 and allow for more complex searching options. Evaluation of information, always an essential part of the research process, is especially important when dealing with web based information as there is on inherent editorial control over publication in this medium. Students who make use of the Internet as a primary research tool as opposed to the more traditional publications, regardless of their format are in particular need for instruction in evaluative techniques. Information producers are also very interested in this topic, as they need to find ways to distinguish their products from all the other possibilities available. In addition to improved search engines, which allow for both complex searching improved systems of ranking that bring more heavily used sites to the top of the lists, improving the likelihood that the first items listed are of a higher quality, there are a variety of efforts to create safe-havens or lists of quality sites on a given topic. Some of these include the World Wide Web Virtual Library, Scout Report, Argus Clearinghouse, MERLOT, etc. Each of these has its own focus and depending on the research topic all, some or none may be of assistance. They can, however, serve as a starting point for someone looking for quality sites.

The second philosophical paper that I presented to the AAHC was an early take on what is developing into a long-term research effort for me. What intrigues me is how people think technology will impact society. My research up till now suggests that there are completing views of the future, sometimes even within a single individual or group. With each technological innovation, people seem to think that it will create utopia, or bring disaster. One example is the Internet that simplifies communication and allows for broad-based interconnectivity while being a center of pornography, copyright infringement and child molesters. Recognizing these patterns may also help us to understand why our colleagues sometimes resist change.

The leadership of the AAHC or any of the conference organizers did not plan the four themes that I have outlined. They simply emerged from the members of the organization who felt they had something to say. Watching the evolution of the discussions that have taken place has been a very exciting experience. When we first began to gather to discuss the role of technology in the practice of history, one of the major questions we faced from each other and our colleagues in our departments was "So What?" While this is not asked as often anymore, the question of the role of the organization within the ever changing historical profession is still somewhat unsettled. I will now address this by discussing some of our accomplishments of the previous six years and so ideas about the future of the AAHC.

.05 Accomplishments

Over and above serving as a place for historians, librarians, archivists, and many others to share ideas about the role of technology in higher education, the AAHC has had other accomplishments. First is the Journal of the Association for History and Computing (JAHC). Through the amazing efforts of Jeffrey Barlow, the Executive Editor, as well as everyone else who works on the Editorial Board this journal has developed from an interesting idea in 1998, a purely online peer-review journal, to a significant publication. It was only the second electronic journal to be indexed by America History and Life and Historical Abstracts. The journal has included articles on a wide variety of topics as well as ongoing features that include book and software reviews and current awareness columns dealing with electronic resources and electronic journals. Now in its sixth volume, the journal continues to grow in readership allowing the AAHC to more effectively participate in the ongoing discussion of the future of the historical profession.

JAHC was the site for the presentation of the AAHC's next major accomplishment. This was the proposed guidelines for the inclusion of digital scholarship in the tenure and promotion process. This document included ideas for both the individual faculty member and for the institution to help both avoid surprises when it comes to tenure decisions. One of the most apparent needs was for the issue of digital scholarship to be addressed formally. If it is ambiguous, as it is in most places, then there can often be misunderstandings between an untenured faculty member, the department tenure committee, the college tenure committee and the provost's or president's office. Since each has a role in a tenure decision, it is, in the opinion of the AAHC's Executive Committee, that each level should be working with the same criteria. The guidelines that were put forward recommended ways to accomplish this.

The third accomplishment that I would like to mention here is the summer workshop that we conducted in conjunction with the International Center for Computer Enhanced Learning at Wake Forest University in July of 2000. This was a very production program in which over thirty historians were introduced to a wide variety of issues and options relating to the use of technology in the classroom. The AAHC should make further summer programs a priority in the future.

.06 The Future

Where should the AAHC go from here? The organization is really at a crossroads. At the first meetings, much of the conversation dealt with the grand possibilities that technology could bring as well as joy of being amongst others who also thought this was interesting as important. The sense among much of the academy has changed since then. With the massive growth in distance education and asynchronous instruction, technology is now firmly integrated into colleges and universities plans for instruction. These issues have moved beyond the early adopters and have moved into the mainstream. The AAHC has got to find a way to follow. In many ways the organization has fulfilled its initial goals of spreading the word and providing a format for discussion and dissemination of new ideas. It now needs to further define its role with both the historical profession and the larger field of higher education.

In my opinion the following are how this could be accomplished.

  1. We must continue to serve both those just beginning to work with technology as well as the very advanced users. Create an environment where both are welcome and can learn from each other.
  2. We should create an ongoing workshop series with partners to help historians make the transition into this new environment and the new environments that will come in the future.
  3. We need to look for ways to work with our peers in other disciplines to find linkages in our work. Examples of some possible partners are Educause, Alliance for Computers and Writing, and Computing Across the Humanities to just name a few.
  4. The AAHC must always be open to new ideas, technologies and philosophies and never settle for the answers we already have.
  5. We must always question and examine new ideas, technologies, and philosophies for their efficacy. Just because something is new, cool, or "the next big thing" does not mean that it is good.

As I have laid out both the past and a possible future, I hope that the AAHC can continue to serve a necessary role in the ongoing evolution of the historical profession. Technology continues to provide more and more ways of accomplishing the academy's goals for teaching and learning and expanded methods of research and this organization must continue to help examine how these can be used within the profession and promote best practices in every aspect of the profession.


1. This paper was published in Dennis Trinkle, ed, Writing, Teaching, and Researching History in the Electronic Age: Historians and Computers (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1998).

2. For a view of how Open-URL technology has been implemented at one univeristy see Joel Cummings and Ryan Johnson, "The Use and Usability of SFX: Context-Sensitive Reference Linking," Library Hi-Tech Vol 21 No. 1 2003, 70-84.

3. The work on tenure and promotion by members of the AAHC and others has been compiled in Deborah Lynne Anderson ed. Digital Scholarship in the Tenure, Promotion and Review Process (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe 2003).