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The Future of the Past: History Beyond the Book

April 29, 2009, 9:14 am

[Editor's note: Karl Jacoby's Shadows at Dawn: A Borderlands Massacre and the Violence of History is a must read. And the website he created to support the book is a model for the future. Below, he shares some thoughts on what that future might look like. Thanks, Karl.]

As the American newspaper industry collapses around us, its economics imploding under pressure from the worldwide web, we can begin to see hints that the book publishing industry is on the cusp of the same downward spiral. History book sales are down. Penguin and other presses have announced layoffs. The once venerable Houghton Mifflin may soon cease to publish trade books altogether.

Such changes ought to be sobering to historians. Ever since history first emerged as an academic profession in the mid-nineteenth century, the basic unit of production has been the book. One needs to publish a book to get tenure and, at most institutions, publish another book to get promoted to full professor. What will happen to this century-old tradition if books become harder to publish and more historical scholarship heads off for the new, untamed frontier of the web?

Like everyone else in publishing and academia, I don’t have a complete answer to this question. But based on my recent experience — publishing a book in the Penguin History of American Life series (Shadows at Dawn: A Borderlands Massacre and the Violence of History) and creating a companion website — I have gathered a few random insights, which I offer below in the hope of beginning a long overdue conversation among historians about the perils and possibilities before us.

The Good

In an ideal world, the web allows historians to expand the reach of their books, while improving the transparency of the historical process. In my case, for example, I placed more than fifty of the primary documents I used in writing my book on the web. Rather than checking footnotes and going to obscure, out-of-the-way archives, scholars can now directly consult the documents themselves. Teachers now have the ability to create classroom exercises using the very same primary sources I relied upon to construct my narrative. Although it is too early to tell, I like to imagine that having a companion website may not undercut my book but may even give it prolonged life in the classroom—the so-called “long tail” described by Chris Anderson.

The web also seems to be a convenient place to locate some of the more cumbersome and expensive features of a conventional book. Long appendixes, data sets, bibliographic essays, extra maps? These can all migrate to the web. Indeed, one can even contemplate a future in which the balance between evidence and argument in historical narrative shifts, with books being shorter and more argument-driven, and most of the evidence being displayed not on the printed page but rather in cyberspace.

Finally, books may be expensive and may not travel easily, but the web is international and free (albeit if one has access to a computer). Although my book has only been published in the U.S., my website has gotten visits from Germany, Norway, England, Mexico, Switzerland, and India, among other countries. Moreover, the feedback function on my site helps erode the barrier between author and reader. I have gotten wonderful responses from people who have read the book or visited the site — including notes from the descendants of some of the figures in my study, who have volunteered additional family materials for the website. And thankfully, because a website, unlike a book, is never final, this new material can be added to my project as it arrives.

The Bad

Creating a website is, alas, a lot of work. As so often seems to be the case, the computer has not diminished our workload as the futurists all promised at the dawn of the computer age but rather expanded it. It took almost six months of hard work to get my site up and running, and I expect to spend much of my upcoming summer fixing its many rough edges.

Creating a website is also expensive. The only way I was able to launch my site was by cobbling together some help from my home institution’s computer support team and our summer research program. Otherwise, I would have been completely out of luck. Like most historians, I have no computer programming skills, and I quickly discovered that the cost of having a professional design even the most rudimentary website for me would have been prohibitive. (Most web programmers I consulted charged between $3,000 and $5,000 to build a site for a book.) My home institution was generous enough to host my site, but otherwise simply finding a server for a site can be costly.

These costs extend to permissions. The only documents and photos I was able to put on line were those in the public domain from places like the National Archives. Most other archives charge fees—and they charge more for the web (often twice as much to put a photo on a website than to use it in a book).

The Ugly

If we cannot figure out in the next few years how to present meaningful historical research on the web, I fear for my current grad students. Newcomers to the profession will likely find themselves trying to land jobs and earn tenure at a time when publishing opportunities may be radically reduced. Yet senior colleagues and administrators may well continue to expect them to produce books to move up the academic ladder.

At the same time, I also fear the creeping workload in academia: that in the not-so-distant future, historians will be expected not only to research and write books, but also to create companion websites for their projects as well.

Final Thoughts

I don’t think I would ever do another book project without also creating a companion website — in fact, I even think it might make sense to create the website first, as a place to collect documents, try out ideas, and solicit early feedback. But as much as I think such an approach has to recommend itself intellectually, I do not know how it will be perceived within the academy. Our profession will need to figure out a way to evaluate websites and the considerable amount of academic labor that they represent—and soon.

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