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,

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