Historians on the Internet, Twenty Years Later

h-netIn 1996 I was History and Foreign Languages Librarian at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. While in library school at the University of Texas at Austin two years earlier, I discovered the fledgling internet organization for historians, H-Net, and became a volunteer editor for one of its mailing lists, the HABSBURG group for East European history. At the time it seemed like an ideal combination of my former career as a history professor and my new one in librarianship. During a trip to Hungary that year, I toured the innovative university library in Szeged with a publicly engaged librarian, Károly Kokas. When the editor of the scholarly journal Debreceni Szemle invited him to join the group of respondents to a recently published discussion about the internet, he offered the editor my name as an additional contributor.

The theme of the recent discussion in the economic weekly Heti Világgazdaság was the desirability of commercializing the internet. Rather than addressing this controversy directly, I chose to highlight the uses of the internet for historians, taking the title: “Historians on the internet, or: How can an Historian become a Cybernaut?” Yes, even in those ancient times “cybernaut” was a thing!

Now, twenty years later, I have been invited to update the story of historians on the internet with an examination of today’s state of affairs.

As I wrote in the original article, the historian’s skepticism toward the internet had its foundation in the discipline’s reliance upon authentic, unchanging documentation; whereas, the internet is constantly changing. Library budgets could barely keep pace with the proliferation of monographic publications for this book-centered discipline. I proceeded to demonstrate, however, the value of the internet for information sharing, chiefly in interlibrary loan, noting that OCLC’s database contained an impressive 30 million records. Reading this today, I suspected a typo, but that was the figure in 1996—compared to 361 million in 2016.

The crisis of scholarly communication, a prominent theme in 1996, is of course still with us. The scale of interlibrary loan is now incomparably greater, but even at the writing of my original article, the trajectory was already becoming evident with the advent of patron-initiated interlibrary loan from WorldCat records, of which Texas Tech was an early adopter. Historians have now fully integrated the distributed national collection of print books and journals into their research routine. We are all feeling the consequences of the commercialization of the internet and the impact of the price structures of profit-based journals and databases on library budgets. In twenty years the portion of library collection budgets dedicated to journals and databases has skyrocketed, while the portion dedicated to books has plummeted.

H-Net was enjoying a period of dramatic growth in 1996. From its birth in 1993 with three lists and 500 subscribers, it had reached 51 lists (the preferred H-Net term is networks) with 43,000 subscribers from 68 countries in 1996. Subscribers posted research queries, pedagogical experiences, and announcements, with list moderators or editors responsible for enforcing standards of appropriateness. H-Net editors had begun to commission book reviews, receiving review copies from the publishers who had learned to appreciate the rapid dissemination of scholarly reviews of their new publications.

The American Historical Association (AHA) seemed to view H-Net with some trepidation, considering that the thousand-some reviews published yearly in its flagship journal were at least as attractive to its readership as its articles. In that original article, I accurately predicted that H-Net might soon equal the review production of the American Historical Review. Now, as already at that time, H-Net distributes these reviews over freely accessible email lists and archives them on the open World Wide Web.

H-Net has not become commercialized, but has faced managerial and financial challenges as the result of its growth. The original institutional home, the University of Illinois at Chicago, was unable to support the growing computer network, so H-Net accepted an invitation to move computer operations to Michigan State prior to 1996. This move made possible a more robust technical infrastructure with one of the largest list servers in the US and an office able to manage the receiving and re-mailing to reviewers of book review copies.

The institutional move and associated managerial challenges caused a crisis in the democratic governance structure of H-Net during its internal election in 1997. As a result of a hard fought election that was reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, I became a member of H-Net’s ruling body and the coordinator of its reviewing policies. It was by virtue of its reviews that H-Net became one of the leading open access publishers.

I initiated the office of H-Net Vice President for Research and Publications and held it for several years. In this capacity, I became one of the first signers of the Budapest Open Access Initiative in 2002 and successfully sponsored the introduction of Creative Commons licensing for H-Net Reviews. H-Net organized a panel about Open Access at the annual meeting of the AHA in which it challenged the determination of the AHA to maintain the commercial character of its journal. Of course H-Net itself is not immune to financial reality, and in particular the challenges that Michigan State University faces in reductions of budgetary allocations from the state of Michigan. H-Net consequently supplements university support with a regular fundraising campaign and has begun to charge a fee for the placement of job ads; however, all of H-Net’s content remains freely accessible.

habsburgThe HABSBURG list was born as an unedited list on the bitnet server of Purdue University in 1991. With the promise of improved technical and managerial infrastructure, the founder, Charles Ingrao, and I brought the list into H-Net in 1994 with its fifty-some subscribers. By 1996 the list subscribers numbered 389.

Thanks to connections I developed with publishers in the US and in Europe, review copies were flowing in and I was commissioning and editing enough reviews to distribute as many as one per week in the late 1990s. I scanned the first few primary source publications for the HABSBURG website’s source collection and managed a growing collection of syllabi for our field. The source collection anticipated, in a small way, the tremendous volume of research material now available on the free internet and in licensed resources.

There is a tremendous quantity of freely available resources now available to researchers. But commercial publishers have established a strong foothold in the lives of researchers, not only in the publication of journals and monographs but also in the provision of online access to journal and newspaper backfiles and primary source material. Ironically, history librarians are today more likely to hear requests for subscriptions to full text databases than for the purchase of books—even though history continues to be a book-centered discipline—because books are available via interlibrary loan, while the databases are not.

H-Net and HABSBURG have continued to grow. The full organization today boasts 185 networks with 175,342 unique subscribers and HABSBURG has 1648 subscribers. The technical infrastructure has been transformed in recent years. While still a collection of moderated email lists with associated websites, H-Net increasingly foregrounds a new platform called the H-Net Commons. The Commons is less wedded to email, more web-based in the distribution of messages, and better able to accommodate multiple character sets and languages, images, blogs, Twitter, and rss feeds. Historians on H-Net can choose not to have their email inboxes overwhelmed by colleagues’ messages every day and many of them make this choice. H-Net continues to commission and produce close to one thousand reviews per year and all (40,715 to date) are archived on the free internet at http://www.h-net.org/reviews/home.php .

The impact of the internet and, less directly, of H-Net on historians is reflected in the stance of the AHA toward internet media today. Twenty years ago the AHA viewed the free internet skeptically, whereas H-Net championed an alternative culture of online networking, discussion, and sharing. Today the internet is a central component of how the association interacts with its members. The AHA journal’s book reviews are still behind a pay wall, but its articles are now freely accessible online, as is the newsletter of the association. The AHA website hosts ongoing blogs that are communicated via email to members and even retains a staff member dedicated to social networking who reports on members’ tweeting at the annual meeting.


Jim Niessen is World History Librarian at Rutgers University Libraries.



Jim Niessen

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