Digital Clio


Historical Scholarship in the Digital Age

Open Source Scholarship, and Why History Should Be Open Source

Open Access logoIn June 2006 the late Roy Rosenzweig published an article entitled “Can History be Open Source?  Wikipedia and the Future of the Past” in the Journal of American History.  Open source models like Wikipedia, Rosenzweig suggests, might offer alternatives to the historian’s highly individualistic and possessive craft.  The triumph of Wikipedia indicates the thirst for free and accessible information people have. The methods and approaches that have characterized Wikipedia’s success raises questions about how we produce, share, and debate scholarly work.

Open source in the technical sense means offering software and code available for free, allowing users to explore, extend, debug, or tweak in a highly collaborative atmosphere (open access refers to the principle of making research freely available; for my purposes I tend to think of the two together and often refer to them interchangeably – for instance, offering the raw XML of a transcribed newspaper article on my digital history project is both open source and open access by providing access to my research and access to the data and encoding behind documents).  Open source began with Richard Stallman, who voiced the idea of making computer code freely available for all to use and edit as long as they shared changes to the software.  In his wake came Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, and Brian Behlendorf, the developer of the free web server package Apache.  More below the jump.

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Filed under: Academia, Research, Scholarship, , ,

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 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. Read the rest of this entry »

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