The Internationalization of H-Net

Harold G. Marcus, H-Net Treasurer and Co-Editor, H-Africa
Michigan State University

After just three years of operation, H-Net has 43,000 subscribers in seventy countries. Indeed, over twenty-five percent of H-Net's subscription come from overseas. Many of our lists permit voices rarely heard quickly--as the African, for example--to respond immediately to any relevant Euro-American scholarly discourse. The Internet's rapid communication and its broad coverage have helped to create a new form of scholarship, which is collective and more quickly complete than even the most ardent efforts of the academic megalomaniac.

For example, some months ago, a list member on H-Africa asked for information on Mama Wata, a mermaid-like goddess who presided over the Zaire (Congo) River. Subsequent replies related stories about her Zairian activities: she was hard on drunks and assorted miscreants--especially evil mariners--favored battered women, and protected children. From posts from Africa, Europe, and the Americas, we learned about Mama Wata shrines and activities in West Africa, Brazil, Haiti, and the United States.

As a whole, the messages suggested that for most of Africa and its diaspora, Mama Wata was believed to have curative powers. Her ability to intercede with Christian and Muslim saints on behalf of diseased petitioners revealed a mediatory role between modernity and tradition typical of many spirit cults. Most interesting, indeed instructive, was the ability of H-Africa as an international network to evoke scholars worldwide to help establish a complete historiography on Mama Wata and collectively create scholarship. They accomplished in a short time what would have taken years for a solitary scholar to do.

For H-Africa, and for H-Net's many lists that concentrate on Europe, Asia, Central America, and South America, the international perspective is defined by the overseas scholars who are members of our governing editorial boards or who serve as editors. Thanks to the speed of the Internet, scholars from distant parts of the world can work together on a daily basis to edit H-Net lists and develop online resources. One H-Net list, H-USA, which is devoted to clarifying American studies for foreigners, draws its editors from America, Asia, and Europe. Other U.S. lists have international scholars on their boards or in editorial positions, providing Americanists with a more cosmopolitan perspective on their studies. All of the USA lists enjoy a global audience as American Studies is increasingly developed abroad.

H-Net policy is directed to developing new international lists and attracting more overseas subscribers. We are also hard at work building international linkages in partnership with universities abroad, but many institutions are not well enough equipped to cooperate and are unfamiliar with the Internet and its scholarly potential. In Europe, for example, far fewer offices and homes are equipped with computers which tend to be more costly there than here. Third, for most of Europe, the phone companies have maintained a tightfisted and expensive hold over connectivity, blocking easy access to the Internet.

Fourth, some of the larger countries are uneasy about a perceived Anglophonic domination of the Internet, and I have heard more than once that the Internet is an Anglo-Saxon plot against continental culture. Moreover, many European humanists have a prejudice against technology, not unlike our colleagues who are proudly cyberphobic and continue to use a quilled pen. Only in Europe's smaller countries have cultural and language concerns been put aside for the sake of remaining globally competitive.

The Scandanavians rank in Europe among the more advanced in computer technology, low cost connectivity, interest in the Internet, and English language ability. Consequently, one of H-Net's centers in Europe will be located at Denmark's Odense University, from where H-Skand now originates. Odense will work to develop H-Net's presence in northern Europe and hopes to build programs and lists to serve the European community. Other centers on the continent will be established as soon as the spread of computers, knowledge about the Internet, inexpensive connectivity, and reduced cultural fears permit.

The Australasians and South Africans had no trepidations about the Internet and have participated in H-Net with enthusiasm. The speed and extent of the new electronic media have permitted our most remote colleagues for the first time to become timely participants in the Euro-American scholarly world. Not only have they joined H-Net's lists out of proportion to scholars from elsewhere, they have also become very active participants in the discourse. The Australasians have begun their own H-Net list and have received government support and recognition for their efforts. Presently in South Africa, a scholar at Rhodes University is working to start H-SAfrica.

H-Net has numerous subscribers in Asia and is working to overcome language barriers. With support from the Japan Foundation, we established the first bilingual English/Japanese discussion list, H-Japan, with editors from both the States and Japan. H-Net is building a center of activity at the Kansai Institute for Asia Pacific Studies (KIAPS) at Osaka-Gaida University which is hosting the Japanese branch of our book review project and cooperating with H-Net at Michigan State University to build a bilingual site for Japanese studies on the world wide web.

Hundreds of Latin American Scholars participate on H-Latam and H-Mexico, but shortages of money and equipment are real limitations in this region. Africa shares these difficulties and also suffers from governments that, for political reasons, wish to control all communications media and Ministries of Posts, Telegrams, and Telephones that fight to maintain their monopolies and the revenues associated with connectivity. The situation is especially troubling for Africa, since easy and inexpensive access to the Internet could help repair the library and informational deficiencies that many universities have suffered during the last twenty years. H-Net aims to play a role in training African academics in the use of the Internet; it seeks to spur connectivity; and it would very much like to have the African intellectual voice be heard regularly and in an timely fashion.

The internationalization of H-Net will continue to grow apace with the personal computerization of the world. Its rapid development marks, for scholars, the advent of a new way to communicate intellectual materials. It is not coincidental that many scholars describe H-Net lists as seminars, since they share many of the latter's discursive methodologies. The book reviews and occasional articles which our lists features signal a future in which H-Net will become a publisher of electronic journals and even books.

As print publication costs continue to escalate worldwide, individuals and libraries have dropped subscriptions and stopped buying books. H-Net is preparing to assist scholarly organizations to make the transition to the much less expensive and more rapid electronic forms of publication. Gradually many books and journals will be issued only in electronic form, changing the way libraries store knowledge and pass information from one generation to another; the criteria by which departments evaluate scholarship; the speed of scholarly exchange; and the way scholars do their work. The most striking characteristic of the new age will be its global nature, and in all of this change we anticipate that H-Net will play a leading role.

Harold Marcus is in the Department of History at Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, 48824.

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