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Class Divisions In Information Gathering Among Historians Acting As Public Intellectuals

November 24, 2008

I’ve noticed that some professional historians who write regularly as public intellectuals cite subscription print sources (i.e. CHE, New Yorker, The Atlantic) more often than non-subscription online sources. I can’t back this up with specific historians, writings, or weblog posts right now, but it’s a sense that’s been building in me over the past two years. I suppose it might also just be the case that it’s particularly frustrating when it occurs. Please bear with me, however, as I struggle to develop an argument.

I believe there is another cohort of historians acting as public intellectuals that cite online sources primarily (i.e. InsideHigherEducation, Slate, CNN). Most who cite in this fashion maintain weblogs. Because of the sourcing split, I fear the development of two mutually-exclusive conversations by historians about larger subjects based on what writers can afford in terms of research. In other words, economic class divisions and media habits are detrimentally affecting public intellectual output among historians.

This source dichotomy exists with regard to non-peer reviewed, non-professional writing more than not. When it comes to writing articles on historical subjects, historians (including me) still go primarily to the archives and the library—in my opinion. Of course Google Books and other books-to-online, archival-holdings-to-online projects are making more and more professional resources available to all. But we’re nowhere near total coverage. There is presently no way yet that a professional historian can write an acceptable article for a peer-reviewed journal based entirely on online sources. We are probably 50-100 years away from that kind of endeavor.

And the online-versus-print sourcing issue does not seem overly pervasive among professional, non-peer-reviewed publications by historians. JAH and AHR, and their magazine-like subsidiaries, are reasonably internet accessible for historians. I suspect that most practicing historians maintain membership in one or the other organization. The only fear, then, would be that professional issues are not tracking the same way among both organizations. In general, however, the mutually-exclusive, two-conversation issue seems less likely in those forums.

It seems to me then that digital subscription issues tend to detrimentally affect non peer-reviewed output by history professionals more than other kinds of writing. This means writing on subjects where historians are acting as public intellectuals. Of course this also extends to audience—print and online audiences are only seeing writings by those who work in each medium. It’s an obvious point, but it is important to remind ourselves of the consequences.

If historians can’t afford the time, energy, and money to go to their home institution’s library to read print subscription output, their non-peer reviewed, public-intellectual work will likely be based on easily accessible web resources, resulting in two tracks of professional conversation about larger subjects.

In some cases the print-versus-online dichotomy doesn’t even work well even with me. For instance, thanks to my workplace I see CHE in print regularly. I can’t always cite CHE’s work while blogging, but I can view the original article in a timely fashion and cite it in a post. I don’t know the timelag between new CHE work and when it gets folded into LEXIS/NEXIS or some other searchable database, but I can use a CHE article in H&E posts after a period of time. However, this doesn’t apply to periodicals like The New Yorker, The Atlantic, etc.

Is my fear of a dichotomous conversation track legitimate? Or is it much ado about nothing? What am I forgetting? Perhaps this conversation/concern has already been developed in another forum? Is it causing historians who are set in their ways to miss discussion opportunities with those more comfortable in new media? Is it an age more than economic split among professional historians? – TL

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  1. I can't help but believe you have missed the appropriate historical context and comparator. In 1970, you could not gain access to the British Library without a higher degree and letter of recommendation, or most University libraries in either North America or Europe. The wonder of the eclectic mix of resources that has become available online is precisely that (despite issues of license and charging) the academy is now able to share more sources with more people than ever before – both within the weird hierarchy of differently funded institutions, and with independent scholars. We certainly need new models of academic publishing (roll on the abolition of the scholarly journal!), but there is a danger that in emphasising the new class divisions (which are certainly real), we forget the old ones.

    Tim Hitchcock


  2. Dear Tim,

    First, thanks for coming by!

    I'm not sure that the introductory-recommendation letter to archivists/librarians has completely gone the way of the dodo. This is still required at some libraries/archives in the United States.

    I agree that we can't forget old class divisions. Carrying on two parallel conversations (per my post, on larger historian-as-public-intellectual issues), is better than one homogeneous class of scholars having one session with the choir. At least the outsiders looking in can see that there are two or more conversations going on among historians.

    I worry somewhat, I think, about the power of our collective voice if some professionals read from higher-priced publications and others read from what is free and/or online. Are we acting cohesively as an interest group? Are our professional organizations (OAH, AHA, etc.) hearing all of our collective voices when forming policy positions?

    – TL


  3. My immediate response would be to ask if you really want us to act as a cohesive 'interest group'? The important context and role of both academics and their doppelgängers among more fully formed public intellectuals, is the extent to which they individually contribute to a broader social discourse. My own view (and this is entirely conventional in this context), is that one wants as many views as possible, expressed in as democratic and inclusive a context as possible.

    The internet has formed the single most important levelling act since the print revolution, and the position we are now forced to contemplate is how we, as a society, manage the process of creation (which is bound to create hierarchies of access, as it is resource intensive) with deliver. I think you are entirely right to worry about access, but probably wrong to expect the AHA in America or its equivalent organisations in Europe and the rest of the world to provide the answer.

    For myself, I am looking to social software, illegal downloads, and the problematics of copyright in an age of the infinite copy, to wear away at the silos of data. Tim Hitchcock


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