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Author: Deborah Lines Andersen
Title: Transformations
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
August 2004

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Source: Transformations
Deborah Lines Andersen

vol. 7, no. 2, August 2004
Article Type: Benchmark


Deborah Lines Andersen

August 2004

Benchmark: a standard by which something can be measured or judged.  [1]

Changing the Way Historians Do Business

It is no secret that academic historians are slowly changing the way that they do businessboth in their research and in their teaching. The 2004 meeting of the American Association for History and Computing in conjunction with the 118th annual meeting of the American Historical Association (Washington, DC, January 8 through 11) was a sure indicator than there is digital movement afoot.

Presentation titles of just some of the papers in the AAHC sessions give one a sense of this movement.

  • Creating Lesson Plans for the Digital World (Charles Ford, Norfolk State University)
  • Teaching Web Design to Undergraduate History Majors (Jeffrey Littlejohn, Norfolk State University)
  • The Technology of Conservation Treatment: Using High-Resolution X-Ray to Reveal the Past (Ellen Cunningham-Kruppa, University of Texas at Austin)
  • Providing User Services for Electronic Records (Margaret O. Adams, National Archives and Records Administration)
  • A Practical Guide to Doing Historical Research in Our Internet World (Mary Chalmers, Butler University)
  • Exploring Book History in the Digital World: Collaboration, Exhibition, and Outreach (Jessica Lacher-Feldman, University of Alabama)
  • Digital Scholarship: 'Doing History' with Technology (Ivan Winsboro, Florida Gulf Coast University)
  • Envisioning a GIS-Based Master's Degree Program in History (J.B. Ownes and Laura Woodworth-Ney, Idaho State University)

Of course, it is not so very surprising that the American Association for History and Computing should have presentations that deal with history and computing. A more unusual occurrence was a number of presentations in the regular American Historical Association program that also dealt with digital scholarship.  [2] In particular, the AHA presented a two-day workshop entitled, Entering the Second Stage of Online History Scholarship. This session was a joint project of the AHA,  [3] the American Council of Learned Societies' History e-Book Project,  [4] Columbia University Press,  [5] and the History Cooperative.  [6] Session titles for the first day included the following:

  • 'Ceci n'est pas un livre,' but 'This is a history book': Rethinking History Books and Historiography in the Age of Electronic Publication (Gregory Brown, University of Nevada, Las Vegas)
  • When Online Scholarship is More than Just an Article (William G. Thomas, Virginia Center for Digital History, University of Virginia)
  • From Archive to e-Book: Using the Medium to do More (Benjamin G. Kohl, emeritus, Vassar College)
  • Soliciting and Publishing Online Articles and Book Reviews for Electronic Historical Scholarship (Michael Grossberg)
  • Making Digital History Count: Tenure and Academic Rewards (Peter N. Stearns, George Mason University)
  • Breaking Down Walls: Online Scholarship and the History Classroom (David Jaffee, Graduate Center, City University of New York)

On the second day this workshop moved to a series of roundtables for various stakeholders in the digital scholarship arena. Authors were asked to think about how they approach digital issues before and during the writing process. Journal editors were led in

  • A discussion of how one integrates electronic scholarship into the peer review and book review process. How do we establish real review and evaluation methods and criteria for e-history? Can one maintain double blind peer reviewing in the electronic age? How do you balance a review of the scholarship with a review of the use of the medium? Can one create closer ties between the new scholarship of the journal and the history classroom through the online medium?  [7]

These questions are central to the workings of the American Association for History and Computing and to the concerns that academic historians have about working in digital media for research and teaching.

Another workshop asked department chairs to think about how to integrate electronic scholarship into the tenure review process. This session discussed the AHA tenure survey.  [8] A fourth workshop looked at publishers and editors, discussing

  • The problems and prospects of publishing electronic scholarship. How can we identity potential authors and acquire titles for the medium? Do authors of online scholarship require more hand-holding? What has worked, what hasn't in terms of authors' stature, title content, structure of the e-book?  [9]

Finally, technicians and librarians were challenged to discuss,

  • Whether and how we can insure projects as varied as Gutenberg-e, History-e, and the History Cooperative will be able to speak to each other at a technical level, be most useful to users, and satisfy the concerns of librarians who help mediate their access and use. How can we standardize structures of electronic scholarship for reading, citation and statistical reporting? Do we know how these books are being used?  [10]

Another set of presentations specifically addressed the use of technology in teaching and doing research in history. H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online,  [11] sponsored a series of sessions:

  • Session 1: Toward Common Practice: Broadening the Effective Use of Technology in Teaching  [12]
  • Session 2: Aural and Visual Literacy in the Social Science Classroom  [13]
  • Session 3: Significant Web Sites: Today's New Academic Publication Form.  [14]

All of the above examples point to the transformations that are taking place in academic history departments. They serve as a benchmark for the field of history at this point in time. It will be informative to look at the AHA annual program in the coming years in order to tally the number of sessions and individual presentations that specifically address digital issues. It will also be important to look at the changes in the kind of digital scholarship and teaching that the AHA showcases. What will be the critical technologies in the coming years? Will issues of tenure and promotion in a digital environment continue to challenge academic history departments? Will the monograph and paper-published research articles continue to be the media of choice for academic historians?  [15]

Transformational Behaviors

There are transformations on the horizon that will affect the way that academic historians do business. These transformations will come about as a result of the way that information technologies change human behaviorincluding changing the culture of organizations. These transformations specifically deal with time, and collaboration. They will also deal with the cost of, access to, ownership of, and presentation of information in digital formats. Finally, the transformations will also continue to include tenure, promotion, and review in a digital environment.


We appear to have entered an era of technological road rage. People want information and they want it quickly. We have substituted the handwritten letter for email and the result is that students and colleagues expect instant responses to their emails. We send drafts of papers back and forth as email attachments, allowing individuals to work from digital copies and move corrected documents back and forth several times in one day. Editing and peer review for e-journals can move equally quickly and geographic distance has ceased to be an issue in this digital environment. The result is that historians, along with the rest of academe, will find themselves pushed by technologynot only to adopt it but also to move with the speed that it allows.

This speed can be a blessing when one wants to look at a library catalog one thousand miles away, contact a colleague in another state, locate a particular piece of information that can be found on the World Wide Web, or quickly contact all the students in a class about a change of assignment or classroom. It can be a nightmare when one is faced with email logjams after being away for a day or two, or students who send papers as email attachments and want the professor to do the printing. There are also enormous issues surrounding the archiving of digital media for future generations of scholars.  [16] No longer are libraries necessarily providing archival functions for materials. More and more it is the case that libraries provide access to informationusually in digital form. Who will keep that information available for generations to come, especially if that information is created outside the realm of standard publishing venues? It remains to be seen how historians will deal with the blessings and nightmares created by existing and new technologies.


One outcome of digital technologies is that academics are more likely to be involved in collaborative efforts. Humanists, and historians in particular, are notorious for working alone. Technology changes this behavior for two reasons. First, unless one is familiar with technologies that support digital scholarship in teaching and research (e.g., web development tools, PowerPoint, CD-ROM writing, scanning, geographic information system software), there is an absolute need to work with others on developing both skills and products. Second, collaboration is possible because it eliminates geographic distance. Two 17th century French cultural historians who live on opposite sides of the world can now collaborate because of the speed and ease of the Internet. They do not necessarily have to publish their materials in non-paper format but the technology makes their collaboration possible. There are definite choices available. One can choose to be a digital scholar and collaborate in order to produce digital media. One can also choose to be a digital scholar and share files over the World Wide Web. In either case it seems that the ease of sharing will cause a transformation in historians from solo workers to collaborators.

Digital collaboration might also be a nightmare for future historians and biographers alike. Gone are the days of paper correspondence that might be found in a box in a dusty attic. Gone also are the days of one paper copy of a manuscript, carefully edited and corrected in the margins for future generations to read and study. Digital collaboration makes distances shorter but it also eliminates a lot of the grist of the historical scholars mill. There are numerous information policy issues to deal with here.

Access to and Ownership of Information

As noted above, technology changes the access that we have to each other, that students have to faculty, and that everyone has to information, no matter where it geographically resides. Our academic culture thrives on open access to information.

Ownership of information stands in direct contrast to access. Patents and copyright do establish ownership of information, and legislation on trade secrets restricts access. Ownership nonetheless takes other forms for academics. They do research as part of their university or college employment, and then, in a seemingly necessary part of the tenure and promotion culture, give the reports of that research to scholarly journals that peer review it. Journals then sell those research reports, in the form of journal subscriptions, back to university libraries, including the university that helped sponsor the research in the first place.

There is a transformation in the scientific community that is sure to have repercussions for humanists. Rather than pay rising costs for scientific journal publicationspaper or onlineuniversities are rejecting journal publishers and moving to free e-journals, or online journals with fees paid by the author. This open-access movement would circumvent journal publishers entirely.  [17] It raises many questions about scholarly culture, peer review, and the need to continue with the system of research report dissemination as it exists today. Will historians of the future also shift their methods of scholarly publication in the face of rising print costs and in the face of rising cultural changes at academic institutions?

Presentation of Information

All academics, including historians, are also faced with growing choices in relation to how they present materials to their students. The standard, face-to-face classroom can be replaced or augmented by synchronous online classes, asynchronous presentation of materials over the Internet, email and listservs, and software specifically designed for course work such as WebCT or Blackboard.

There is an additional movement afoot to create open-source courseware that will include on-line versions of class rosters, course outlines, assignments, discussion, quizzes, and grade books.  [18] Open-source materials change not only access to information, but also ownership. In this model web materials developed by a faculty member in a particular university are the property of the university. The university makes these materials available to anyone who wants to use them. In this way the faculty member's work is considered work for hire created by an employee of the university. Scholars who are used to believing that they own their class notes and syllabi will need to rethink the nature of their work. This is a cultural transformation brought about by information technology.  [19]

Tenure, Promotion, and Review

Finally, information technology is having a transformational effect on the way colleges and universities think about tenure, promotion, and review. This column has addressed these issues before.  [20] In summary, digital media create complexity. There are more choices and more uncertainties about formats and how those formats will be evaluated. Furthermore, an untenured faculty member must decide how to budget her time and resources in order to be tenured in a department that might not value the products of digital scholarship.

If the above transformations do indeed change the culture of academic history departments then one might also expect to see a transformation in the way that history departments value and evaluate digital scholarship.

Transformation Challenges

These transforming forces lead to a variety of policy considerations for history departments and the agencies that interact with them on a regular basis.

  • Academic libraries face transforming issues in how they will deliver information, especially if they take on even part of the role of creating e-journals in place of commercial journal products.
  • Archival institutions will see more and more demand for indexes, abstracts, and full text documents online. They will also be challenged to create archival mechanisms for electronic documents and the migration techniques that will move documents from one digital format to the next over time.
  • Technology support services will also face the effects of these transformations, finding that they must train and support faculty in a varying and growing set of technology skills.
  • Academic historians will be challenged to decide if they will move their course materials to the webespecially if their institutions decide to move to open course materials. Will this be an item negotiated at time of hire?

In the end, students, universities, and employers of college graduates will find that they are all stakeholders in these transforming processes. As the American Historical Association proceedings for 2004 show, there is a movement afoot to spend time thinking about digital scholarship. Time will tell how pervasive these transformations will be.


1. Benchmark, American Heritage Dictionary, 4th ed., 2000.

2. American Historical Association. Program of the 118th Annual Meeting. January 8-11, 2004, Washington, DC.

3. See the American Historical Association at

4. See the American Council of Learned Societies' History e-Book Project at

5. See Columbia University Press at

6. See the History Cooperative at

7. AHA. Program, p. 76.

8. AHA. Program, p. 76.

9. AHA. Program, p. 76.

10. AHA. Program, p. 77. See the Gutenberg-e at

11. See H-Net at

12. AHA. Program, p. 96.

13. AHA. Program, p. 119.

14. AHA. Program, p. 168.

15. See Leigh Estabrook and Bijan Warner. 2003. The Book as the "Gold Standard" for Promotion and Tenure in the Humanistic Disciplines: A Report to Provosts and Arts and Sciences Deans in CIC Universities. 2003. for a discussion of the paper standard that continues to exist at a variety of universities.

16. Scott Carlson. The Uncertain Fate of Scholarly Artifacts in a Digital Age, Chronicle of Higher Education, January 30, 2004, pp. A25-A27.

17. See Lila Guterman. The Promise and Period of 'Open Access,' Chronicle of Higher Education, January 30, 2004, pp. A10-A12, A14 for a discussion of a possible shift from commercial to free-subscription journal publication.

18. Andrea L. Foster. 4 Universities Join to Create Open-Source Software for Professors to Manage Courses, Chronicle of Higher Education, January 30, 2004, p. A28. See for MIT's OpenCourseWare. In particular see for history courses in this open-source mode at MIT.

19. See Charles M. Vest. Why MIT Decided to Give Away All Its Course Materials via the Internet, Chronicle of Higher Education, January 30, 2004, pp. B20-B21. Charles M. Vest is the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Also see the Chronicle Review: Information Technology, January 30, 2004 (section B of the Chronicle of Higher Education) for a variety of articles that deal with challenges brought about by information technology.

20. Deborah Lines Andersen. Benchmarks: Academic Historians Revisited, Journal of the Association for History and Computing VI(2) September 2003