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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April 19, 2020 at 5:48 pm
This is a good point. But as an editor who remains troubled by the “free labor” issues, I want to point to an important distinction. In any published scholarly article there are two levels of value-added labor. First is the uncompensated work of peer reviewers–like all of you–that represent the basic moral economy of scholarly exchange. But once an article has been through that process, before it can appear as published scholarship it undergoes another value-added process. It has to be fact-checked; edited for infelicitous and/or confusing prose; copy-edited for errors; typeset; proofread; corrected; and “published.” None of this is frictionless; none of it happens automatically; and all of it requires some level of paid labor. Any discussion of “open access” must take account of this, and not pretend that once we have done what we are doing here the article will magically appear on-line without any “editorial” work being done on it.
See in context
April 19, 2020 at 5:43 pm
As AHR editor, I am glad to see this comment. Thanks, Jordan.
April 10, 2020 at 7:20 pm
One aspect of democratization that the authors may want to consider is the possible conflict between democratizing the producers of history and the consumers, as they aren’t always the same and sometimes contradictory.
April 10, 2020 at 5:14 pm
April 9, 2020 at 7:23 pm
I’m happy to see Leon’s article cited here but I’d echo calls for some of the history that she outlines to be integrated earlier in the article.
April 9, 2020 at 7:20 pm
I think another element the authors might consider here is the flirtation with alternative means of publication through venues such as blogging and journal platforms that experimented with “post-publication” peer review.
April 9, 2020 at 7:06 pm
I agree here with Trevor – and I would recommend taking a look at some of the early grants and projects associated with CHNM in the 90s. Many of these are available in the RRCHNM 20th Anniversary archive and I think will be helpful in fleshing out the focus on producing materials for a range of audiences. https://20.rrchnm.org/
April 9, 2020 at 5:16 pm
[If much early work in digital history was grounded in the radical democratic vision of the 1960s and 1970s, much of the contemporary push for digitization of scholarship and pedagogy borrows equally from neoliberal mania for “disruption” and libertarian notions of techno-futurism.]
Much of the first 1/3rd of the essay is about what the term has meant to the historical profession and the work it did in the early years of digital history. But it drops out from the middle third of the essay. I think we need a discussion of how ideas of democracy evolved (generally, not just as democracy related to DH) from the heyday of the New Left to now, and especially from the “end of history” cloud of the late-90s/early-2000s to now.
April 9, 2020 at 4:52 pm
One can access scans of the printed volumes of the DHRC freely through the editors’ institutional home, UW-Madison(http://digicoll.library.wisc.edu/cgi-bin/History/History-idx?type=browse&scope=History.CSAC) as well. This is a very different experience, though, from using the Rotunda edition.
April 9, 2020 at 4:41 pm
I’m struck by the academic elite (all R1) origins of this ‘democratic’ thinking. Maybe some analysis of how it was, in some way, a mark of privilege to be able to do this kind of work in the late-1990s and early aughts. Perhaps that’s still true.
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