The readings for this week highlight a number of key issues that I mentioned in last week’s post. Of these issues, economic viability in the creating and sustaining digital history archives and websites and the acceptance of digital history websites by scholars created by those both in and out of the profession, I maintain will continue to be the most prominent issues that historians in this first generation of digitizing sources will face.
Of course, without repeating too much of what I said last week, the economic issue is two-fold. First, the amount of time and money that has to be set into a large scale project such as JSTOR has ensured that high subscription rates will be maintained to recoup and sustain the project. Second, the funding for such projects that in the end will guarantee open and free access to the digitized materials would, I imagine, hold little attraction for investors. Historians are put in a compromising situation, by spending their own time and money on these projects they can truly create something that adds scholarly value and provides access to an endless amount of materials, yet the only compensation for which is credit, unfortunately that doesn’t always pay the bills. Additionally, this can lead into the second issue, that credit attributed to those who create digital projects is not equivalent to the same historian advancing the same ideas entailed in the digital project as he could have in a traditional manuscript.
Employment in the field, as far as university scholars are concerned, continue to rely on the traditional method of published work. Questions of how digital studies compare to published manuscripts threaten the advancement of digital projects. This in short, due to the amount of time researching and writing and the time it takes to create a digital history study leads to conflict in the creators’ schedule. When the profession insists upon published works, historians are left to focus on digital projects that are narrowly defined to a small group or area of people. If the scope of the project is large, one that focuses on national events or trends of people in regions of the United States, it may lead to delays in completion of the project. This trend must be addressed to ensure that digital history projects have scholars full commitment. In turn we will find that those commitments lead to projects that are exceptional, provide information from a variety of sources and offer unique interpretations of the areas in which they encompass.
While everyone would benefit from digitized archives, books, and letters and the availability of primary sources right off hand, the capital investment would unfortunately outweigh the money, if any, that would have to be taken in from the final product. Of course if subscription fees are deemed necessary, in which almost all cases are, accessibility to archives and the like is greatly lowered. Digital historians are put in a precarious position in that they would have to be willing to devote their time and resources with the potential of not getting monetary compensation for their work. Of course we would depend on those whose passion for history fuels this effort, yet in a lot of cases those people are amateur historians, whose work would have some concerned with the authenticity or lack of investigation that professionals pride themselves on. The availability of a number of open source programs put digital history in the hands of the masses. Of course, this has caused some ripples in the professional world, just as sites like Wikipedia have caused a stir and in many cases are not to be used in a classroom setting. But historians can take note of attempts made by the Wikimedia foundation to establish uniformity in the contributions made to Wikipedia. An increasing reliance on cited works and more importantly notations that indicate conjecture and question sources engage the reader in active rather than passive reading. It is up to the reader to disseminate what has been written. Just as authors have written books based on a single sentence or even a paragraphs from C. Vann Woodward’s Origins of the South many interpretations can come from different people. Professional historians need to oversee these digital history projects, to maintain professionalism and adherence to academic standards. It is a balance that must be struck and standards established to confirm that digital history is useful, acceptable, and acknowledged by amateurs and professionals alike.