Blogs > Cliopatria > On the Internet, anyone can be a historian

Oct 24, 2009 1:03 am

On the Internet, anyone can be a historian

The Washington Post has a flattering profile of a young Wikipedian, Adam Lewis, who worked on the article for Washington, D.C. The punchline comes a few paragraphs in:
Lewis joined thousands of other amateurs toiling in obscurity on Wikipedia, where facts are more important than the star historians who tend to dominate the popular view of history. On Wikipedia, anyone can be a historian.

I think this is suspect in a couple of ways (do"star historians" really dominate the popular view of history? what does"historian" mean in the Wikipedia context, where the policy is"no original research"?) but the spirit of the remark is right on, and relevant beyond just Wikipedia.

The history profession hasn't yet been much affected by the"pro-am revolution", but it's increasingly possible for amateur historians to do original work with professional quality (even if that work is unlikely to much resemble academic history writing). Some academic fields--astronomy is the most dramatic example--have already started benefiting greatly from the contributions of amateurs. But history seems slow on the uptake, with frustratingly little appetite for collaborative projects and little interest in taking the work of amateur historians seriously (the exciting projects of George Mason's Center for History and New Media notwithstanding).

Will that change dramatically? Will a pro-am revolution come to the history profession? The case of history of science may be instructive here. History of science has actually had a vibrant"pro-am" community (of scientists who write science history) since well before the Internet made relevant sources and publishing venues easily accessible to other interested groups of amateur historians. Nevertheless, historians of science have not drawn closer to pro-am scientist-historians in recent decades--just the opposite, they've withdrawn from scientist-historians and often dismiss their work as hopelessly naive or self-interested. If history of science is any guide, I fear that history as a whole may view the coming rise of"pro-am" history as more of a threat than an opportunity.


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David M Fahey - 10/25/2009

My subject line question is something that I wrestled with not very successfully in my article "Old Time Breweries: Academic and Breweriana Historians," Ohio History 116 (2009). There are people who clearly are professional historians and others who clearly are not, but there also are many other people whose status is bleary. Perhaps somebody could explain for me what it takes to be a professional historian. Academic degrees? Jobs? Publishers? Audience? Source materials? Original thesis set in a historiographic context?

Sage Ross - 10/24/2009

I think you're right on target here. Which is why it's such a shame that historians don't take the open access movement more seriously.

I hope never to publish any scholarly work in a closed-access journal, but at this point that means my options are few indeed.

Sage Ross - 10/24/2009

Re: 1. I don't deny that there are some star historians who shape the public view of history. But the quote says "dominate".

Re: 2. I think scientists who try to write history are widely viewed as amateurs by historians of science, except in cases where they actually make a full-fledged effort to become enculturated in the ways of the history profession. Certainly that's not universally the case, and historians of science of a certain bent identify more with the outlook of scientists than of mainstream historians.

Re: 3. You're right. But of course, genealogy and local history and other things that amateurs can fruitfully get involved in are precisely the areas from which professional historians (by-and-large) have sought to distance themselves.

Jonathan Jarrett - 10/24/2009

Down at my end of history, the Middle Ages, we are seeing a certain amount of this and I'm sorry to say that some of the reactions amateur work is getting is as threatened as you describe, Sage. On the other hand we are perhaps too accepting in one particular field, which is the bringing of numbers or science into the discipline. People who have statistical, mathematical, or natural-scientific expertise and have taken a secondary interest in history are producing some very interesting work—I've seen especially work on metrology and weather systems but disease is another obvious area—but it seems as if it too often has a shortcut through peer review because the people reviewing simply don't know any experts who can check the non-historical elements adequately.

The real problem with accepting such work is in fact peer review. It is applied too snobbishly in some cases, where although someone is not writing in the academic style their points may still be valid. But it is also hard to explain to people, people who don't necessarily see themselves as students but want to be seen as contributors, that there are some requirements for scholarly work to be accepted which will be defended by the discipline; navigating that without seeming, to the rejected contributor, like a shadowy cabal protecting their own is difficult (especially given how many of us also seem to feel that there is a shadowy cabal to which we don't belong...).

The place where I think we are seeing this play out is publication on the Internet. The discipline at large seems still to be using commercial readiness-to-print as a kind of preliminary review that allows them to disregard online-only, and especially self-published, scholarship. This annoys me greatly because it is, essentially, outsourcing peer review to commercial interests. But obviously while there is good scholarly work in online and even self-published online contexts, there is also Wikipedia vandalism and widespread ignorance. With both sorts of amateur contributions we seem to have a long way to go before procedures are worked out for allowing ourselves to distinguish the worthwhile and encourage it and a fortress mentality isn't really helping.

Andre Van Mayer - 10/24/2009

1. Of course "star historians" shape the public view of history: Goodwin, McCullough, Ambrose, et al.

2. The role of scientists in History of Science is not exactly that of amateurs, it seems to me -- although some certainly do not have the professional attitudes of a historian. The same situation exists in, e.g., legal history.

3. It's my impression that in astronomy amateurs play a limited (though no doubt important) role, in observation -- I don't think there are a lot of respected amateur cosmologists. In History, similarly, "amateurs" often make respectable contributions in local history, genealogy, aspects of material culture, etc.

Jonathan Dresner - 10/24/2009

I suspect that the biggest "pro-am" revolution in history is going to come out of the genealogy movement. The accumulated collective biographies will revolutionize social history, if we can figure out how to bring them together, and the interesting stories people find really can challenge and deepen our understanding of social change.

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