Category Archives: Publishing

Introducing Digital Humanities Now

Do the digital humanities need journals? Although I’m very supportive of the new journals that have launched in the last year, and although I plan to write for them from time to time, there’s something discordant about a nascent field—one so steeped in new technology and new methods of scholarly communication—adopting a format that is struggling in the face of digital media.

I often say to non-digital humanists that every Friday at 5 I know all of the most important books, articles, projects, and news of the week—without the benefit of a journal, a newsletter, or indeed any kind of formal publication by a scholarly society. I pick up this knowledge by osmosis from the people I follow online.

I subscribe to the blogs of everyone working centrally or tangentially to digital humanities. As I have argued from the start, and against the skeptics and traditionalists who thinks blogs can only be narcissistic, half-baked diaries, these outlets are just publishing platforms by another name, and in my area there are an incredible number of substantive ones.

More recently, social media such as Twitter has provided a surprisingly good set of pointers toward worthy materials I should be reading or exploring. (And as happened with blogs five years ago, the critics are now dismissing Twitter as unscholarly, missing the filtering function it somehow generates among so many unfiltered tweets.) I follow as many digital humanists as I can on Twitter, and created a comprehensive list of people in digital humanities. (You can follow me @dancohen.)

For a while I’ve been trying to figure out a way to show this distilled “Friday at 5” view of digital humanities to those new to the field, or those who don’t have time to read many blogs or tweets. This week I saw a tweet from Tom Scheinfeldt (blog|Twitter) (who in turn saw a tweet from James Neal) about a new service called Twittertim.es, which creates a real-time publication consisting of articles highlighted by people you follow on Twitter. I had a thought: what if I combined the activities of several hundred digital humanities scholars with Twittertim.es?

Digital Humanities Now is a new web publication that is the experimental result of this thought. It aggregates thousands of tweets and the hundreds of articles and projects those tweets point to, and boils everything down to the most-discussed items, with commentary from Twitter. A slightly longer discussion of how the publication was created can be found on the DHN “About” page.

Digital Humanities Now home page

Does the process behind DHN work? From the early returns, the algorithms have done fairly well, putting on the front page articles on grading in a digital age, bringing high-speed networking to liberal arts colleges, Google’s law archive search, and (appropriately enough) a talk on how to deal with streams of content given limited attention. Perhaps Digital Humanities Now will show a need for the light touch of a discerning editor. This could certainly be added on top of the raw feed of all interest items (about 50 a day, out of which only 2 or 3 make it into DHN), but I like the automated simplicity of DHN 1.0.

Despite what I’m sure will be some early hiccups, my gut is that some version of this idea could serve as a rather decent new form of publication that focuses the attention of those in a particular field on important new developments and scholarly products. I’m not holding my breath that someday scholars will put an appearance in DHN on their CVs. But as I recently told an audience of executive directors of scholarly societies at an American Council of Learned Societies meeting, if you don’t do something like this, someone else will.

I suppose DHN is a prod to them and others to think about new forms of scholarly validation and attention, beyond the journal. Ultimately, journals will need the digital humanities more than we need them.

Leave the Blogging to Us

The history of genres is filled with curious transformations, such as the novel’s unlikely evolution from wasteland of second-string prose to locus of Great Literature. One of the founding notions of this blog was that despite its inauspicious beginnings and high-profile overcaffeinated incarnations the genre of the blog has always been well suited to the considered pace and output of the scholar.

Original functions of the blog (and the stereotypical blogger), like the transcription of the day’s minutiae or logging of interesting websites (thus the inharmonious neologism, weblog), have, in the last two years, swiftly emigrated to other platforms and genres, such as “microblogging” services like what-I’m-doing-right-now Twitter (with its one-sentence “tweets”) and gee-look-at-me social networks like Facebook. If you’re a trend-seeker, this makes it seem like blogging is passé, abandoned by both the masses and the digerati.

But to me, it’s simply confirmation that the genre has found its most appropriate writers and readers. It reinforces my initial view of the genre, which is that personal content management systems (what blogging platforms really are) are, despite the genre’s early, unpromising forms, perfectly suited for serious thought and scholarship. With blogging, there is no requirement for frequent posting, and I subscribe to many scholarly blogs that have infrequent, but substantive, posts. Put us in the slow blogging camp. As Barbara Ganley puts it: “Blog to reflect, Tweet to connect.”

And while we’re reflecting, it should be rather obvious at this point that thoughtful, well-written blogs can rival other forms of publication. For instance, a baseball statistician and political junkie armed with little more than a free Blogger account and considerable intelligence and energy was able this year to rival the election analysis of most professional newspaper reporters. What are the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s “Brainstorm” blogs than op-ed columns by another name? As I said in the Journal of American History earlier this fall, good writing and analysis rises and makes an impact, no matter the medium or editorial or peer-review system—or lack thereof.

Journal of American History Interchange on Digital History

Starting today and running for the next month, I’ll be joining a half-dozen other professors in a discussion on the Journal of American History website on the promise and challenges of digital history. It’s great that the JAH is providing this forum and publishing the results in their September 2008 issue. I’m hoping they’ll open up the live discussion to the public, but it seems unlikely since they want to redact the text for publication. I’ll try to mention interesting topics that arise in the discussion in this space.

First Impressions of Amazon Connect

Having already succumbed to the siren’s song that prodded me narcissistically to create a blog, I had very little resistance left when Amazon.com emailed me to ask if I might like to join the beta of program that allows authors to reach potential buyers and existing owners of their books by writing blog-like posts. Called “Amazon Connect,” this service will soon be made available to the authors of all of the books available for purchase on Amazon. Here are some notes about my experience joining the program (and how you can join if you’re an author), some thoughts about what Amazon Connect might be able to do, and some insider information about their upcoming launch.

First, the inside scoop. As far as I can tell, Amazon Connect began around Thanksgiving 2005 with a pilot that enlisted about a dozen authors. It has been slowly expanding since then but is still in beta, and a quiet beta at that. It’s unlikely you’ve seen an Amazon Connect section on one of their web pages. However, I recently learned from the Amazon Connect team that in early February the service will have its official launch, with a big publicity push.

After that point, each post an author makes will appear on the Amazon.com page for his or her book(s). I found out by writing a post of my own that his feature is actually already enabled, as you can see by looking at the page for Digital History (scroll down the page a bit to see my post).

But the launch will also entail a much more significant change—to the home page of Amazon.com itself, which is of course individualized for each user. Starting in February, on the home page of every Amazon user who has purchased your book(s), your posts will show up immediately. Since it’s unlikely that a purchaser of a book will return to that book’s buy page, this appearance on the Amazon home page is important: Authors will effectively gain the ability to send messages to a sizable number of their readers.

Since generally it has been impossible to compile a decent contact list for those who buy a specific book (unless you’re in the NSA or CIA), Amazon’s idea is intriguing. While Amazon Connect is clearly intended to sell more books, and the writing style they advocate less than academic (“a conversational, first-person tone”), it’s remarkable to think that the author of a scholarly monograph might be able to reach a good portion of their audience this way. Indeed, I suspect that for authors of academic press books that might not sell hundreds of thousands of copies, the proportion of buyers of their book that use Amazon is much higher than for popular books (since those books are sold in a higher percentage at physical Barnes & Noble and Borders stores, and increasingly at Costco and Wal-Mart). Could Amazon Connect foster smaller communities of authors and readers, for more esoteric topics?

If you are an author and would like to join the Amazon Connect beta in time for the February launch, here’s what you need to do:

1) First, you must have an Amazon account. If you already have one, go to the special Amazon Connect website, login, and claim your book(s) using the “Register Your Bibliography” link. This involves listing the contact info for your publisher, editor, publicist, or other third party that can verify that you are actually the author of the book(s) you list. About a week later you’ll get an email confirming that you have been verified.

2) Create a profile. You are required to upload a photo, write a short biography, and provide some other information about yourself (such as your email address) that you can choose to share with your audience (I didn’t fill a lot of this out, such as my favorite movies).

3) Once you’ve been added to the system, you can start writing posts. Good luck saying hello to your readers, and remember Amazon Connect rule #5: “No boring content”!

Welcome to My Blog

Like so many others who enjoy the sound of their own voice and the sight of their own words on a printed page—I would estimate this group as a majority of humanity—I have increasingly felt the urge to write a blog. Blogging has obviously emerged as one of the remarkable, unique products of the web, providing for the first time a nearly frictionless way to immediately reach a worldwide audience with your thoughts.

Having written for paper media, I’ve experienced the frustration of the glacial pace of most publications. In academia this problem is particularly acute. For instance, I completed the first draft of a book chapter I wrote on nineteenth-century mathematics in May of 2002; I finally got to see it in print in May of 2005. Even in the best cases (and there are not many), an academic journal article generally takes a full year from the time you have completed most of the work on the article to the time it shows up on the pages of the journal.

On the other hand, maybe there’s not much urgency in seeing the latest on Victorian mathematics. As far as I know, all of the mathematicians I discuss in the book chapter remain dead, or at least oddly unproductive; those who are interested in their lives and work would just as well wait for a considerate, thoughtful, and complete article regardless of how slowly it took to arrive in print. And unlike in the sciences, there is rarely concern about precedent. My book on the larger history of pure mathematics in the Victorian era has taken about full decade between inception and completion, but I haven’t had many sleepless nights worrying that someone else has duplicated my work or theories.

So here’s the rub, and I suspect I’m not alone in this view: while I’m attracted to the instant gratification of publishing to the web, I’ve more often than not found blogs to be dissatisfying. Perhaps it’s absurd elitism or years of reading overly long tomes. But it’s a feeling that’s hard to shake. The ease with which one can post means that it’s often too easy to post the half-baked and the half-written.

So for this blog I’ve tried to set a higher mark for myself (the elitism now unites with an unwise masochism). While my posts may not be daily, I hope that they will function more like well thought out mini-articles, and transfer to this blog’s audience my understanding of the digital humanities in as great a depth as possible.

Stay tuned for posts explaining how to do for yourself experimental digital work (e.g., how to use the Google Maps API to build your own interactive historical map); posts communicating in a plainspoken way some of the more complex topics in computer science in ways that hopefully will spark ideas among humanists; and posts exploring the implications of new technologies and methodologies for teaching, learning, and researching in a digital age.

I hope that you’ll also join the conversation by emailing me at dcohen@gmu.edu if you have any comments or suggestions.