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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October 15, 2020 at 1:18 pm
The authors will want to review the administrative history of the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at UNL. Professor William G. Thomass III was an important hire due to the pioneering efforts made at UVA, however the cdrh was established before his arrival. See here https://unlcms.unl.edu/cas/center-for-digital-research-in-the-humanities/about/creatingcdrh
See in context
October 1, 2020 at 2:59 pm
This paragraph, especially drives home the possibilities of digital history. The paragraph that follows it is equally important, as it demonstrates that the authors have seriously considered how structural inequalities can and have shaped and constrained digital history.
October 1, 2020 at 2:52 pm
I think the fact that the authors were willing to seriously consider and interrogate the production of this article makes for a more compelling piece. I don’t think we can have conversations about digital platforms and open-access work without also discussing what kind of work goes into creating scholarship for a “larger publishing ecosystem.” For me, it’s here that the article moves beyond tracing the rise of digital history and toward making a strong, important argument for why we must work to redefine what qualifies as academic labor.
October 1, 2020 at 2:45 pm
I like when writers are up front about what they mean to accomplish in an article, and I think this one has some worthy, important goals. The article’s focus on not only providing a solid, state-of-the-field analysis but also how we value this kind of work and how we should value it is powerful and indeed, necessary.
September 28, 2020 at 4:53 pm
For a reader who works outside the world of digital history, the authors have located (what seemed to me) an opaque and vague concept–digital history–within a clear and concrete material history. By offering a political, institutional, and economic narrative of the rise, challenges, limits, and possibilities of digital history, the authors have proven the democratic uses of historical work. I now feel equipped to engage in debates and projects that engage digital history–debates and projects I had previously avoided.
In this way, the authors have proven their point about the insufficiency of tech tools to expand democratic potential. Digitized data dumps are not enough (and the article provides valuable context for better appreciating the dangers and possibilities of the fully digital Obama archives). Historians, like the authors, continue to provide a major service to academics and broader audiences by synthesizing massive amounts of research and applying a coherent analytical framework. This type of work makes research and scholarship truly accessible. Will this article itself be open-access when it is published?
The authors are right to focus on the political economic context from which digital history emerges and the political economic context necessary to sustain meaningfully democratic and democratizing digital history. This work must be sustained by stable, functioning, and funded institutions of higher education that are committed to academic scholarship. Adjunctification within the corporate neoliberal institution is a tremendous threat to the democratization of digital history (and democracy more broadly) both within and beyond institutions of higher education.
Finally, this manuscript itself illuminates the promise and limits of the open review process. The enormous amount of feedback challenged even the editor, raising the question of when openness and transparency can actually be a barrier to entry, especially for readers working outside of the field.
The open review process also highlighted digital history’s (and the wider profession’s) reliance on unpaid academic work to produce new scholarship and the acute inequities that constitute the labor force in higher education: participation in this process might be considered a professional service and a unique opportunity to intervene in new scholarship for those who have won the academic lottery. However, the reliance on many more unpaid readers than the smaller number of readers contributing to the traditional review process might also underscore and exacerbate the labor hierarchy of those who have the time, institutional support, and financial stability to engage in this work and those who do not.
Many thanks to the authors for this generative and illuminating history of digital history, political economy, and democracy, and to the AHR for sparking this urgent public discussion.
September 25, 2020 at 5:02 pm
I agree with Jordan Taylor that the paragraph above is at the heart of the essay and that making that argument stand out more would benefit. But I think the point that the changes to the historical profession would require changes in American society is an important one because it shows the value of this piece and amplifies the so what. The frustration over how efforts to democratize digital humanities often go unacknowledged and unrewarded comes out in these two paragraphs at the end. The cui bono inquiry captures that frustration. As a non expert in digital humanities and digital history, wrestling with that frustration and its relation to democratization (or anti-democratization) efforts in our society and institutions gets at why this piece matters. It is informative as a state of the field piece but also with a call that we need to be aware of how these efforts are formed, employed, and coopted.
September 10, 2020 at 10:20 pm
This paragraph reminded me that Tocqueville famously (and incorrectly) wrote that democratic societies, and Americans in particular, value equality over liberty. Academic history’s values seem to be something near the obverse of Tocqueville’s formulation. Without a pretty thorough restructuring of higher education, which seems unlikely to come anytime soon, it’s hard to imagine that a more expansive culture of open access in history wouldn’t extend existing inequities.
I haven’t checked each of the many authors cited in this essay of course, but I suspect that most if not all of them are writing from tenure-track or tenured positions. For historians on the outside of academic privilege looking in, DH and OA carry mixed blessings: greater access to other historians’ works, but also rising expectations and significant barriers to the production and publication of historical knowledge. Author publication fees are just one part of this—many bright, talented historians are unable to produce the exciting DH and OA projects of which they’re capable because they simply don’t have access to the institutional resources of an Armitage, Limerick, Ayers, Thomas, Darnton, etc.
In this sense, DH can be an anti-democratic or anti-egalitarian influence on history, by raising the costs of producing history beyond the capacity of the growing ranks of historians who cannot hire a research assistant and a web designer or who cannot afford to spend the summer learning GIS or R. While this essay does usefully think through access, questions of labor and production (though expanded from the original draft) still appear to be underdeveloped to me. Perhaps that’s because they’re so intractable, though.
September 10, 2020 at 9:52 pm
The point at the end of this paragraph seems to me to be at the heart of this essay, and I wish this point had been stated more clearly and expanded upon earlier.
I think that this essay will be more powerful with a stronger call to arms. “Install WordPress and Omeka,” while great, isn’t inspiring me to action. What specifically needs to change in order for this democratic vision of history to become reality, and what can the readers of this essay do in order to make that happen? As a reader, I feel overwhelmed with the limitations, challenges, and problems with a democratic DH. Indeed, I’m left feeling that the only hope for a democratic future for the U.S. historical profession is a more fundamental transformation of American society.
Additionally, I continue to find the “as easy as” refrain a bit grating. In part, it may be echoes of the techno-utopian “There’s an app for that” sentiment. In my experience with these tools, though, it’s not that they are “easy” but “take work, too.” It’s that they are accessible, but that turning such accessibility into something meaningful is where the hard work comes in.
August 19, 2020 at 11:52 am
This open “editor’s letter” raised some interesting questions. In a blog post, Martin Paul Eve objects to some of the things I say in this paragraph about OA: https://eve.gd/2020/08/07/some-reflections-on-the-politics-of-open-peer-review/.
Our differences on this can be discussed elsewhere. For me, his post raises a troubling question about the open peer review process. normally, I craft this letter with a good deal of attention to the feelings and concerns of the author, who I would like to encourage and hope not to wound, even if some of the remarks I share can be harsh. Now, it seems, in an open process, I must craft this letter so that doesn’t offend any of the peer reviewers as well. That makes this an exceedingly difficult process. If this “open” pr were our usual peer review process, I would constantly be faced with a tough decision: do I tell the author what I think of the comments I share with them? If so, do I risk driving away future peer reviewers like Eve? Or do I send one private letter to the author, and post a public one–thereby negating the entire purpose of open review? These are calculations I would prefer not to have to make.
August 19, 2020 at 11:43 am
I only made a few suggestions on the original, and I find that the authors did not do much with them. My biggest concern was the need for them to make a clear statement about their focus on the American story and developments to the exclusion of much reference to or appreciation of non-American thinking and work. As I mentioned in my original comment, I understand their interest in telling the American story, but I thought that some brief attention to a comparative context would help make sense of what distinguished the American experience. This might be handled in a footnote so that readers will appreciate there is more than the American side, especially because the authors do point to several instances of Canadian and European work in making their case. Perhaps a few lines on the matter, in the footnote where they mention it, would do the trick for now. At some point a comparative essay would be instructive, but that’s for another day. In my original comments I also suggested the authors might reference community-generated and community-based digital humanities and history projects, which are often very “democratic” in purpose, personnel, and audience and have encouraged academic engagement. Again, this subject is worth its own essay, but some nod to the phenomenon here would help provide a fuller sense of what “democratic digital history” means, or might mean. My other concern was getting a working definition of “democracy,” from the authors, which they have provided.
So, for what it’s worth, I still think the authors have provided a telling and timely article worth publishing. It will generate much interest, comment, and subsequent work. My particular concerns should not stand in the way of its publication, however much I would like those few extra sentences to enhance the authors’ arguments and to remind us there is more than an American and an academic-generated world out there.
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