General Comments

1 general comment

  1. Randall Miller April 10, 2020 at 5:14 pm


    Thank you for the opportunity to read this revealing and rewarding manuscript and to comment on it in an open-review format. I approach my reading of this manuscript as an “outsider” of sorts in that I am not much conversant with the literature about digital history or digital humanities, though I have been involved in digital history projects in various venues and in various formats. That said, the invitation was/is for an open-review process, so the door was/is open for the likes of me.

    My reading of the manuscript impressed me with the deep knowledge on the history of digital history that the authors convey and with their dedication to the “cause” of open-source publication, and the value of digital history as a calling and a discipline (which has somewhat of a crusading aspect to it in tilting against “the profession” and the persistence of the old ways of publishing). The comments of the knowledgeable readers point to much good that the manuscript does in laying out the issues and tracking the history but also to the need for clarification(s) of definitions, emphases in subject interest, and lines of argument.

    But as an outsider and a very interested reader, please let me add a couple brief observations (really suggestions) that might be helpful in further contextualizing the issue and sharpening the focus by expanding the lens. They are:

    The authors acknowledge that the vocabulary of “open access” and “democratization” remains unsettled, is sometimes confusing and contradictory, and demands more precision. Because of that, might it be useful to know what have been the prevailing or most “accepted” definitions of such and by particular interests at defining moments in the history of the digital humanities and digital history, and what are the dominant (can we use that word in discussing “democracy?”) working definitions today? Perhaps the authors might also want to stake out their own working definition(s) of such critical terms. In the case of “democratization,” it is not clear if it refers to the creation, distribution, and/or use of the digital history. Who or what makes anything “democratic” anyway, if there’s no understanding what that means and agreement on what that entails?  Claiming such is not the same as being such, and creator, distributor, and user may have very different ideas about how “democratic” the project or product is or should be. Add funder in there to further complicate the problem of identifying and claiming parentage and purpose.

    The authors spread their history across much intellectual and experiential territory but, from my reading, remain almost wholly focused on the “American” story and practice. The authors do make several references to developments outside the United States. In footnote 11, for example, they acknowledge their limited scope of inquiry, noting that digital humanities and open access operate in different contexts in Europe and the UK; they also reference the Canadian Orlando Project, which suggests there is something to learn from outside the USA; and they also point to the UNESCO call for open-source access, especially for developing countries, which suggests there might be some kind of worldwide standard for creating and making accessible open-source materials. These references are almost asides in the manuscript, and the authors offer no rationale for an almost exclusive American focus. One wonders how, if at all, ideas, interests, and experience elsewhere have informed American thinking, development, and practice. Or ought do so. And vice versa. The authors need not rethink and revise their manuscript to incorporate such matter into it in any significant way in this iteration of their thinking on the subject, but any further consideration ought to have a wider compass. We’re not alone in this effort. That said, for this manuscript, the authors might do more than simply acknowledge that there is a wider world; they might at least tell us why they’re focusing almost wholly and only on the American interest and experience and suggest the implications of doing such.

    Finally, with all the interest in “democratization” and in the American experience, the authors might consider the history and place of community-based digital history – the kind of “bottom-up” and open-source history that has produced many and varied works, from the “virtual exhibit” of a people’s things, stories, places, to the digitization of documents in private hands that otherwise would never be available and “accessible,” to cite two obvious and common examples. By my reading of the manuscript, the concern is with validation by “the profession,” but what of validation by “the people” in their various communities in selecting, creating, and supporting projects emanating from their own interests, and who decides what counts in that? How do we in “the profession” value such work, and how do we (even dare we) claim any authority and “right” to do so? And what roles, if any, do we, or might we, have in collaborating in such people’s projects democratically? This question also relates to the reward systems in university life, where collaborating with non-professionals and working outside the normal channels of “publication” and recognition not only count for little but might even count against you. On the flip side, some schools are encouraging “community-based scholarship,” so there is opportunity for democratic engagement and collaboration that will bring recognition and reward at one’s institution and encourage more such work.

    Again, this manuscript is timely and telling. For the “outsiders” like me it will be an eye-opener to the complexity of the issues attending open-source “digital history” and the sophistication of the arguments about it. It’s also a very readable manuscript. That’s worth a lot. There won’t be much democratization of digital or any history if we couch it in a language that excludes rather than reveals. The authors make their work accessible and thus knowable, which, after all, is the point of it all.

    Randall M. Miller, Saint Joseph’s University


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