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The H-Net Review Project

Patricia Lee Denault, Associate Editor, H-Net Book Review Project
Harvard University

H-Net's Review Project is barely two years old, but it has already generated a great deal of interest (see, for example, OAH Newsletter, Nov. 1995, p. 11). The project originated with Mark Kornbluh of Michigan State University, currently the chair of the H-Net Executive Committee and Managing Editor of the project. By summer 1994, when the idea was launched, some H-Net lists had already begun publishing book reviews, a few of them regularly, and these reviews formed a core of material on which to base the more organized effort. H-Net now (August 1996) has more than 500 reviews on-line, covering nearly all the fields for which there are H-Net lists, and a growing cadre of over 150 editors and 600 editorial board members who oversee aspects of the project.

Jim Sleight of MSU, an assistant director of H-Net, serves as the Review Project Coordinator. He oversees a small but energetic office of part-time paid staffers, primarily work-study students, who order books requested by list review editors, notify them of books' arrival, mail books to assigned reviewers, and keep records of this traffic. The Review Project has centralized these operations at MSU for two reasons: first, it provides a single "voice" in dealing with publishers, who have been extremely cooperative in sending their new publications and in granting requests for multiple copies (a book on Russian popular culture during World War I, for example, might be of interest to H-War, H-Russia, and H-PCAACA [the popular culture list]). Second, because all the review editors are volunteers, they have no access to funds to cover the mailing costs involved in sending out books and communicating with publishers, services which H-Net provides.

For the most part, books are selected for review in the same way as in the print world--through the editor's specialized knowledge of the field (sometimes augmented by consultation with the list's board of editors). In addition, Mark Kornbluh and his staff at MSU collect and read publishers' catalogs and order titles with a specific list in mind. Similarly, reviewers are assigned in the traditional way--by an editorial decision of the review editor aimed at matching scholarly interests and expertise. He or she draws on personal knowledge of the field, the advice of the editorial board, colleagues, and, often, a database of information about subscribers' interests. In addition to the efforts of individual lists, the Review Project Web site offers a form that allows would-be reviewers to add their names to a central database, from which the information is distributed to the appropriate editors.

Though much of the work is done electronically via e-mail, the MSU office also maintains a paper trail of materials. All title pages and publication information for each book are photocopied and sent to the review editor and also to the copyeditor, so that title, author's name, and publication information can be double-checked. In addition, review editors receive copies of the acknowledgment pages and of jacket blurbs, so that they do not inadvertently try to assign a review to someone too closely associated with the author. In short, the Review Project tries to duplicate the traditional scholarly norms of the book reviewing process, while at the same time implementing new routines and mores made possible by electronic technology.

Completed reviews are vetted by list editors, who post them to their own list. Once posted to the individual list, the reviews are forwarded to the MSU server, where they are made available to a subscriber list, H-Review, and archived on the WWW and gopher sites. Subscribers to H-Review, currently numbering about 1,300 and ranging throughout the world, receive each review on e-mail as it is published, but anyone, anywhere, who has access to the Internet can access the reviews at the gopher (h-net.msu.edu) and Web (http://h-net.msu.edu/~books/) sites. On H-Net's recently redesigned Web pages, the entire group of reviews can be sorted by author, reviewer, and book title, as well as by the individual (subject) list.

Since August 1995, Pat Denault, who has several years' experience in editing history journals and other materials in print, has volunteered her services as a copy editor. In June 1996, Denault undertook responsibility for the H-Review list and of the Web portion of the Review Project. In this way, the list editors maintain control over the reviews on their lists, but the Review Project can add another layer of proofreading and checking as well as a standardized format. (An ongoing project is the retroactive proofing and standardizing of the several hundred reviews that went, in January, to the Web site from the list and gopher archives.)

The H-Net Review Project is funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, by Michigan State University (which houses the Review Project), and by other universities in the United States, Canada, and Australia. But the most valuable, and by far the most extensive, capital of the Review Project is the time devoted by the editors. At the start, many list editors took on the additional task of organizing reviewing for their lists, but, as the project has grown, most lists have recruited at least one, and in some cases, several, scholars to serve as book review editors. Although the process of book reviewing is extremely time-consuming, H-Net review editors have shown themselves willing to devote time and energy to the project and to engage in a lot of delicate back and forthing with reviewers.

Indeed, the work involved in on-line reviewing can be substantially more than that of the print review editor. Since there is no "publisher," and no production staff between the editor and the list of subscribers, editors are responsible for the accurate and timely dissemination of reviews, production and distribution functions usually not handled by print book review editors. Second, because there is the possibility of greater contact between editor and reviewer, book review editors devote a lot of time and energy to interacting with reviewers. Third, because author responses are encouraged, review editors spend time coordinating such discussions--essentially serving as a moderator--so that the exchange will be fruitful. Sometimes such exchanges occur spontaneously, but often editors engage in a great deal of correspondence to encourage author and reviewer to interact.

This type of interaction, at least in its formulation as a virtue, is a true innovation in the humanities. Responding to book reviews has long been considered ill-advised and likely to exacerbate tensions. Yet, scholars routinely discuss each other's work at conferences, often in a very engaging and friendly manner, and not always in the course of formal presentations. One of the most important goals of the Review Project is to capture those conversations, gently remove the chaff, and make them available as dialogues for their colleagues.

And finally, H-Review editors typically are working with no institutional infrastructure at their home base. Because on-line editorial work is so new, it has not yet been perceived by many department chairs, academic deans, or administrators in the same light as similar types of work for print media. There is no staff support, no released time, and certainly no financial remuneration. Even the reward of an addition to the CV has been small compensation, because "Serving as Review Editor of H-XXX" might, until recently, have brought only puzzled responses. This attitude is now changing rapidly, in no small part because of the pioneering work of the H-Net list and review editors.

For if there is one item on which all of us engaged in the Review Project agree, it is this: on-line reviewing is here to stay, and it will become an increasingly important part of the scholarly enterprise. It is simply too cost-effective to be ignored; but, more important, the electronic medium has several characteristics that significantly enhance scholarly book reviewing: timeliness, interactivity, space to develop ideas and provide examples, and, with the advent of the WorldWideWeb, the potential for images, sound, and valuable hypertext links.

Much has been made, pro and con, of the ability to publish reviews more quickly on-line and to publish longer reviews. In part, we have not explained ourselves very well. Reviewers for H-Net are given about as long to complete their assignments as are reviewers for print media. The speed comes at the beginning, when Jim Sleight and his staff collect new books for the editors, and at the distribution end, when there is no need to wait for printing, binding, and mailing. While we are all delighted that H-Net reviews appear while a volume is still in print, none of us feel that it is important that they be distributed two weeks after a book is published. Indeed, one of the first lessons learned was that a list cannot have a discussion of a new book if it has not been out long enough for a reasonable number of people to have read it!

On the issue of length, we should perhaps refine the simple point that reviews can be long into the more useful notion that reviewers can make their reviews appropriate to the importance of the work under consideration. There is a quotation from a famous author to the effect that he would have written more briefly, but he had not the time. The point is well taken. But it is nevertheless also true that that favorite phrase of the print reviewer--"This space is inadequate to address the many issues that this work raises"--represents a great loss to the profession, the author, and, not least, to the reviewer, who must struggle to write in a verbal shorthand that he or she well knows may generate misunderstanding.

Although H-Net is proud of the impact it has made with its electronic reviewing project, we all recognize that we are at the beginning of our exploitation of this emerging technology and, accordingly, that we have only begun to explore its potential. What H-Net has done so far is to create an on-line platform for the review process where scholars can be assured that this crucial scholarly enterprise will be held to the high standards of the print world. Over the next few years, the H-Net Review Project hopes to move to a further phase, of using some of the power of the Web--images, sound, searching features--to create tools that are both innovative and useful to the profession.

Another area for exploration is the great opportunity that exists for cooperation between print journals and on-line reviews, and the Review Project hopes to participate in activities that will bring together the advantages specific to each medium.

Patricia Lee Denault is Associate Editor, H-Net Book review Project, Charles Warren Center, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138. pdenault@husc.harvard.edu

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