In the overall pursuit of truth and knowledge, what is the most important step? This is not an easy question to answer. It prompts all sorts of responses from the initial steps of developing a question to the recording of the answer. In some ways the answer to this conundrum changes according to circumstances and time. It is my position that the dissemination of knowledge takes center stage as the most important step in the pursuit of truth and knowledge. Is not this the purpose to discovering truth? To pass that information on for others to incorporate and build upon. Yet throughout history, this has not been an easy task. Centuries ago, Socrates was sentenced to death for his “corruption” of the youth. William Tyndale was strangled at the stake and then burned for printing an Bible in the common vernacular (English). These two examples are extreme, especially in todays society where issues over intellectual property and copyright result in lawsuits and not heresy. However, the extensive amount of laws that encompass copyright are a force to be reckoned with. As a young scholar, the span from OA (Open Access) to Fair Use to Copyright Protected is a long and complicated walk.
Dan Cohen’s and Roy Rosenzweig’s Chapter on Owning the Past provided a fairly detailed background on the progression of Copyright (though it is slightly dated, being published in 2006). They give a general overview of the development of copyright and then discuss the ways that you can protect yourself and your work. It can easily overwhelm the reader, as it did with me, with the various copyright extensions and exceptions. One of the underlying themes of their chapter was the adoption of copyright as a protection mainly for the authors and not for the public. My limited exposure to copyright encompasses the big Napster debacle (that was 15 years ago?) and my brief tenure in the Education division of CHNM (details found here). In both cases, the impression was that copyright was working against me as a consumer/member of the public. Dan and Roy describe Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution as a balancing of the “public good and private reward.” Viewing copyright as a positive, from the public’s perspective, is both a difficult and illuminating exercise. It prompts further research and introspection.
A statement issued in 2013 by the American Historical Association created quite the firestorm around the topic of accessibility. The AHA supported the allowance of students to embargo the digital rendering of their completed history PhD dissertation or thesis for up to six years. For their reasoning, please follow the hyperlink above. Their statement prompted a lot of feedback both supporting and critical. Various articles and blog posts were written that prompted further discussion in the comments sections. Reading through all of these voices, I was left to ponder my inexperience in the field. Holding a bachelors in Geography, no advanced degree in History and only in my first semester of my PhD program, I felt that there were a lot of experiences that I lacked that would inform my opinion on this issue. In spite of my “youth,” I came away from the AHA statement in support of it. I support the framework that allows the student to decide how to handle their scholarly work. For those who do seek to develop their dissertation into a book length monograph, the public and free access to their dissertation could prove to be damaging to that pursuit. Yet, I am forming this opinion on “fuzzy” facts. The survey that is referenced both by William Cronon in his article Why Put at Risk the Publishing Options of our Most Vulnerable Colleagues? and in Adam Crumble’s blog post Students should be empowered, not bullied into Open Access can be used to support both sides of the discussion. The data left me wanting…well, more data. However, I feel that the debate surrounding the AHA statement runs deeper than the potential embargo of dissertations.
In talking with a fellow digital historian, multiple issues come to the surface. The first, one that Trevor Owens touches on in his blog post Notes toward a Bizarro World AHA Dissertation Open Access Statement, is the antiquated reliance on the monograph as the lynchpin for job placement, promotion, and tenure. As Digital History continues to grow and permeate the discipline, little credibility has been given to the work that many DHers produce. Furthermore, their work does not carry nearly the same clout in the profession of history as monographs do. This statement from the AHA, in a subtle way, continues to enforce that practice and perception. Also, it was mentioned by various commenters that the AHA is a normative entity. This is to say that while they do no make the rules for promotion and job placement, they wield a lot of power in the field. They have a “what they say, goes” type of influence in the profession. The AHA could have taken this opportunity to endorse and promote the use of Digital History scholarship as equally important to the monograph in job placement and promotion.
In conclusion, the phrase “turns like a battleship” is left in my mind. Five years, for a digital historian, is a long time. The technology is changing and the medium is growing. This is why, when you read an article about digital history, the reader should pay attention to the year it was published as that will dictate their reaction to the article. However, five years for a traditional historian is still journalism. It is hard to think of a history class devoted to 2009 or even 2005. In this way, the field of history “turns like a battleship.” It is slow, cumbersome and frustrating. We, as digital historians, should do all we can to speed up the process. The important thing is that the field IS turning.