H-Net: Its Past, Present, and Future

Peter Knupfer, H-Net Associate Director
Kansas State University

H-Net, Humanities On-line, has helped bring the information revolution to the desktops of working scholars around the world. In the process, it has redefined the meaning of service to the Academy. H-Net has not only increased the opportunities for scholars to converse with each other, a result most of us are familiar with. It has also pried opened previously-restricted fields of editing and information management to scholars who are younger, who work outside the larger and better-endowed research institutions, and who are eager to bring the advantages of mediated networking to their colleagues at home and around the world. A sketch of H-Net's history, its present initiatives, and its future prospects illustrates the extent to which H-Net's greatest asset--its editors--are invigorating our profession through their tremendous investment of time, energy, knowledge, and creativity.

H-Net is based on the idea that the Internet is best exploited as a collective enterprise by academics and teachers who mediate an environment many regard as forbidding and hostile. They perform a vital gatekeeping role that minimizes the abrasiveness of faceless, remote communications, and they assist academics to harness the Internet to their professional purposes. Thus, unlike the disparate discussion groups, web sites, and other data sources available on the Internet, H-Net's resources are operated, managed, and controlled by working scholars and students. Thus, H-Net can be described as an international consortium of scholars who establish and coordinate electronic networks to advance humanities and social science teaching and research. It was self-consciously fashioned to provide a positive, supportive, equalitarian environment for the friendly exchange of ideas and scholarly resources.

From its beginnings in December 1992, H-Net has made steady progress toward a structured and articulated on-line presence. It commenced operations at the University of Illinois (Chicago Circle) as an experiment, under the guidance of Prof. Richard Jensen, in online, electronic mail communication over the Internet. Within a year, H-Net had attracted some existing electronic discussion groups, including HOLOCAUS (Holocaust studies) and ALBION (English and Irish History), and encouraged the start of another dozen lists beginning with Urban History (H-Urban). H-Net's first lists covered many fields in History and related area studies including American Studies (H-AMSTDY) and Women's History (H-Women), as well as a vigorous list devoted specifically to the teaching concerns of historians (H-Teach). From the very beginning, Prof. Jensen and other leaders in H-Net encouraged graduate students and beginning scholars to join this enterprise. In the spring of 1994, most of H-Net's operations and lists began to move to Michigan State University where Professor Mark Kornbluh secured institutional support for H-Net.

In 1994, H-Net wrote and implemented a charter to provide some structure and direction to its expansion. Under the charter, members of the staff--editors, technical staff, persons appointed by the executive committee--annually elect representatives to an executive committee empowered to set H-Net policy. In addition to seven elected representatives, the executive committee comprises H-Net's officers--its elected executive director and associate director and appointed treasurer and secretary, and the elected editor of H-Staff, the internal policy discussion list. The charter outlines the basic relationship between the staff and the executive committee, with an emphasis on mutual consultation and discussion through H-Staff. (The charter can be viewed and downloaded from the H-Net World Wide Web site, http://h-net.msu.edu)

The charter requires each H-Net list to have an editorial board and a staff of online editors who edit or moderate the discussion list. The editorial board may also designate one of its number as a nonvoting staff member to report on internal affairs. The charter also places all H-lists under the ownership of H-Net and distinguishes between lists owned by H-Net and those simply affiliated with H-Net but owned by others.

Each e-mail group uses LISTSERV software that allows an online editor at any Internet node to receive, edit, and post messages to the entire list, all in a matter of seconds. Subject lists are still critical to H-Net; currently over seventy of them reach a total of more than 45,000 subscribers across the world, including about one-quarter of all academic historians in the United States. Although most subscribers reside in the U.S and Canada, it is fair to say that the discussion lists have made H-Net the premiere online scholarly computing group in the entire world.

H-Net is much more than the daily discussion lists. Its book review office processes hundreds of books and reviews, disseminates them throughout our lists, and stores them in accessible, searchable formats. The H-Net World Wide Web site at Michigan State University integrates the subject-area lists and book reviews with a massive database of events and information, searchable across the entire site. The H-Net Web site records over 100,000 visits each week by users in search of resources and networking contacts about research, teaching, and software.

Finally, H-Net has offered frequent training seminars on-campus at U.S. and Canadian universities. At first, these seminars focused on introducing historians to electronic mail and the Internet. In 1996, however, H-Net's regional centers across the U.S. began offering seminars in multimedia applications in the humanities, and in 1997, H-Net will convene an international conference on multimedia in the humanities classroom at Michigan State. We fully expect that the conference will guide history educators in the uses of computer-driven multimedia that will actually aid student learning.

H-Net's main host institution is Michigan State University, where H-Net's major NEH grants and other projects are administered. H-Net has also obtained significant grant support at other institutions, while many of its editors receive local support from campus computing centers, department administrators, and faculty. H-Net is now developing partnerships across the world to bring interactive, networked, multilingual communications within reach of scholars in Asia, Africa, and Europe. By 1996, H-Net had developed beyond a collection of lists and web pages. It had become an international, interdisciplinary, network of scholars communicating and sharing resources through a variety of interactive media.

Throughout its history, H-Net has pursued a policy of inclusiveness balanced by the imperative of maintaining high standards of professionalism and scholarship. Because H-Net welcomes graduate students, beginning instructors and professors, senior academics, and interested professionals in a great range of fields, it is a training ground for a new type of academic experienced with networked technologies. Greater facility with mediated technologies has enhanced the market value of graduate students who use and assist with our lists and web pages. It has also helped scholars to develop accurate information and skills in navigating the vast wastelands of the Internet in search of useful tools and sources. Finally, because practically all H-Net lists address issues directly pertinent to the college classroom, editors and subscribers have unprecedented access to new ideas, skills, and resources they can apply directly in their courses.

H-Net's future is exciting and promising, thanks to the enthusiastic efforts of its editors and to the major investment made by Michigan State University. Perhaps the most important recent initiative has been our international expansion, with new projects in Europe, Africa, Oceania, and Japan. We will be training new editors on other continents and fostering multilingual communications across cultures and political systems. In the United States, we will continue to add new lists and create partnerships with major professional organizations. But we have not lost sight of the constituencies in the humanities and social sciences who have supported us over this period of emergence; we will continue to develop the services we have. Unlike so many sites and organizations that appear and disappear in the virtual world of the Internet, H-Net has proved its value to scholars around the world and will be around for a long time to come.

Peter B. Knupfer is in the Department of History at Kansas State University, Eisenhower Hall, Manhattan, KS 66506-1002. asociate@h-net.msu.edu

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