What should historical research look like in an age of digital collaboration?

Historical research, as most of us know, has traditionally been a solitary practice. Even in this postmodern age of killa’ collabs and remixes with co-authors named feat., historians, by and large, are still a lonely bunch of recluses. Admittedly, one’s choice of subject has a lot to do with how crowded your subfield is. Unfortunately (or not?), I’ve rarely been in a position where I knew somebody else who was actively researching the same war as me (War of the Spanish Succession) and might want to look at the same sources. John Stapleton is the closest example from my grad school days, and he focuses on the war before “mine,” so we’ve given each other feedback and pointed each other to various sources from “our” respective wars over the years. In general, though, it’s been kinda lonely out here on the plains.

But the times they are a-changin’ and the prairie turf is being transformed into suburban subdivisions. The question is whether all these houses will follow a similar aesthetic, whether their architecture will reference each other, or whether the only communication between neighbors will consist of vague nods at the grocery store and heated arguments over how far their property line extends. (Thus far, subdivisions are still segregated into ethnic neighborhoods.)

If we look beyond the discipline of History, we’re told that it’s an age of collaboration (CEOs say they want their new employees to work effectively in teams) as well as the age of information overload (I believe that – my main Devonthink database has grown to 104,000 documents and 95 million words of text). Even the other kind of doctors are having a rethink. Now this whole Internet thing allows like-minded individuals to communicate and commiserate across the planet, and not just with their neighbor next door. “Global village” and all that. As a result, even historians have figured out that we can now find out if we’re alone in the universe or not – I assume everybody has Google Alerts set for their name and publication titles? This academic version of Google Street View certainly has certainly expanded my worldview. My one semi-regret is that, thanks to online dissertations, conference proceedings and even blogs, I now find out I was in the archives 10-15 years too early, and there are currently a bunch of people both American and Euro looking into the period – and by “bunch” I mean maybe 6-12. Even more reasons for making connections. Hmmm, someone should create a blog that allows EMEMH scholars to communicate with each other…

So how should historical research work in this interconnected digital age, in this global, digital village? In an age when the moderately-well-heeled scholar can accumulate scans of thousands of rare books and hundreds of archival volumes? The combination of collaboration and digitization has opened up a spectrum of possibilities, and it’s up to us to decide which are worth exploring. Here are some possibilities I see, stretching along a spectrum from sharing general ideas to swapping concrete primary sources (Roy Rosenzweig undoubtedly predicted all this twenty years ago):

  • Topic Sharing. The way it’s traditionally been done, in grad school, or if people meet up in the archives or at a conference or on fellowship. You let people know the specific topics you’re working on, and let it progress from there: “Oh, you’re working on X. Do you know about …? Have you checked out Y? You should really look at Z.” This has two advantages: first, it allows participants to keep the details of their research close to the vest, and more fruitfully, it allows the historiography to develop into a conversation rather than separate ships passing each other in the night – it’s such a waste when something gets published that really should have looked at X, Y or Z, but nobody suggested it. Or, perhaps peers studying the same period/place offered comment, but other potential-peers studying the same theme didn’t (or vice versa). Sharing subjects also forces people to acknowledge that they might not be the only person writing on topic X, and encourage them to consider whether they might want to divvy up topics rather than writing in ignorance of what others will be publishing, or already have written. Say, hypothetically, when one thinks they want to write a chapter about how the French viewed battle in the War of the Spanish Succession, and then discover that another scholar has already written about a thousand pages on the subject. So letting others know what you’re working on would be a start: type of history, subject (sieges? battles? operations? logistics?…), type of study (campaign narrative? commander biography? comparison of two different theaters?…), sides/countries (including languages of sources being used), and so on.
  • Feedback and advice. This requires longer and more sustained interaction, but is far more useful for all involved. I’m not convinced by the latest bestseller claiming that the crowd is always right, but crowdsourcing certainly gives a scholar a sense of how his/her ideas are being received, and what ideas a potential audience might like to read about in the first place.
  • Research assistance. Here, I would suggest, is where most historians are still living in the stone age, or more accurately, are on the cusp between the paper and digital ages. Most of our precious historical documents survive entombed within a single piece of paper(s), in an archive that may require significant costs and time to access. Depending on a government’s view of cultural patrimony and the opportunity for a marketable product, a subset of those documents have been transferred to the digital realm. But not many. This is where many historians need help, a topic which we’ve discussed many times before (as with this thread, which prompted the present post), and where collaboration and digitization offer potential solutions to the inaccessibility of so many primary sources.
    But there is a rather important catch: copyright. Archives and libraries (and publishers, of course) claim copyright over the documents under their care, and they frown upon the idea that information just wants to be free (ask Aaron Swartz):
    CAC copyright slipSo this puts a bit of a kink in attempts to create a Napster-style primary source swap meet – though I am getting a little excited just imagining a primary-source orgy like Napster was back in the day.
    Fortunately there are steps short ofscofflawery. Most of these revolve around the idea of improving the ‘finding aids’ historians use to target particular documents within the millions of possibilities. These range in scale from helping others plan a strategic bombing campaign, to serving as forward observer for a surgical strike:

    • A wish list of specific volumes/documents that somebody would like to look at. This could be as simple as having somebody who has the document(s) just check to see what it discusses, whether it’s worth consulting. This, of course, requires a bit more time and effort than simply sharing the PDF.
    • Or it might mean providing some metadata on the documents in a given volume. For example, I discovered in the archives that if the Blenheim Papers catalog says that Salisch’s letters to Marlborough in volume XYZ cover the period 1702-1711, and I’m studying the siege of Douai in 1710, it is a waste of one of my limited daily requests to discover that Salisch’s letters include one dated 1702, one from 1711, and the rest all on 1708. The ability to pinpoint specific documents would in itself be a boon: many archives have indexes and catalogs and inventories that give almost no idea of the individual documents. Not only would it save time, but it might also save money if you want to order copies of just a few documents rather than an entire volume.
    • Or, such assistance could be as involved as transcribing the meaty bits of a document. Useful for full text, though purists might harbor a lingering doubt about the fidelity of the transcription.
    • Or, it might mean running queries for others based off of your own database. I did that for a fellow scholar once, and if you’ve got something like Devonthink (or at least lots of full-text sources), it’s pretty easy and painless. Though if there are too many results, that starts to look a bit like doing someone else’s research for them.

Of course with all of these options, you have to worry about thunder being stolen, about trusting someone else to find what you are looking for, etc., etc. And there probably isn’t a good way to assuage that concern except through trust that develops over time. And trust is based on a sense of fairness: Andy’s questions about how to create a system of calculating non-monetary exchanges have bedeviled barter systems for a long time, I think.

As usual, I don’t have a clear answer. Simple sharing of documents is undoubtedly the easiest solution (cheapest, quickest, fewest number of eyes between the original source and your interpretation), but I don’t have a system for the mechanics. Nor am I clear on the ethical issues of massive sharing of sources – is “My thanks to X for this source” in a footnote enough? If some documents are acquired with grant funds, can they be freely given away? And the list goes on…

Thoughts?

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2 responses to “What should historical research look like in an age of digital collaboration?”

  1. Andrew Tumath says :

    It shames me to say it, but I do feel unreasonably ‘protective’ of the primary sources that I’ve put the time and money into locating, visiting, and transcribing.

    If we start small, I think that the idea of a database of volume contents (as described in bullet point 2 of 4) could get some support. It seems that there’s not an upload option for these posts, but I’ve got a few files which give the following details for all documents in any given volume: date, from, to, volume/book, page, location of sender, alternative source (if applicable). I could send these out or else make them available on some sort of public workspace (reciprocation encouraged).

    The British Library and The National Archives do a good job of breaking down their volumes with document-by-document details, but I guess that’s not news to anyone reading this. Such details should be relatively easy to put into a shared DB. If we could come up with a satisfactory format, I’d be happy to put in a few hours and get some volumes catalogued.

    • jostwald says :

      Nothing to be embarrassed about – it does require effort & money. And everybody feels protective.
      I could probably put together something similar from my database as well. It might make sense to start by focusing on those volumes that don’t have much information (e.g. some of the Add MSS).
      But I’m not sure when I’ll be able to get around to setting it up – probably won’t be (at least) till I get back from the French archives in late June. In the next week, I’ve got to develop an assessment strategy for my department, grade finals, prep for the research trip, make final revisions to my West Point ipad chapter, and come up with a topic for a November conference (something about the French and battle in the Spanish Succession). After a month in the Parisian archives, in late-June/July I’ve got to finish up two very late book reviews, write my November conference paper, write a book chapter for a collection I’m co-editing (siege capitulations), and continue to chip away at the battle book. Then August I’ll be busy prepping for my new Crusades course, putting together my materials for promotion, implementing the assessment strategy, etc.

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