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Author: Deborah Lines Anderson
Title: Benchmarks: A JAHC Guest Editorial
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
April 2001

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Source: Benchmarks: A JAHC Guest Editorial
Deborah Lines Anderson

vol. 4, no. 1, April 2001
Article Type: Editorial

Benchmarks: A JAHC Guest Editorial

Deborah Lines Andersen

An advertisement in the November 30, 2000 issue of the New York Review of Books [1] announces American Places: Encounters with History. [2] Each chapter presents "America's leading historians [who] talk about the sites where the past comes alive for them." Among the places discussed are the Grand Canyon, the F.D.R. Memorial, the Boston Commons, the Gettysburg battlefield, and Cyberspace—all predictable but the last. Cyberspace?

In fact, Cyberspace is predictable if one recognizes the historian, Edward L. Ayers, the winner of the 2001 AAHC award for best multimedia history product—Valley of the Shadow. [3] Ayers' Cyberspace inclusion in an edited volume on history is a milestone in historical writing. It gives credence and weight to the notion that historians are moving beyond traditional forms of historical scholarship and presentation to more fluid and multimedia styles of "digital history" in their teaching and research. Ayers' work, both in American Places and in Valley of the Shadow, is more than just a milestone. It is a benchmark for others who wish to emulate and then move beyond what he has done.

The word "benchmark" has a rich history. According to the Oxford English Dictionary [4] it started out in 1842 as "in surveying, fixed points left on a line of survey for reference at a future time, consisting of cuts in trees, [or] pegs driven into the ground." The permanence of trees or pegs in the ground is a bit questionable. Fortunately, the 1961 edition of the OED states that a benchmark is "a surveyor's mark cut in some durable material, as a rock, wall, gate-pillar, face of a building, etc. to indicate the starting, closing, or any suitable intermediate point in a line of levels for the determination of altitudes over the face of a country." Not only does this definition address the issue of permanence, but it also broadens the use of benchmarks to whole countries. "It consists of a series of wedge-shaped incisures, in the form of the ‘broad-arrow' with a horizontal bar through its apex, thus _. When the spot is below sea-level, as in mining surveys, the mark is inverted."

The obvious question for linguists is why this is a benchmark. The answer is that an angle iron used to be inserted in the space of the horizontal bar, forming "a temporary bracket or bench for the support of the levelling-staff, which can thus be placed on absolutely the same base on any subsequent occasion". [5] This, then, is the original use of the word "benchmark"—grounded in surveying, mine work, and tidal observations.

Something happened to the word over time. A benchmark came to mean, by 1884, "a point of reference; a criterion, touchstone." [6] In 1957 R.K.Merton considered benchmarks to be "standards by which students compare their ability and performance." [7] By 2000 the American Heritage Dictionary [8] defined the noun as "a standard by which something can be measured or judged" and the verb, "to measure (a rival's product) according to specified standards in order to compare it with and improve one's own product."

This writer hopes that individuals who read this journal, and who aspire to meet or exceed the standards set by the AAHC award winners for digital media, article, and book will not see themselves as rivals, but as individuals who wish to improve the universal standards for digital history. Along with Ayers' work, these standards include those for work that will be used for teaching, such as J. Mills Kelly's article, "For Better or Worse? The Marriage of the Web and Classroom" [9] which looks at the effect that hypermedia has on undergraduate history student learning. The standards also include texts that are benchmarks for mongraphs in digital history. Patricia Kelly Hall, Robert McCaa, and Gunnar Thorvaldsen's edited volume, Handbook of International Historical Microdata for Population [10] received one of the two 2001 AAHC awards for exemplary monographs in the field. The award also went to Agatha C. Hughes and Thomas P. Hughes for their edited volume, Systems, Experts, and Computers: A Systems Approach in Management and Engineering, World Ward II and After. [11]

Furthermore, in light of the article on tenure, promotion and review in this issue of the JAHC, [12] there is much work that needs to be done, not only to continue to improve the quality of digital history in teaching and research, but also to promote standards in the field that will allow scholars to be recognized for their digital work. High quality digital history is no longer a future goal. The AAHC award winners show that. The next step for historians is to embrace standards that will support scholars who wish to work in innovative, nontraditional media, and who wish to be credited for their work in the tenure, promotion and review process.

The benchmarking process is one of setting standards that can be used throughout a culture to measure productivity and innovation, and give credit where it is due. Digital history is fast becoming a collaborative process in which multiple researchers and teachers come together to create multimedia interpretations of events. In his address at the 2001 American Association of History and Computing conference (February 2, 2001; Indianapolis, Indiana), Ed Ayers noted that the Valley of the Shadow was a collaborative effort—not his alone. As historians draw a wider and wider circle around the materials that they use, and the software that makes multimedia possible, we might expect that standards for digital history will have to look at collaborative efforts. Architectural design, geographic information systems, music, art, dance, and computer simulation all have the potential to inform the historical process for students and researchers. To produce the highest quality materials historians will necessarily have to look beyond the field of history to these other disciplines. Traditional historians, who have been used to working alone, will find themselves working more like scientists and social scientists who have usually participated in collaborative efforts. This will be a cultural shift—a sea change—for the field of history, and one that will require new measures, new standards, and great attention to work that represents the benchmarks, the best, of the work in the field.


1. New York Review of Books Vol. 47, page19; November 30, 2000.

2. William E. Leuchtenburg, ed., American Places: Encounters with History. Oxford University Press, 2000.

3. "The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War," 2001. The web version can be found at:

4. "Bench mark," Oxford English Dictionary , Supplement ,1972, p. 241.

5. "Bench mark," Oxford English Dictionary, 1961, p. 796.

6. "Bench mark," Oxford English Dictionary , Supplement ,1972, p. 241.

7. R.K. Merton, Student-Physician III, 195, 1957 as quoted in "Bench mark," Oxford English Dictionary, Supplement, 1972, p. 241.

8. "Benchmark," American Heritage Dictionary , 4th ed., 2000.

9. J. Mills Kelly, "For Better or Worse? The Marriage of the Web and Classroom"Vol. 3, number 2, August 2000.

10. Patricia Kelly Hall, Robert McCaa, and Gunnar Thorvaldsen, eds. Handbook of International Historical Microdata for Population Research . A Project of the International Microdata Access Group. Minneapolis Population Center: Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2000. xiv, 398 pp. ISBN: 0-9703410-0-8

11. Agatha C. Hughes and Thomas P. Hughes, eds. Systems, Experts, and Computers: A Systems Approach in Management and Engineering, World War II and After. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2000. 513 pp. ISBN 0-262-08285-3

12. Andersen, Deborah Lines and Dennis A. Trinkle, "One or Two is not a Problem" Technology in the Tenure, Promotion, and Review Process. A Survey of Current Practices in U.S. History Departments.