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Historical Scholarship in the Digital Age

Print is Not Dead, but Reading and Knowledge Dissemination are Changing

After my recent reading of Jeff Gomez’s new book Print is Dead: Books in our Digital Age, I began thinking about print media.  Print is not dead, but it is fading as the preferred medium for reading. The world today, as Jeff Gomez points out in his book, is increasingly digital with hundreds of millions of people electronically linked.  Electronic media appears to have surpassed print media as the primary means of recording and disseminating information and entertainment.  Many, perhaps most, people read their news, get their information, communicate, share, take notes, and listen to music digitally. With more engagement and interaction with reading in a digital form, it becomes necessary to reconsider the book and its paramount place in historical scholarship.  As the nature of reading changes from linear and page turning books to circular interlinked digital literature, the form or forum for producing and distributing words and literary content must also change so that people will read and share new historical discoveries, understanding, and knowledge.

Books, according to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, “are the last bastion of analog.” In a primarily digital world, why then do print publications remain the ideal for disseminating historical understanding?  Historians research and write to have their work read and discussed, not just amongst their colleagues, but for the interested public as well. The digital realm can reach far beyond that interested public who might pass over a book in a bookstore, if a bookstore will carry a nuanced historical monograph in the first place. When considering that libraries worldwide only purchase roughly 200 copies of a book, it seems clear that access to and reading of that research and writing is inhibited. Logically then, in print form, historical work is not read widely. As Gomez suggests on his blog, “As a writer you can only hope that people read, or think critically, about your work. With a physical book, you know if they bought it but not if they read it (not mention whether or not it’s being discussed).”

Conversely, a study produced digitally and available on the World Wide Web to hundreds of millions of linked people will have a wider readership and probably a higher level of discussion amongst all readers. In his article entitled, “The Future of Reading,” Steven Levy mentions that reading online becomes a community activity. Since people online constantly interact with one another and create communities digitally, the web of readership can grow exponentially. For instance, say someone reads and thoroughly enjoys a print book and proceeds to inform their online community about said book, the response would likely be little more than “sounds interesting, I might go try to find it at the bookstore or library, if I have time.” Whereas if that work was available online and the initial reader provided a link to the work, those same community members would probably link immediately to the work and begin reading through it to see if it also interested them. The point here is that if more people are reading electronically online, it seems rational for scholars and experts to put their work in digital form as to reach and conceivably inform a larger percentage of the population.

With more people reading electronically, fewer nuanced and field-specific works of print scholarship make it to publication because they have little financial incentive for book publishers. Relating this dilemma to the historical profession, Patrick Manning asserts, “research is currently the key to employment and tenure, and research is defined as a field-specific monograph—such as those of the Gutenberg-e project. Reading these books highlights the fact that now, as before, the function of the first book in history—along with the formal PhD training undergirding it—is more to gain entry to the profession than to move the profession ahead.” If there is a hiccup in publishing and not as many monographs for recent PhD’s achieve publication, then it seems reasonable to go digital.

The problem with going digital with scholarship arises because there are no articulated or defined standards or rewards. Therefore, little incentive currently exists for historians, graduate students, recent PhDs, or full professors, to pursue digital history. A need has arisen for peer-review standards, for digital editing, for digital work to count towards tenure and promotion, for new approaches to writing, and for new methodologies that accompany historical digital scholarship. Robert Darnton, in his article “The New Age of the Book,” states, “Scholars should set standards. They should maintain quality control in the academic world, and they can do so by attacking the crisis I have described at two points: the point where beginners turn dissertations into books and the point where veterans experiment with new kinds of scholarship.” In other words, the historical profession must come to an agreement on accepting digital scholarship for the academy in the same definition as the published monograph currently.

Historians should consider taking a more proactive approach to changes in the increasingly digital world. Most of the world’s expertise, historical and in other fields, still resides in books, but if younger generations are reading fewer and fewer books, it is the experts and up and coming scholars who need to drive the digital production of scholarship. Otherwise, future generations may not understand the complexities and intricacies of understanding the past. They will not be attentive to the historical processes that underlay their world and they will not be as well equipped to analyze and interpret human interactions and events. Rather, they will see history, even more so than now, as chronology and tidbits of information.

Digital historical scholarship promotes an electronic form that will reach wider audiences and provide new interpretations and new ways of reading history for generation download, generation upload, and subsequent generations of digital natives. Interactive and engaging, digital history can provide something to a reader unique from print publication: new ways to visualize and literally explore history. Digital tools, can allow historians to include interactive maps, textual analysis with visual word clouds, timelines and animation, and hyperlinks that will hold a reader’s attention and truly connect them with history. As my colleague Jason has suggested, “Interactivity can be a useful learning tool for students to promote more historically-minded thinking. Rather than present information through text and lectures, students can explore material—whether through space with Google Earth or interactive maps, through time with timelines, or draw their own conclusions by viewing the primary sources historians use in constructing their narratives.”

The historical profession must keep up in order to inform and interact with the digital natives of younger and coming generations. Digital history advances the pursuit of understanding the past in a technologically changing realm and has the ability to speak to this new generation of readers. While print is not dead and may never completely die, the way people read is changing and is increasingly electronic and if historians want people to continue understanding history, as well as to read and discuss their scholarship, it seems pertinent to move scholarship into the digital realm and to do so quickly.

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Filed under: Books, Scholarship, Technology, Web, , , , ,

One Response

  1. wodek says:

    Hi,

    I’m a Toronto-based tv producer. Given the above you should be interested in this tv discussion I’ve produced a few days ago about future of education in 2050. In other words when all the stakeholders – as the phrase goes — will consist of digital natives. I’m interested in how history might be taught in the future.

    Herev is the link to the program:

    http://www.tvo.org/TVO/WebObjects/TVO.woa?video?TAWSP_Dbt_20080918_779329_0

    And my email is wszemberg@tvo.org

    Wodek Szemberg
    http://www.tvo.prg/the agenda

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