Category Archives: History

Information Overload, Past and Present

The end of this year has seen much handwringing over the stress of information overload: the surging, unending streams, the inexorable decline of longer, more intermittent forms such as blogs, the feeling that our online presence is scattered and unmanageable. This worry spike had me scurrying back to Ann Blair’s terrific history of pre-modern information stress, Too Much to Know. Blair notes how every era has dealt with similar feelings, and how people throughout the ages have come up with different solutions:

These days we are particularly aware of the challenges of information management given the unprecedented explosion of information associated with computers and computer networking…But the perception of and complaints about overload are not unique to our period. Ancient, medieval, and early modern authors and authors working in non-Western contexts articulated similar concerns, notably about the overabundance of books and the frailty of human resources for mastering them (such as memory and time).

The perception of overload is best explained, therefore, not simply as the result of an objective state, but rather as the result of a coincidence of causal factors, including existing tools, cultural or personal expectations, and changes in the quantity of quality of information to be absorbed and managed…But the feeling of overload is often lived by those who experience it as if it were an utterly new phenomenon, as is perhaps characteristic of feelings more generally or of self-perceptions in the modern or postmodern periods especially. Certainly the perception of experiencing overload as unprecedented is dominant today. No doubt we have access to and must cope with a much greater quantity of information than earlier generations on almost every issue, and we use technologies that are subject to frequent change and hence often new.

Blair identifies four “S’s of text management” from the past that we still use today: storing, sorting, selecting, and summarizing. She also notes the history of alternative solutions to information overload that are the equivalent of deleting one’s Twitter account: Descartes and other philosophers, for instance, simply deciding to forget the library so they could start anew. Other to-hell-with-it daydreams proliferated too:

In the eighteenth century a number of writers articulated fantasies of destroying useless books to stem the never-ending accumulation…One critic has identified the articulation of the sublime as another kind of response to overabundance; Kant and Wordsworth are among the authors who described an experience of temporary mental blockage due to “sheer cognitive exhaustion,” whether triggered by sensory or mental overload.

When you ask historians which place and time they would most like to live in, it’s notable that they almost always choose eras and locales with a robust but not overwhelming circulation of ideas and art; just enough newness to chew on, but not too much to choke on; and a pervasive equanimity and thoughtfulness that the internet has not excelled at since the denizens of alt.tasteless invaded rec.pets.cats on Usenet. Jonathan Spence, for instance, imagines a life of moderation, sipping tea and trading considered thoughts in sixteenth-century Hangzhou.

Feels to me like there are many out there grasping for a similar circle of lively friends and deeper discussion as we head into 2014.

 

Digital History at the 2013 AHA Meeting

It’s time for my annual list of digital history sessions at the American Historical Association meeting, this year in New Orleans, January 3-6, 2013. This year’s program extends last year’s surging interest in the effect digital media and technology are having on research and the profession. In addition, a special track for the 2013 meeting is entitled “The Public Practice of History in and for a Digital Age.” Looks like a good and varied program, including digital research methods (such as GIS, text mining, and network analysis), the construction and use of digital archives, the history of new media and its impact on social movements, scholarly communication, public history and writing for a general audience on the web, and practical concerns (e.g., getting grants for digital work).

Hope to see some of you there, and to interact with the rest of you about the meeting via other means. (Speaking of which, I hereby declare the hashtag to be #aha13. I know we care about exact dates, fellow historians, but we really don’t need that “20″ in our hashtags.)

Thursday, January 3

9am-5pm

THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) AHA

1-3pm

Henry Morton Stanley, New Orleans, and the Contested Origins of an African Explorer: Public History and Teaching Perspectives

3:30-5:30pm

Spatial Narratives of the Holocaust: GIS, Geo-Visualization, and the Possibilities for Digital Humanities

Presidential Panel: H-Net and the Discipline: Changes and Challenges

8-10pm

Plenary Session: The Public Practice of History in and for a Digital Age

Friday, January 4

8:30-10am

Roundtable on Place in Time: What History and Geography Can Teach Each Other

Public History Meets Digital History in Post-Katrina New Orleans

“To See”: Visualizing Humanistic Data and Discovering Historical Patterns in a Digital Age

Viewfinding: A Discussion of Photography, Landscape, and Historical Memory

Scholarly Societies and Networking through H-Net

H-Net in Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean: Building New Online Audiences

Applying to NEH Grant Programs

10:30am-noon

Self Defense, Civil Rights, and Scholarship: Panels in Honor of Gwendolyn Midlo Hall , Part 1: Gwendolyn Midlo Hall’s Africans in Colonial Louisiana Twenty Years Later

Online Reviewing: Before and After It Was de Rigueur

Gender, Sexuality, and Ethnicity: Household Space and Lived Experience in Colonial and Early National Mexico

The United States and Its Informants: The Cold War and the War on Terror

2:30-4:30pm

Front Lines: Early-Career Scholars Doing Digital History

From the March on Washington to Tahir Square and Beyond: Tactics, Technology, and Social Movements

Are There Costs to “Internationalizing” History?, Part 2: The Domestic Politics of Teaching and Outreach

Saturday, January 5

9-11am

H-Net in Africa: Building New Online Audiences

Scholarly Communications and Copyright

Oral History and Intellectual History in Conversation: Methodological Innovation in Modern South Asia

Research Support Services for History Scholars: A Study of Evolving Research Methods in History

Comparative Reflections on the History Major Capstone Experience: A Roundtable

The Power of Cartography: Remapping the Black Death in the Age of Genomics and GIS

11:30am-1:30pm

Mapping the Past: Historical Geographic Information Science (GIS)

Beyond “Plan B” for Renaissance Studies: A Roundtable

11:30am-2 – Poster Session 1

Hell Towns, Butternuts, and Spotted Cows: Bringing the History of a Small Town in the Hudson Valley into the Digital Age

2:30-4:30pm

Peer Review, History Journals, and the Future of Scholarly Research

Space, Place, and Time: GIS Technology in Ancient and Medieval European History

Factionalism and Violence across Time and Space: An Exploration of Digital Sources and Methodologies

Connecting Classroom and Community: H-Net Networks and Public History

The Deep History of Africa: New Narrative Approaches

First Steps: Getting Started as a History Professional

Renegotiating Identity: The Process of Democratization in Postauthoritarian Spain and Portugal

2:30-5pm – Poster Session 2

Digital History: Tools and Tricks to Learn the New Trade

Building the Dissertation Digitally

The Global Shipwreck

Picturing a Transnational Pulp Archive

Sunday, January 6

8:30-10:30am

Building a Swiss Army Knife: A Panel on DocTracker, a Multi-Tool for Digital Documentary Editions

11am-1pm

Teaching Digital Methods for History Graduate Students

Public History in the Federal Government: Continuing Trends and New Innovations

Using Oral History for Social Justice Activism

Treading Water on Open Access

A statement from the governing council of the American Historical Association, September 2012:

The American Historical Association voices concerns about recent developments in the debates over “open access” to research published in scholarly journals. The conversation has been framed by the particular characteristics and economics of science publishing, a landscape considerably different from the terrain of scholarship in the humanities. The governing Council of the AHA has unanimously approved the following statement. We welcome further discussion…

In today’s digital world, many people inside and outside of academia maintain that information, including scholarly research, wants to be, and should be, free. Where people subsidized by taxpayers have created that information, the logic of free information is difficult to resist…

The concerns motivating these recommendations are valid, but the proposed solution raises serious questions for scholarly publishing, especially in the humanities and social sciences.

A statement from Roy Rosenzweig, the Vice President of Research of the American Historical Association, in May 2005:

Historical research also benefits directly (albeit considerably less generously [than science]) through grants from federal agencies like the National Endowment for the Humanities; even more of us are on the payroll of state universities, where research support makes it possible for us to write our books and articles. If we extend the notion of “public funding” to private universities and foundations (who are, of course, major beneficiaries of the federal tax codes), it can be argued that public support underwrites almost all historical scholarship.

Do the fruits of this publicly supported scholarship belong to the public? Should the public have free access to it? These questions pose a particular challenge for the AHA, which has conflicting roles as a publisher of history scholarship, a professional association for the authors of history scholarship, and an organization with a congressional mandate to support the dissemination of history. The AHA’s Research Division is currently considering the question of open—or at least enhanced—access to historical scholarship and we seek the views of members.

Two requests for comment from the AHA on open access, seven years apart. In 2005, the precipitating event for the AHA’s statement was the NIH report on “Enhancing Public Access to Publications Resulting from NIH-Funded Research”; yesterday it was the Finch report on “Accessibility, sustainability, excellence: how to expand access to research publications” [pdf]. History has repeated itself.

We historians have been treading water on open access for the better part of a decade. This is not a particular failure of our professional organization, the AHA; it’s a collective failure by historians who believe—contrary to the lessons of our own research—that today will be like yesterday, and tomorrow like today. Article-centric academic journals, a relatively recent development in the history of publishing, apparently have existed, and will exist, forever, in largely the same form and with largely the same business model.

We can wring our hands about open access every seven years when something notable happens in science publishing, but there’s much to be said for actually doing something rather than sitting on the sidelines. The fact is that the scientists have been thinking and discussing but also doing for a long, long time. They’ve had a free preprint service for articles since the beginning of the web in 1991. In 2012, our field has almost no experience with how alternate online models might function.

If we’re solely concerned with the business model of the American Historical Review (more on that focus in a moment), the AHA had on the table possible economic solutions that married open access with sustainability over seven years ago, when Roy wrote his piece. Since then other creative solutions have been proposed. I happen to prefer the library consortium model, in which large research libraries who are already paying millions of dollars for science journals are browbeaten into ponying up a tiny fraction of the science journal budget to continue to pay for open humanities journals. As a strong believer in the power of narcissism and shame, I could imagine a system in which libraries that pay would get exalted patron status on the home page for the journal, while free riders would face the ignominy of a red bar across the top of the browser when viewed on a campus that dropped support once the AHR went open access. (“You are welcome to read this open scholarship, but you should know that your university is skirting its obligation to the field.” The Shame Bar could be left off in places that cannot afford to pay.)

Regardless of the method and the model, the point is simply that we haven’t tried very hard. Too many of my colleagues, in the preferred professorial mode of focusing on the negative, have highlighted perceived problems with open access without actually engaging it. Yet somehow over 8,000 open access journals have flourished in the last decade. If the AHA’s response is that those journals aren’t flagship journals, well, I’m not sure that’s the one-percenter rhetoric they want to be associated with as representatives of the entire profession.

Furthermore, if our primary concern is indeed the economics of the AHR, wouldn’t it be fair game to look at the full economics of it—not just the direct costs on AHA’s side (“$460,000 to support the editorial processes”), but the other side, where much of the work gets done: the time professional historians take to write and vet articles? I would wager those in-kind costs are far larger than $460,000 a year. That’s partly what Roy was getting at in his appeal to the underlying funding of most historical scholarship. Any such larger economic accounting would trigger more difficult questions, such as Hugh Gusterson’s pointed query about why he’s being asked to give his peer-review labor for free but publishers are gating the final product in return—thanks for your gift labor, now pay up. That the AHA is a small non-profit publisher rather than a commercial giant doesn’t make this question go away.

There is no doubt that professional societies outside of the sciences are in a horrible bind between the drive toward open access and the need for sustainability. But history tells us that no institution has the privilege of remaining static. The American Historical Association can tinker with payments for the AHR as much as it likes under the assumption that the future will be like the past, just with a different spreadsheet. I’d like to see the AHA be bolder—supportive not only of its flagship but of the entire fleet, which now includes fledgling open access journals, blogs, and other nascent online genres.

Mostly, I’d like to see a statement that doesn’t read like this one does: anxious and reactive. I’d like to see a statement that says: “We stand ready to nurture and support historical scholarship whenever and wherever it might arise.”

Digital Humanities at the 2012 American Historical Association Annual Meeting

Longtime subscribers to this blog know that I’ve been grousing for years about the lack of digital topics at the American Historical Association annual meeting. From today’s announcement about the 2012 meeting in Chicago:

The AHA’s 126th Annual Meeting in Chicago this January 5-8, 2012, will feature nearly two dozen sessions on digital history. This series, titled The Future is Here, includes presentations, discussions, and demonstrations of how digital methods might assist historical research and the humanities in general.

Fantastic. I was on the program committee this year, but this was really a group effort: the committee chairs (Jake Soll, Jennifer Siegel), the entire program committee, the president of the AHA (Anthony Grafton), and the AHA itself (especially executive director Jim Grossman) were all committed to providing more of a platform for new, digital work. And as you can see from the program, we were fortunate that many innovative scholars and projects decided to present in Chicago.

Hope to see you there.

Digital History at the 2011 AHA Meeting

It’s time for my annual report/rant on the lack digital sessions at the American Historical Association annual meeting, a good gauge of what professional historians are interested in. Evidently we historians will just keep on doing what we’re doing how we’re doing it until it seems truly anachronistic. Just one of the main AHA panels, out of nearly three hundred, covers digital matters; perhaps another will touch on digital methods. By my count there are another six digital sessions overall, but these other sessions are put on by affiliate societies or were added by the program committee during lunches or other break times (that is, there were almost no digital panels proposed by historians attending the meeting). Incredibly, there are actually fewer digital sessions at the 2011 annual meeting than in prior years. Because clearly this digital thing is a flash in the pan.

OK, I’ll stop with the sarcasm. I love my colleagues in history, but it’s time for a change, and as a new member of the AHA program committee I suspect the state of affairs will be different at the 2012 meeting. For now, here is this year’s list of digital sessions at the AHA annual meeting:

When Universities Put Dissertations on the Internet: New Practice; New Problem?
[Special session added by the program committee during lunch on Friday]

Critical Issues in Bibliography and Libraries in the Digital Age
[Sponsored by the Association for the Bibliography of History and the American Association for History and Computing]

Digital Tools for Teaching and Learning American History
[CHNM's own Rwany Sibaja hosts a 45-minute intro/demo]

Public Media and the Case for Digital History: New Directions and Opportunities for Students, Teachers, and Historians
[Special session added by the program committee during lunch on Saturday]

What’s Next? Patterns and Practices in History in Print and Online
[AHA Session 191, co-sponsored by the American Association for History and Computing]

History and Technology In and Out of the Classroom
[Sponsored by the Coordinating Council for Women in History]

Religious History’s Digital Future
[Sponsored by the American Society of Church History]

Enhancing Historical Thinking Skills Through Teaching American History Grants
[AHA Session 269]

Digital Humanities Sessions at the 2010 AHA Meeting

Out of hundreds of sessions at the 2010 American Historical Association annual meeting, nine are on digital matters. Nine. I’m on one-third of the sessions. It’s 2010, and academic historians seem to feel that digital media and technology are not worth discussing, and that we can just go on doing what we’ve done, how we’ve done it, for another hundred years. For comparison, the 2009 MLA has three times as many digital humanities panels.

Anyway, the digital sessions (hope to see you there):

Is Google Good for History?

Crossing the Electronic Rubicon: Navigating the Challenges and Opportunities Presented by Archival Records Created and Stored Exclusively in Digital Format

Teaching Sourcing by Bridging Digital Libraries and Electronic Student Assignments

Humanities in the Digital Age, Part 1: Humanities in the Digital Age, Part 1: Digital Poster Session

Humanities in the Digital Age, Part 2: A Hands-On Workshop

Scholarly Publishing and e-Journals

What Becomes of Print in the Digital Age?

Assessing Resources: Analysis and Comment on EDSITEment Lessons in the High School and Undergraduate Classrooms

American Religious Historians Online

Frontiers in Digital History Conference

From the announcement from the American Association for History and Computing (AAHC):

Frontiers in Digital History
2009 Annual Conference
April 3–5, 2009
George Mason University

What frontiers in digital history are we only beginning to explore, or have yet to explore? What promising but under-utilized tools, techniques, and ideas exist in digital media that can help us do better history? Join the American Association for History and Computing for a lively discussion about the frontiers in doing history with digital media. This conference will be of interest to anyone charting new territory in digital history—both online and in the academic and public worlds—including museum professionals, archivists, librarians, historic preservationists, IT professionals, filmmakers, and academic historians.

Suggested topics for proposals include (but are not limited to):

* Museums and exhibits
* GIS
* Aggregating history
* Web 2.0 exhibits and archives
* Designing and developing digital history
* Teaching digital history
* Visualizing the past
* Networked Research

The conference committee encourages participants to go beyond theory and into the realm of practice through a variety of presentation formats, including:

* Project Demonstrations and prototypes
* Paper Presentations
* Roundtable Discussions
* Workshops

More information is on the AAHC website. The president of the AAHC is the Center for History and New Media‘s Creative Lead, Jeremy Boggs. I’m sure this will be a great conference, so be sure to put in a proposal if you’re interested.

Virtual Museum of the Gulag Seized

Depressing and not getting enough notice: masked police recently raided the office of the Russian human rights group Memorial, which has been digitally cataloguing the artifacts and names of those affected by the Soviet Gulag. The police took drives containing biographical information on more than 50,000 victims of Stalinist repression and over 10,000 digital photographs, among other unique archival documents. We worked with Memorial on our Gulag history project. (Thanks to Elena Razlogova for bringing this to my attention.)

Journal of American History Begins Podcasting

Kudos to the Journal of American History for their launch this week of a podcast. In the inaugural “JAHcast,” John Nieto-Phillips speaks with James Meriwether about his article, “Worth a Lot of Negro Votes’: Black Voters, Africa, and the 1960 Presidential Campaign.” The podcast is put together well. It has relatively good sound quality (always critical for podcasts; bad sound quality repels audiences faster than bad web design), it’s open access (anyone can subscribe via iTunes), and most of all, it contains interesting subject matter for our times.

You will be unsurprised to hear (given a certain other podcast) that I think more scholarly journals and organizations should be podcasting like this. It’s a great way to build an audience and add context to print publications. It would be great for the JAH to add other kinds of podcasts, such as panels from the annual meeting and wider-ranging discussions or debates (rather than focusing on a single article). But a great first step.