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Amy Martinellli, “Writing and the Dissertation Process: Notes from conference panel breakout session on ‘Writing History’ at the History of Education Society Annual Meeting, November 5, 2010″

Stages of scholars and scholarship in this breakout group:  Dissertation: 8; Pre-Diss: 5; Articles: 3; Manuscript: 3.  “No Book, No Legacy!”

Q: How do you keep track of archival sources?  I don’t really know how to organize.  What do you put down?

A: Most of the sources were photocopied in an archive, but I wasn’t living where I was researching so I took too much.  In the cases of archives in which there were restrictions on photocopying I spent time reading.

Q: How do you figure out what to put on the page?

A: Be careful to distinguish direct quotations from other information from the sources.  [Looking at layout of notes template as provided here.] The yellow box shows notes about sources but also direct quotations.   You can search across multiple fields and would do that across her notes and the source.  The downside of the process is that there is a lot of typing.  There are other, less user-friendly packages designed for qualitative research that work with pdfs to take snippets so you don’t have to retype, but unless you are using certain documents you may not be able to use that kind of software.  The reason that I had two interfaces is that I wanted to be able to distinguish between sources.  What was important was not doing what Endnote does, where all the information is collected in a SINGLE place.  This separated the data into other sections.

Q: At what point do you start writing as you collect data?  I started writing my draft and then I had to go back.  My stuff is in Singapore and I had to go back.  At what point do you stop writing?

A: (Ansley Erickson):  I wrote as soon as I could. Sometimes I started writing when I thought I’d mastered a section, chronologically.  I would look sometimes at 800 notes.  For some people the feeling of being “not ready to write yet” becomes a problem.

Other responses:

  • You have to start soon so that you see where the problems are and what the questions are.
  • You have to let go because you don’t know what you’re trying to write or what your argument is when until you start to write.
  • Find your body rhythm.  I can’t write in the morning but I can write at night.  Guard that time jealously; that is your sacred time.  Don’t fret if you only write one sentence today.  Tomorrow you might write ten pages.
  • Consider trying voice recognition software or a transcription service to enable you to talk your writing.  There was a discussion about interviewing, including people who’d done oral history and could code without transcribing.

Q: How do you know when you’ve already done enough research?  There is a difference between a dissertation and a book.  You’re writing for the committee but when you’re writing on your own, who am I writing for?  Do I want to write for a different audience?  Who do we want our audiences to be, ultimately?

A: I would write a lot of descriptive narrative, more than I would need in the end.  This way there is a process of having something way too long and then working it down.

Other responses:

  • Transcribing and transcription Tools
  • Zotero is something we should be talking about.  I want to be able to use it but how can the small pieces of information be grouped together?  All of the pieces have to be seen through the one source?  How can I organize?  I can do this with FileMaker.
  • Remember 20 years ago when computers were against us?  And now computers are with us.  When I started doing this research people were trying to push me toward SPSS and FileMaker but I used Word and Excel with my method from high school putting note cards into word.   I didn’t have to spend too much time on learning software; the software isn’t as important as the process. Software might be useful for some people but might be useless for others.

Concluding Comments

  • Those at the beginning of the research and writing process should invest the time to get to know new technologies when doing small-scale projects.  The system you use for an article might be different than a dissertation.  Graduate school coordinators and peers might share strategies for studying and writing.  You needn’t reinvent the wheel.
  • Force yourself to present to your peers early in the process, even if your committee doesn’t see it.  There is accountability when you present to each other.
  • Ask your department chair if you can receive funding for technological aspects of your project and for presentations to peers.  “Publish and Flourish” luncheons are one way to do this.
  • Ansley Erickson is willing to send the FileMaker template she used, upon request.

Robbie Gross, “Notes from conference panel breakout session on ‘Writing History’ at the History of Education Society Annual Meeting, November 5, 2010”

Writing in the New Media

  • That Twitter and blogs change the pacing of writing, encouraging brevity—which might not be a bad thing.
  • That the internet, on the one hand, encourages the democratization of knowledge.  On the other hand, however, this democratization must occur outside of the context of a continued corporatization of knowledge.  Writing must be descriptive but also prescriptive.

Researching and Publishing in the New Media

  • Continued concern about tenure—that in an academic context, standards for advancement must change or there will be no incentives to produce work in different kinds of forums for young scholars.
  • Also concerns over problems of copyright violations in an increasingly loose and accessible digital world.
  • Discussion of the benefits of doing research in a digital age (e.g. Google Books)
  • One important benefit of publishing in a digital world is that it speeds the process of consumption.  Readers can respond far more quickly than in the old publishing paradigm, where the peer review process takes too long.
  • Fears expressed that this emphasis on “speed” might create a lack of careful peer review, and lead to lesser quality thoughts being published.
  • The problem here is one of filtering, of finding ways to sift through lots of published material to find the stuff we want to read.  The current model is to filter then publish, but there are some recent examples (e.g. Shakespeare Quarterly)  who attempted a model of publish then filter through the response of the general readership.

Writing and Readership

  • There is a large market out there for long-form nonfiction, as evidenced by how various journals of opinion (The AtlanticThe New Yorker) are increasing their non-fiction writing at the expense of fiction.
  • How can authors resolve the problem of how to communicate with their intended readership?  If the goal is to have the communities you are writing about read your work, then does that change your writing style?  Does it entail writing in less sophisticated prose?  There’s a fear that you will be writing “above” your audience.
  • There are lots of different ways to communicate your work to different communities.  It might be that your prose style is too complex for a particular group of readers, but that the images, maps, tables, etc. that you include in your work are accessible.

John McClymer, “How Might Web-Born History Differ from Traditional Historical Writing?”

I raise this question because it seems to me to follow from the discussion to date; not because I think a full and finished answer is possible but because it is a question we all will need to address. And, as the editor for online projects at the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, I raise it as someone with a professional stake in our provisional answers.  JGAPE Online is a response to the many opportunities web-based scholarship offers and to some of the professional obstacles that currently inhibit the exploration of those opportunities.

Most important among the obstacles is the tendency among evaluation committees and academic administrators to discount online projects. In part, this is due to the general lack of the traditional kind of peer review. There is a palpable irony here. Much online scholarship is supported by grants from organizations such as the National Endowment for the Humanities. As both a recipient of several such grants and as a participant on a number of review panels, I can attest to the rigor of the review process. A variety of organizations, from scholarly journals to EDSITEment, also review online sites. Nonetheless, lacking the review process employed by journals and university presses, online scholarship continues to be viewed as peripheral – at best – to the historical literature.

Several unfortunate consequences follow. One is that historians beginning their careers stay away from online scholarship.  This is entirely understandable of course. But, it leads to a strange situation in which the most senior scholars (by which I mean people like me) have an undesired monopoly in exploring the wonderful new tools and toys that enable digital scholarship while the fresh blood in the discipline is honing their skills on monographs.

The current financial situation of university and other scholarly presses means that this is an untenable situation even over the short term. As the cost of publishing monographs continues to rise, as universities freeze their budgets, the number of print monographs appearing each year declines. It is very much in the interests of younger scholars that the standards for tenure and promotion accommodate the new reality. And, in what will such an accommodation consist? Online publication is clearly going to be a major part of an inevitable shift. Inevitable, however, need not mean rapid. I can imagine this process happening by fits and starts and with inertia yielding very slowly indeed. We historians are, all too often, hidebound.

Such a worst case scenario need not be the way we stumble into the future. I am guardedly pessimistic, which is to say that I can imagine somewhat less bad paths. The “Sustaining Digital History” initiative, directed by Will Thomas and Doug Seefelt at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, seeks to get journals to serve as gatekeepers for web-born scholarship by “publishing” online projects. The journals will use the same blind review process they employ with the articles that appear in print. So, an online project published by JGAPE Online will go through the traditional review process thereby providing the traditional seal of approval. Other journals, such as the Journal of American History and the William and Mary Quarterly, have expressed interest.

Another ray of sunlight is the decision by several prominent university presses to publish E-book versions of monographs. Where they lead, financial constraints will force others to follow.

Will necessity prove again the mother of invention? The answer is by no means clear. E-books are simply monographs that happen to be digitized. And other online publications may also avoid innovations in scholarship. Many should of course.  Innovation for its own sake will contribute nothing to historical writing.

But some online scholarship should be different. Let me give several examples from existing or in press projects at JGAPE.  “Visualizing White Supremacy: The American War in the Philippines,” is my attempt to consider how “white supremacy” showed itself in several media – motion pictures, stereopticon slides, photographs and illustrations in news weeklies. Typically we use one or more screen shots in discussing motion pictures. However, the films I use are brief and freely available at the Library of Congress’ “American Memory” site. It is clearly preferable, I argue, to enable the reader to also be a viewer of the evidence.

Using Lewis Hine’s Child Labor Photographs,” is an online forum, led by historian Kate Sampsell-Willmann, focusing upon the photographs Hine took for the National Child Labor Committee from 1908 to 1912. Few historians of Progressive Reform fail to use Hine’s images in their teaching and many refer to them in their scholarly projects as well. Our hope is that, by inviting those interested to chime in on which photographs they use and how they use them, we can expand the boundaries of the usual print forum. Dr. Sampsell-Willman and I began in the usual way. We asked several scholars who have used Hine’s work to participate. But, because the forum is online, we also invited members of several H-NET lists, such as H-SHGAPE, to share their ideas. And we invited them to post images.

And we will in the near future take advantage of another feature of digital history. The Library of Congress has digitized thousands of Hine negatives at very high resolution. This allows one to see detail not previously available. See the Library’s “Bringing an NCLC Photograph into Focus,” for an example that raises key methodological issues.  By providing far higher resolution to a familiar image, the LC creates a new artifact. This enables us to see previously unseen information, which is of course a good thing. But, it also enables us to use the image in ways Hine himself could not. To an extent, that is, it removes Hine from his own image. We hope to provoke a lively debate about what this means for us as historians.

I hope participants in this forum will share your ideas about the directions online scholarship may take and the kinds of institutional supports it will need. We all have a professional stake in the answers.

John McClymer
Professor of History
Assumption College
Co-editor, H-ETHNIC
Editor for online projects, Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era

How to cite this page:
John McClymer, “How Might Web-Born History Differ from Traditional Historical Writing?”, in Writing History: How Historians Research, Write, and Publish in the Digital Age, November 8, 2010, Continue reading “John McClymer, “How Might Web-Born History Differ from Traditional Historical Writing?””

Kristen Nawrotzki, “Reflections on ‘Writing History'”

Like others around the world, I have read the essays and comments on the Writing History site with great interest.  They have inspired me to reconsider my beliefs and practices relating to the writing history on both global and personal levels.

I am a historian who came of age, intellectually speaking, at the cusp of the digital revolution.  I started off researching-thinking-writing (the three are, for me, a single, inextricable phenomenon) on lined notecards, using a favorite number two pencil while turning page after page of yellowed and quickly disintegrating school records in an archives reading room.  Somewhere in the middle of my doctoral studies I started to use a laptop, eventually delighting in the convenience of JStor and of Endnote.  Soon I became accustomed to reading full-text articles, books, and other digitized materials online, feeling not a little put out by occasionally having to go to the library to find something not (yet) digitized.  Nowadays, although I continue to write and publish new archives-based research, I can remember only hazily the last time that I personally, literally set foot in an archives building – or any kind of library building, for that matter — and turned a page with my own hand.

To be sure, being able to review and analyze materials from digitized archival collections from the comfort of my own office has had its benefits, including making my research less expensive and reducing the size of its carbon footprint.  And to be fair, there are also disadvantages to the availability and accessibility of digital resources.  Regardless of how readily available and accessible information is, and regardless of how easy it is – with the right software — to catalogue, keyword, and cross-reference it; to read it, lose it, and find it again — the sheer volume of information we are confronted with is overwhelming.  And that may be true of software and other tools as much as it is of the primary and secondary source materials to which we increasingly have access, day and night, worldwide.

The essays and comments comprising the Writing History discussion confirm my own experience of the ways in which the tools of researching-thinking-writing have been revolutionized by digital technology.  What I’m not as certain about is the extent to which historical thinking (as opposed to just data-organizing, or data hoarding) has changed.  Has yours?  Or, in terms of the habits and skills of mind, of research and of writing, is it thus far a case of “the more things change, the more they stay the same”?   Do we assume this to be true in the training we are giving to our students?

As a historian of education with more than a passing interest in intellectual history, I can’t help but wonder about resistance to these changes within the discipline.  How many of us who entered the historical discipline before the digital revolution have yet to really embrace it in our teaching, research, or writing?  Is their (your, our) work any better for this resistance?  Or is all twenty-first-century historiography necessarily “digital history”?

This experiment in online scholarly discussion purposefully blurs distinctions between what is public and what is private, between what has been authored by one person and what has been collaboratively developed in ongoing asynchronous conversation.  Does it work?  To whom does it (not) appeal?  Is it important that it is situated outside the traditional scholarly spaces of peer-reviewed journals and conference programs?

I ask all these questions not only as a way to draw together some of the threads of discussion currently on the Writing History site, but also with a view to what lies ahead for this initiative.  We hope that the online forum and the panel at the History of Education Society Annual Meeting in Cambridge will serve as a joint first installment of a longer-lived multifaceted project on the topic of Writing History in the Digital Age.  With this in mind, we invite you to contribute your reflections now on the wider theme as well as on the Writing History site itself, and to contact us with suggestions for future installments of the project, in whatever form.

Please share your own reflections by submitting a comment.

How to cite this page:
Kristen Nawrotzki, “Reflections on ‘Writing History’,” Writing History: How Historians Research, Write, and Publish in the Digital Age, October 28, 2010,

Creative Commons License This web page from Writing History: How Historians Research, Write, and Publish in the Digital Age is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License. You may freely distribute this work under the same terms for non-commercial purposes, but you must include a citation similar to the one above.

Ansley Erickson, “Keeping the Writing (and Thinking) Going”

Writing my dissertation taught me that I write to think, or that I think by writing. My best thinking happens not when I am mulling over a paper or trying to craft an argument in my own head, away from paper or the computer screen, but when I am actually trying to express ideas through sentences and paragraphs.

My dissertation writing, and thinking, were aided by a variety of strategies that help me get started in writing. Just as I’ve confronted the challenge of moving forward in my research in even when the exact end product isn’t clear, writing involved similar challenges. Many historians talk about the point when, in final revisions or even after, they say, “Oh, that is what my project is about!” with a sense of clarity that eluded them earlier. Knowing that this is often the case, I wanted to figure out how to keep writing – regularly, productively, and without too much anxiety – while that clarity was still developing.

Many of the strategies I used in my own writing came from my life as a high-school humanities teacher, when I learned much from colleagues and courses in the New York City Writing Project. The Writing Project emphasized ways to get reluctant writers to write, in part by making writing a part of different kinds of thinking. Apparently, my future dissertation-writing self was paying attention, because once I had embarked on the longest writing task of my life, I found myself using strategies that I had first encountered with my high school students. My thinking about writing strategies was refreshed by training for the Columbia Undergraduate Writing Program (which drew in part on John Bean’s work on writing in the university classroom) and by stories of writing I’ve heard from other historians.

Using these strategies while writing my dissertation meant that it was possible for me to keep producing text every day that I sat down to write. Not necessarily the same kind of text every day, and not polished text, but text that would, with (sometimes extensive) recrafting and editing, find its way into the final product.

Just start somewhere. Sometimes, it was overwhelming to think of starting on a new chapter. What would the overarching argument be? Was I exactly sure? Could I state it succinctly enough? I found these kinds of questions paralyzing at times, and so to get the writing – and the thinking – started, I would choose some place to start just because I could imagine writing about it. Often I chose something specific: I would describe an event – who did what where, and why, with what consequence? Answering these questions could get me started in storytelling mode. Or, I would describe a source that particularly captured my attention, and then move from description to analysis, explaining its significance. Although I haven’t revisited this text in years (but now I am prompted to do so by Sarah Manekin’s comment in her essay on this site), I think of some of these approaches as akin to Anne Lamott’s ideas in Bird by Bird.

Outline, sometimes. I wrote very general-level outlines to help orient me to a chapter, and then added to them by cutting-and-pasting in the different bits of text that were relevant, often pieces written with different small starting points, as I described above. If outlining wasn’t working, though, because I still hadn’t figured out or settled on what the chief argument of the text was or what exact structure the narrative would take, I put outlining aside and let myself write smaller pieces, as described above.

Reach for the big picture. Writing conversationally, or in brainstorming fashion, without the pressure to produce the perfect erudite phrase, was an important way to get my mind moving and to clarify the “big point” I was trying to make. This helped when I had a creeping sense that there was a “big point,” but just had a hard time articulating it. I have many brainstorming paragraphs that begin with phrases like “This might be about…” or “Maybe the point is…” or “What if it was about…”

Work backwards to make sure the pieces hold together. Outlining was an editing tool more than a writing tool for me. When I had bits that I knew needed to work in relationship to one another, outlines were helpful in trying out those relationships. But I found outlines to be even more useful as a way to review and check my prose for clarity and organization. When I was in a mental tangle about how to organize a chapter or a section, I worked backwards from the text to create a detailed reverse outline. This forced me to see how the section was in fact structured – something that sometimes wasn’t immediately clear to me as I would try to edit – and made it easier for me to see where the structure wasn’t working. I know of one senior historian for whom the last stage in writing a Bancroft Prize-winning book was to reverse-outline his entire manuscript, to check both for organizational clarity and paragraph-level transitions.

Talk out what you want to write. As colleagues prepared for conferences and job interviews, there was a lot of talk about describing your project succinctly and smoothly. I found that forcing myself to talk about what I was struggling to write – even if just a small piece of the overall project – could help get the thought process going, enough to them sit down at the computer again. Sometimes I’d talk to my (patient) husband, or sometimes to myself in the car, or on a walk or in a quiet room. (Now you see how even young scholars feed the image of the Mad Professor!) Reading aloud a text I was having trouble editing would help me hear both sentence-level issues and broader problems with flow and argument.

Value editing as much as writing. I tried (although I didn’t always succeed) to produce at least some new text each day I sat down to write. But my writing style, with all of these various bits and types of writing, required that I would edit, and edit, and re-edit. For this reason, among others, I’m sure this approach isn’t for everyone. I had to leave time a lot of time to edit, and then put a document away, and then come back to it later with a fresher view.

Write for other purposes. Early in graduate school, one of my professors referred to my writing as “a trifle clotted.” I was heartbroken – I thought I wrote well! What does this mean for my future!?! But the suggestion he gave after this critique has proven invaluable for me. He suggested that I write more, and not only academic prose, even in the form of a journal. I’ve been only a very inconsistent morning journal-writer, but what I have done I have appreciated both personally and as a writer. More broadly, though, the message was that we can help ourselves write well just by writing a lot, by working that muscle.

There are surely very different and very useful approaches to writing. I know of colleagues who write very differently – one who transformed her intricately detailed outlines into narrative sentence by sentence, for example, or another who wrote carefully crafted topic sentences for each of the hundred-plus paragraphs she would anticipate in a chapter, make sure they were in just the order she needed, and then flesh out the paragraphs from there. I share my approach only as one version to provoke thinking about yours or other possible ones.

For me, dissertating was about getting comfortable with the idea of being in a long, dogged pursuit of something whose outlines were often fuzzy. I had to figure out how to acknowledge that uncertainty without having that mean intellectual paralysis. Thinking about writing in the ways I’ve described here was, for me, a crucial part of keeping the process moving productively forward both in thought and on paper, while clarity came gradually.

I have an uncle by marriage who is a lifelong academic. He offered dissertation advice that I took to be great writing advice. He once asked a colleague why he came to the department office, every day, whether he taught or not. His friend replied that he never knew when the muse would come, but that he had to be sure to be at his desk when it did. I feel this way about writing. Many days, I won’t generate the paragraph that captures the argument and makes it all clear. But if every day I’m writing something, then I am more likely to be there when the muse comes.

About the author:
Ansley T. Erickson
completed her Ph.D. in U.S. History at Columbia in May, 2010, and is Assistant Professor of Cultural Foundations of Education and History (by courtesy) at Syracuse University. She thanks writing mentors and colleagues Ed Osterman, Linas Gintoff, Josh Heisler, Nicole Wallack, and the many New York City high school students who got her thinking about writing.

How to cite this page:
Ansley Erickson, “Keeping the Writing (and Thinking) Going,” Writing History: How Historians Research, Write, and Publish in the Digital Age, October 6, 2010,

Creative Commons License This web page from Writing History: How Historians Research, Write, and Publish in the Digital Age is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License. You may freely distribute this work under the same terms for non-commercial purposes, but you must include a citation similar to the one above.


Do you have a contribution you’d like to share? We welcome your essays on the process of researching, writing, and publishing book-length historical works in the digital era. Our commenting window is open from Oct 11th to Nov 11th, 2010. Email your idea or draft essay to the editor, Kristen Nawrotzki, at this address: kdnawrotzki [at] gmail [dot] com

Currently, most essays run between 1,500 to 5,000 words, though we have no length requirement. We use in-line citations (for technical reasons), and web links and embedded graphics are also welcome. The editor may suggest revisions for length, content, or clarity, and also reserves the right to decline, hold, or remove any essay, and will not accept anonymous contributions. By submitting an essay, you are freely contributing your words to this site, and possibly to a future publication on this topic. Contributors will be asked to share their work under the Creative Commons license for this site, a non-exclusive agreement that allows anyone to copy, adapt, and distribute it under the same terms for non-commercial purposes, with the original source appropriately cited.

— Have changes in print and digital publishing influenced how you read or write?

We have witnessed many changes in print and digital publishing over the past several years. Have any of these influenced how you read — or write — about history? Use the commenting feature to share your perspective.

How to cite this page:
“Have changes in print and digital publishing influenced how you read or write?” Writing History: How Historians Research, Write, and Publish in the Digital Age, October 6, 2010,

Creative Commons License This web page from Writing History: How Historians Research, Write, and Publish in the Digital Age is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License. You may freely distribute this work under the same terms for non-commercial purposes, but you must include a citation similar to the one above.

Jack Dougherty, “Storytelling and Civil Rights: From Dissertation to Book to Web-book”

While stumbling my way through the world of academic publishing over the past decade, some important lessons — and enduring questions — have become clearer in my mind. Some lessons came directly to me as advice from more experienced authors, while some questions arose from observing what appears to be happening with the new wave of digital communication. I’m certainly not a prolific author, with just one book published and another in progress. And my perspective may differ from that of other historians, because my scholarly writing on twentieth-century schooling and civil rights bridges the past and present. In some cases, the people in my community-based studies are still alive, and sometimes have strong opinions about the past that may differ from my own interpretation. What follows are the lessons I have learned about storytelling and civil rights, and those I’m still learning.

From dissertation to book
When I was scrambling to finish my dissertation in 1997, my audience was a five-member faculty committee, with the power to grant me either a doctoral degree, or another bill for tuition that I couldn’t afford. My desire to complete my degree to get a job, together with our nearly-depleted checking account, became a powerful motivator to write. But in my interdisciplinary graduate program, the challenge was to produce scholarship that would satisfy three historians, a sociologist, and a political scientist, including some who had already published important works on Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the city I had studied. My thesis, “More Than One Struggle,” explained how changes in social and power structures caused the rise and fall of various Black-led school reform movements during the twentieth century. I had recorded over sixty oral history interviews with three generations of civil rights activists in this city, but my writing spoke directly to the historians and social scientists at my dissertation defense, and the bodies of scholarly literature each of them represented. My work emphasized historical analysis for an audience of professors.

After voting to grant me a Ph.D. (pending another week of rewrites), individual faculty members took me aside to offer their personal advice on strategies for transforming the dissertation into a book. The junior historian of the group, who had most recently signed a book contract, coached me on how to approach editors and pitch my dissertation to match their current titles in civil rights history. The late 1990s seemed like a tumultuous time in the publishing world (or is it always this way?). Some of the academic press editors I contacted had been recently replaced by new staff who were driven more by sales than substance. Also surprising were the “unwritten rules” that encouraged simultaneous proposal submissions to book publishers, but not journal editors. (Much of what I learned about navigating this process was thoughtfully articulated by others in a 2006 H-Education guest discussion I moderated, titled “Book Publishing for Historians of Education”).

While revising my dissertation, the most influential advice I received about book authoring came from an external reviewer for the University of North Carolina Press, who urged me to re-frame my analytical dissertation into an historical narrative. This reviewer asked me to craft a more compelling storyline, featuring the lives of key historical actors to guide readers through six decades of complex social and political change. History should be driven by activists’ stories, this reviewer argued, not the historiographical argument. In my response to the readers’ reports, I laid out my initial plans to bring three (later, four) key individuals to the forefront, each representing a different generation of Black activism from the 1930s to the 1990s. But I was clearly nervous about this emphasis on narrative. Looking back on my response, I warned that featuring the tales of three male civil rights leaders might conflict with the underlying analysis:

. . .this biographical emphasis must be done cautiously. First, I need to emphasize that individual leaders do not initiate nor represent an entire reform movement. As I make clear in the manuscript, the coalitions which form around leaders bring multiple voices, and sometimes conflicting agendas. Furthermore, as historians of the civil rights movement have documented elsewhere, the crucial work of movement support and protest was often carried out by women, who typically did not generate the official statements and speeches. (See full version of author’s response to reader report 1998)

Making storytelling central to my historical scholarship was valuable advice, but no one had ever taught me how to write this way. Had I been absent on the day we supposedly studied novel-writing skills in my graduate history seminars? Or was it my fault for taking too many social science and policy courses, rather than literature? Granted, I’m not a fast writer, but wrapping my head around rewriting my dissertation into a narrative, with all of my stumbles and false starts, added at least two more years to the process. My partner helpfully suggested that I envision the final product as an analytical narrative, a hybrid of storyline and argument, which fit well with my way of thinking.

Most important, revising the book manuscript in this way changed how I visualized the readers, from a narrow group of professors to a larger segment of the public. Writing community-based civil rights history means telling stories about real people — both elite and ordinary — who collectively sought to improve their world by challenging existing power structures. Recognizing my role in listening to activists’ oral testimonies, reading and analyzing historical documents, and re-telling these stories through my interpretive lens helped me to connect the book with broader audiences. Near the end of the revising process, I gained a much clearer sense of who I was writing for: not only the activists who were still alive or their family members, but for younger generations of readers — in Milwaukee and elsewhere — who are trying to make sense of where the recent history of race and urban school reform has taken them, and the directions in which they wish to move it forward in the future.

From book to e-book to web-book
More than One Struggle was published simultaneously in paperback and hardcover in 2004. It subsequently appeared as an e-book, first in platforms for academic libraries (such as ebrary), then for individual consumer purchase (Kindle). During this period I watched the publishing industry continue through tumultuous times (is it always this way?) while working on my second project, titled On the Line, which explores how civil rights struggles over schooling and housing boundary lines shaped the metropolitan region of Hartford, Connecticut over the past century. The digital revolution sparked questions in my mind. As a historian, what is the best way to create, share, and engage others in scholarly communication? In other words, what’s the best way to “publish” my second book — and exactly what do we mean by that term nowadays, given dramatic changes in print and digital platforms?

Many historians still favor printed books as a familiar and reliable mode for sharing knowledge. Books are a stable technology that do not rely upon internet access or operating systems. We enjoy the feel of books in the palms of our hands, the ease of reading wherever we choose to sit, and how they look when we stack up our acquired knowledge on our bookshelves. We can purchase them from local booksellers and online vendors, or borrow them from academic and public libraries (provided that these institutions continue to be supported by tuition and tax dollars). But one serious limitation of printed books is that they promote one-way scholarly communication of ideas, from author to audience. Information is disseminated to readers, who play no part in the knowledge-construction process, unless they also happen to discuss it in a class or book group, send a letter to the author, write a book review, or incorporate it into their own scholarship. Certainly, readers can take the initiative to dialogue with the author or other readers, but printed books, by themselves, are not designed to promote a two-way exchange of ideas.

In this regard, the current generation of e-books face the same problem as print books. Despite the potential of digital technology, the vast majority of today’s e-books enable one-way scholarly communication, from author to audience. One editor described e-books as “glorified PDF files,” and for the most part, he’s right. For example, my college library’s ebrary platform has helped me many times when I could not obtain a printed copy. After logging in to the authenticated network, books can be accessed through ordinary web browsers. Readers can flip pages, search for key terms in this book or across others on the same platform, and copy passages to use in our writing. Click to view the current format of a typical library e-book But that’s about as far as the digital revolution has currently taken e-books.

Click to view the current format of a typical library e-book.

While Amazon’s Kindle e-books have received more media coverage, their product is not much better. True, if I download a sample or purchase a book, I can flip through pages and search key words on my personal computer or mobile device. Also, Kindle e-books allow me to highlight passages, and see those frequently highlighted by other readers. But regarding public access, libraries  appear to be stepping cautiously around Amazon’s “terms of use,” which restrict Kindle e-books  to “personal, non-commercial use” that the licensee “may not sell, rent, lease, distribute. . . to any third party.” Does this allow a library to “lend out” an e-book — or not? When Library Journal (Oder 2009) asked this question, Amazon’s corporate spokesperson said no, while some individual sales representatives said yes, leading to ongoing confusion, reports Inside Higher Ed (Fister 2010). Today, some libraries skirt around the rules by lending out Kindles that contain their only copy of a particular e-book, which they interpret to be within the terms of use agreement, and Amazon appears to be looking the other way. In practice, this means installing a $10-20 e-book inside a $140-200 hardware reader. It certainly boosts Amazon’s visibility, but may not be the most cost-effective means for expanding public access to scholarship.

A third category of scholarly communication is digital history projects, often created by historians and/or archivists to disseminate primary source materials on the web. Two relevant examples for this essay are the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project at the University of Washington, and the March on Milwaukee Civil Rights History Project at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. (Disclaimer: The latter hosts selected oral history content from my first book.) Both of these digital history websites offer free public access to primary sources — documents, databases, photos, and videos — that traditionally would have been hidden deep inside a traditional paper-based archive, or might never have been collected in the first place. Also, since both projects feature the voices of activists from multiple perspectives in the civil rights movement, they suggest alternatives to one-way author-to-audience scholarly communication. Yet spend time browsing both of these digital history projects to be reminded why historians prefer books. Neither project was designed to provide a coherent historical narrative, an interpretive thread that weaves together the disparate pieces to tell us how and why they matter. We still favor books — print or digital — because the best of these tell us meaningful stories.

Given our growing experience with print and digital culture, can we imagine a better way to create and share scholarly knowledge? If we designed a format that encouraged writers and readers from different locations to interact, and learn from one another, what might it look like? Several examples already point the way toward this new category of scholarly communication, which I refer to as web-books, meaning socially networked texts that invite participants to read, reflect, and respond, using a typical online web browser. (Hint: You’re looking at a web-book right now.) Web-books seek to merge the best of conventional books and digital innovation: intellectual coherence and reader interactivity. But don’t let the technology overshadow the idea. What’s important here is to rethink how scholars communicate with our peers and the public, and to open up the process of constructing, sharing, and evaluating knowledge. The web is simply a tool to help make it happen more easily.

Several innovative web-book models have recently appeared in the humanities, and the most relevant example for historians is the Long Civil Rights Movement (the LCRM project) by the University of North Carolina Press. With Mellon Foundation support, UNC Press and its partner organizations developed the LCRM platform, which currently hosts 50 full-text civil rights history books, including digital tools that allow users to share paragraph-level comments, questions, and links with other readers. While the LCRM is designed to sell access to copyrighted books behind a subscription-based pay wall, free registration for the pilot version is currently open to faculty, librarians, and graduate students through December 2010. (For those without access, view the free LCRM demonstration video.)

How do readers actually interact with LCRM web-books? During the early months of this pilot phase, only a handful of texts have been commented upon, but the possibilities are intriguing. For example, Ansley Erickson arranged to register her undergraduate/graduate history of education class on the LCRM pilot platform, and assigned them to write paragraph-level comments on the first chapter of James Anderson book, The Education of Blacks in the South (1988). Without specific guidance, her students began to interpret the significance of the text in their eyes, and some directly or indirectly commented on other classmates’ entries. Those of us who have taught classes using a course management system (such as Blackboard or the open-source Moodle) may have already experienced students commenting on other students’ writing, in the same classroom. But what might happen if Erickson’s students wrote comments that were viewed — and commented upon — by students at another university, perhaps in the South? How might learning change?

Another disclaimer: My book also is available on the LCRM platform, and I have actively promoted this innovation during the free access pilot phase. In addition, the March on Milwaukee Civil Rights History Project and I have experimented with inserting thought-provoking questions and primary source links into the LCRM web-book edition, to encourage readers to make connections between the book and the digital history project. See this freely accessible compilation of questions we inserted into the More than One Struggle LCRM edition. Will readers respond to these ideas, or create their own connections, or ignore them altogether? We’ll have to wait and see.

Elsewhere in the humanities, innovative web-books have featured “open peer review” as a means to invigorate scholarly communication. MediaCommonsPress recently hosted an open review edition of a leading literary journal, Shakespeare Quarterly, where authors’ submissions received paragraph-level comments from about 40 readers, some who were self-selected and some experts invited by the editor. Both the Chronicle of Higher Education (Howard 2010) and The New York Times (Cohen 2010) reported on the success of this digital humanities experiment and compared it related trends in other academic fields, such as the sciences. Kathleen Fitzpatrick, a professor of media studies at Pomona College and a founder of MediaCommonsPress, previously released a full draft of her book manuscript, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy (2009), for open peer review in an agreement with her prospective publisher, NYU Press, which simultaneously sent it out for blind review.

Click to view the open peer review edition of this book manuscript.

Humanities scholars also can gain insights from socially-networked web-books such as Candide 2.0 (public commentary on Voltaire’s 1759 classic, hosted by the New York Public Library), and Hacking the Academy (a crowd-sourced book organized by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University). Even those of us with limited computer skills can readily create web-books using open-source WordPress software plug-ins, such as and its predecessor, CommentPress. (Read more in our “How it Works” section.) Readers: please use the comment feature of this web-book to share your knowledge and recommend other scholarly web-books that encourage users to read, reflect, and respond.

Digital writing on the web offers several advantages over print and e-books. First, authors whose arguments rely upon evidence that cannot easily be captured in the text of a conventional book benefit from increased flexibility. Visual historians can link to images and video, economic historians can link to data sets, and spatial historians can link to interactive maps. (By contrast, Amazon’s current best selling historical e-books with audio and/or video clips provide only a limited selection of media content, packaged inside the proprietary book file, not linked to the public web.) By openly sharing historical source materials, web-based scholarship enables readers to examine the evidence and formulate their own interpretations, rather than relying solely on the author’s judgment.

Second, digital scholarship does not necessarily conflict with our desire to preserve the past and hold printed copies in our hands. Archival servers, stable “permalink” addresses, and thoughtful planning can maintain our web-based history, and our attachment to paper can be satisfied by “print-on-demand” services.

Third, socially networked web-books allow substantive and speedy communication between writers and readers. As authors, we cannot judge whether our own writing successfully communicates complex ideas without receiving some type of feedback from a wide range of audiences. When publishing an scholarly print or e-book, we generally have little idea how it was received unless a reader happens to contact us directly, or an academic journal prints a review, typically a year or two later. But online paragraph-level commenting and page-view data can tell us exactly which passages readers praised, panned, or never bothered to read.

Do scholarly authors really want to know what our readers think? What if they criticize our ideas on the very same digital pages we labored over? Do we genuinely wish to co-create and evaluate knowledge in public — or do we prefer our traditional norms of working in private? Of course, most of the web-book models cited above moderate comments to maintain civil discourse (and filter out spam). When attempting to explain this web-book concept to colleagues, I have found myself coining slogans like “when social media meets scholarship,” or worse, “the Academic Book meets FaceBook.” After the audience groans, I am the first to question whether or not this is a good direction for our scholarship to head, but I’m also willing to try and see what — if anything — might happen.

Proprietary versus public web-books
If academics embrace web-books and other innovative digital formats for scholarly communication (and that’s a big “if”), then we will need to grapple with proprietary versus public models, and their deeper implications for our work. Judging from the few examples at present, it appears that proprietary web-books will be designed to sell texts through a fee-based authentication system, while public web-books will offer open access to anyone who visits the site. Compare these closed and open systems on four dimensions that matter to scholars:

1) Distribution and Access: Publishers can market proprietary web-books through their existing distribution channels, which are designed to match the right content with the right audience. But someone — either the individual reader or an institutional library — needs to purchase access to this proprietary product. By contrast, a public web-book is freely available on the internet, if readers know how and where to find it.

2) Status: Most scholars strive for higher status, which in publishing circles often means signing on with a more prestigious press. Gatekeepers to academic success — the deans and faculty committees that hire and tenure junior faculty — often operate with a loosely-defined pecking order of publishers, those at the top perceived as more selective than others. But these distinctions are blurry and subject to change with market conditions. Also, scholars (and everyone else) often confuse status with a different characteristic: quality.

3) Quality: We all agree that quality matters, but we lack agreement on how scholarly work should be judged (particularly in the humanities), and at what stage(s) of the publishing process it should happen. On one hand, academic presses employ editors and external reviewers to filter their products prior to publication, to signal that books meet their standards and are deemed worth reading. On the other hand, a public web-book reverses this equation by placing content onto the internet and relying on reader comments to sort out what is — and is not — worth reading, rather than market-driven publishing. Both exercise a form of peer review, but at different stages in the scholarly communication process. Fitzpatrick (2009) argues this point:

In a self-multiplying scholarly commons, some kind of assessment of the material being published (or having been published) remains important, but not because of scarce resources; instead, what remains scarce are time and attention. For this reason, peer review needs to be put not in the service of gatekeeping, or determining what should be published for any scholar to see, but of filtering, or determining what of the vast amount of material that has been published is of interest or value to a particular scholar. As Clay Shirky has argued, “Filter-then-publish, whatever its advantages, rested on a scarcity of media that is a thing of the past. The expansion of social media means that the only working system is publish-then-filter” (Here Comes Everybody 98). . . [Read this Fitzpatrick (2009) passage in context]

4) Money: While some imagine academic publishing to be the meritocracy of scholarly writing, this ignores market forces. Given two equally “excellent” book manuscripts — one on a popular topic, and the other on an obscure one — which one is more likely to receive a rejection letter that praises the author’s work but bases its decision on the lack of a commercially viable market? Currently, most publishers — whether for-profit trade presses or not-for-profit academic presses — rely upon a stream of book sales revenue to pay for editorial, production, and marketing services. By definition, freely available resources on the web do not generate revenue, so publishers usually cannot afford to give away their proprietary products. Money is a most definitely a key factor, but one that needs to be separated from distribution & access, status, and quality.

For scholars weighing the merits of proprietary versus public web-books, which of these factors should we consider? It seems that we can quickly dispense with the money factor, based on current practices with print and e-book monographs. Correct me if I’m mistaken, but my understanding is that a moderately successful book published by an academic press sells around 1,000 copies. If we assume a royalty of 5 percent on books costing $30 each, this generates only $1,500 for the author, who is likely to have paid an equal sum in out-of-pocket expenses for photocopying, copyright permissions, indexing, etc. True, the financial payoff for a popular textbook or trade-press book is different, but most scholars did not get into this business for the money. Furthermore, I contend that scholars easily confuse status with quality, often preferring to let the relative prestige of a press to substitute for informed judgment about scholarship itself. The quality of a book is a separate issue from its format, whether print, e-book, or web-book.

For those still on the fence about proprietary versus public web-books, this brings us back to the first factor: distribution and access. As an author, my worst nightmare is to publish scholarship under an exclusive copyright contract that locks down my ideas in ways that make them nearly inaccessible to readers. All of us are watching the price of academic hardcovers steadily climb upward, with fewer guarantees of less inexpensive paperbacks on the horizon. Two years ago I saw one colleague’s hardcover-only book priced at $79, and two weeks ago, another colleague’s listed at $95. Have we reached the point where the price of a hardcover academic monograph costs more than Amazon’s Kindle reader? Some believe that e-books will save the publishing industry, but if licensing agreements hamper library access at the same time as their funding support is in jeopardy, then we risk losing an important segment of our audience. As an author, my priority is to write quality books that readers can easily access, not to play money or status games.

A public right to civil rights history?
Now consider the same question about proprietary versus public web-books from the perspective of readers. This is especially important for civil rights scholars and other writers whose books tell stories about communities of people relegated to the margins of history. Do the activists who created this civil rights history have a right to read these stories in an accessible format? What about the present-day community members whose lives continue to be shaped by this history? Do they have the right to borrow a history book that their local library can reasonably afford, or a right to freely read it on a publicly accessible website? Taking it one step further, do these same activists and community members have the right to respond to an author’s interpretation of their history in the same forum it appeared in, such as a public web-book or journal?

Of course, there is no right to knowledge in the US Constitution, but as the digital revolution continues, all scholars should consider the ethical implications of publishing our scholarship in proprietary versus public formats. In particular, civil rights historians should think twice about locking up a community’s stories behind subscriber-only pay walls, which restrict reader feedback to the members of libraries that can afford the fees, and whose voices will be heard.

Perhaps there is some middle ground that meets the interests of readers, authors, and publishers. I am intrigued by publisher’s free-access experiments such as UNC Press’s LCRM project, the University of Pennsylvania Press (which sold a print version of Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig’s Digital History (2005) while agreeing to allow the authors to post a free online version), and the new business model illustrated by the University of Michigan Press and Library partnership on the “digital culture books” series, which are freely available online and sold in print under a Creative Commons license. Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence appears destined to exist in two formats: a full draft of her book with commentary on a public website, and a proprietary final draft to be sold by NYU Press. When asked at a recent conference which one would be the authoritative version, Fitzpatrick wisely replied, “Both.” I can imagine a similar dual-format arrangement by academic publishers and scholars doing community-based research: a public web-book that community members can freely access through local libraries, and proprietary print and digital versions sold to broader audiences.

These are the questions on my mind as I draft chapters and prepare a preview of the On the Line public web-book, and face important decisions about the best way to publish in the digital era. Down the hall from my office, a friendly philosopher reminds me that:

Knowledge has the very nice property that it is enlarged by giving it away. As a person teaches, or perhaps researches on behalf of a community group, everybody learns more (Lloyd, circa 2002).

While I’m uncertain if this claim that sharing knowledge increases its value also covers chefs’ special recipes and national security secrets, it certainly applies to the field of history, especially civil rights. Years ago, when moving from dissertation to book, I learned that storytelling guides readers through the complexity of the past. Today, as I move further into digital scholarship, I am learning the importance of maintaining public access to read, reflect, and respond to our shared civil rights history.

Works cited
Anderson, James D. 1988. The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, and online by the LCRM Project

Cohen, Patricia. 2010. For Scholars, Web Changes Sacred Rite of Peer Review. The New York Times, August 23.

Cohen, Dan, and Roy Rosenzweig. 2005. Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web. University of Pennsylvania Press, and online by the Center for History and New Media

Dougherty, Jack. 2004. More than one struggle : the evolution of Black school reform in Milwaukee. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, and online by the LCRM Project

Dougherty, Jack et al. 2006. Guest Discussion: Book Publishing for Historians of Education. H-Education network.

Dougherty, Jack. 2010. On The Line: How Schooling, Housing, and Civil Rights Shaped Hartford and its Suburbs (preview edition).

Fister, Barbara. 2010. Blog U.: Why There’s No Kindle “Freedom” in Libraries. Inside Higher Ed. September 24.

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. 2009. Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy. MediaCommons Press., and forthcoming by NYU Press.

Gregory, Jim et al. Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project.

Howard, Jennifer. 2010. Leading Humanities Journal Debuts ‘Open’ Peer Review, and Likes It. The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 26.

Lloyd, Dan. 2002. Street Rigor: Service Learning in the Liberal Arts. Unpublished essay, Hartford, CT: Trinity College.

New York Public Library. 2010. Candide 2.0: The Networked Edition. May.

Oder, Norman. 2009. Mixed Answers to “Is It OK for a Library To Lend a Kindle?”. Library Journal. April 7.

Rowe, Katherine, editor. 2010. Open Review: Shakespeare and New Media. Shakespeare Quarterly, hosted by MediaCommonsPress

Scheinfeldt, Tom, and Dan Cohen, eds. 2010. Hacking the Academy, hosted by Center for History and New Media.

University of North Carolina Press. The Long Civil Rights Movement Project.

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The March On Milwaukee Civil Rights History Project.

About the author:
Jack Dougherty
is an associate professor of educational studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, where his teaching and research draw connections between educational history, policy, and practice in U.S. cities and suburbs. An earlier version of this essay was presented at the Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life conference in Seattle, WA, October 2010.

How to cite this page:
Jack Dougherty, “Storytelling and Civil Rights: From Dissertation to Book to Web-book,” Writing History: How Historians Research, Write, and Publish in the Digital Age, October 6, 2010,

Creative Commons License This web page from Writing History: How Historians Research, Write, and Publish in the Digital Age is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License. You may freely distribute this work under the same terms for non-commercial purposes, but you must include a citation similar to the one above.

— With whom do you share your writing?

Where have you found social support as a history writer? Who reads your drafts? How do you share feedback with others? Use the commenting feature to tell us about your experiences, and what you have learned from other writers.

How to cite this page:
“With whom do you share your writing?” Writing History: How Historians Research, Write, and Publish in the Digital Age, October 6, 2010,

Creative Commons License This web page from Writing History: How Historians Research, Write, and Publish in the Digital Age is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License. You may freely distribute this work under the same terms for non-commercial purposes, but you must include a citation similar to the one above.