Alternatives to Pay-for-View: The Case for Open Access to Historical Research and Scholarship

Mark Lawrence Kornbluh

Melanie Shell-Weiss

Michigan State University

Paul Turnbull

Janes Cook University / Australian National University

American Historical Association Conference, San FranciscoJanuary 5 2002.

Draft:  Comments and Criticisms Welcome: Please send to

In this paper we put the case for establishing open historical resource networks. We argue that historical scholarship is a cultural resource and that the benefits to be gained from its free and wide circulation outweigh what historians stand to gain from allowing their work to be locked within pay-for-access on-line publication systems.  Historians would do well to follow the lead of the growing number of scientific research communities who have opted to share information openly, not just between researchers, but also with the many constituencies that stand to benefit from free and open access to high quality information.  And historical societies should follow the lead of libraries, museums, and other cultural institutions that are developing freely available online knowledge repositories for all to use.

H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences OnLine

Our perspective is shaped by nearly a decade of work with H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences On-Line. H-Net is an international interdisciplinary society of scholars and teachers dedicated to developing the educational and research potential of the Internet.  Our edited discussion networks and their companion web sites publish peer reviewed essays, multimedia materials, syllabi, and discussion for colleagues and the interested public.

Since it’s founding in 1993, H-Net has strived to foster cross-cultural understanding of the historical experiences and cultural traditions of humanity.  This has involved creating and managing a robust communication infrastructure that enables communities with common interests – ranging in diversity from Middle-Eastern Gender Studies to Urban history to the history of Florida – to overcome traditional barriers to debate and exchange of scholarly information.   At the end of 2001, some 120,000 researchers, teachers, librarians, archivists, and educated readers worldwide are members of one or more of over 140 H-Net discussion networks.  The conversations of these networks are not only distributed to members by Listserv software after scholarly assessment, but are made freely available by H-Net through the World Wide Web.   We are the world’s largest, free on-line publisher of historical knowledge.

The Internet and the Democratization of Knowledge

At the outset, we should make it clear that the H-Net community has always seen networked communication and online publication as tools to democratize access to historical knowledge and other humanities resources.  For us, much of the attraction of the Internet is its ability to bridge distance and network a wider international community of scholars, teachers, and students.  While the cost of Internet access varies, once on line, the playing field can be substantially levelled. Needless to say, we believe that the entire humanities community stands to benefit when the community of scholars is broadened and the dialogue opened to more perspectives and interaction.

The potential inherent in networked communications is particularly poignant when one takes a comparative international perspective. In most of the world, humanities scholars live and work in societies that have not enjoyed anything like the levels of support for their endeavours that scholars in advanced industrial economies such as the United States and Australia take for granted.  For many members of H-Net’s Africa networks, for example, the legacies of colonialism include poor and often highly selective access to print-based information resources.  It is hard to overemphasize the inaccessibility of books and journals for most African scholars and students. The main library at the University of Ghana in Accra scarcely contains a single humanities journal published outside the country since 1950.  Given their low GNP, comparatively weak and erratic economic growth, pressing social needs, unequal exchange rates and the worsening economics of conventional print–based communications, universities and governments in countries such as Mali or Ethiopia will never be able to afford to narrow this gap in print media. Virtually overnight, however, Internet access can address the vast inequalities of access to scholarship and fulfill the challenging task of enriching the knowledge resource base of scholars and teachers in these countries and others with similar histories of disadvantage.  A scholar in Accra who never got to see print journals and had scarce contact with colleagues outside his country, can now browse through rich online resources and communicate instantly worldwide.

In July 2000, the leaders of the G8 nations agreed on the Okinawa Charter on the Global Information Society (Dot-Force, 2000). Underlying this charter is the recognition that advances in information and communication technology provides a unique opportunity to support both economic development and democratization around the world.  Countries largely left out of print-based knowledge networks stand to gain the most by access to the increasingly global information society. Thus, the G8 renewed its “commitment to the principle of inclusion: everyone, everywhere should be able to participate in and no one should be excluded from the benefits of the global information society… Above all th[e] Charter represents a call to all, in both public and private sectors to bridge the international information and knowledge divide.” 

Our experience within H-Net in working with scholars and teachers from around the world, including many of the poorest nations, has convinced us that access to scholarship and teaching materials is precisely what our colleagues most desire.  They recognize that the Internet provides a unique opportunity to provide knowledge and information that they cannot and will never be able to get through print publication.  Access to scholarship on the Internet thus has revolutionary potential for these scholars, their students, and their nations.

Equally important, we believe that networked communication has significant political and cultural implications for industrialized nations as well. Many of H-Net’s most committed participants come from universities and communities remote from the largest libraries and best funded universities.  With the near universal spread of access to the Internet in the United States, open knowledge networks are as available to the student in Fairbanks, the professor in Lubeck, and the lawyer in Duluth as they are to those at Harvard and Berkeley. Not only does the Internet narrow the gap between elite institutions and other universities and colleges, but it also offers an opportunity to bridge the chasm that has increasingly divided academics from the broader society in the post World War II culture of expertise and specialization. With networked communication, ivory-covered walls are increasingly permeable.  Knowledge and resources that are clustered within the university are readily extended to their host communities and the world.  Scholarship stands to benefits from this reengagement. For History and the humanities, which have declined in influence within both the university and society over the past half-century, this broadening is particularly important.  As Gillian Lindt of the Coalition for Networked Information has argued, “Democratizing access will be essential to the viability of the humanities and to the character of this society as a democratic nation” (CNI 2001)

Open-Knowledge Networks

Scholarly knowledge, in our view, is first and foremost a cultural resource.  The worth to be derived from its free circulation far outweighs any private or communal benefit that might accrue from this knowledge being treated as a commodity in conventional economic terms.  To take full advantage of the potential of the Internet, we believe that the history community should embrace open access to scholarly communication and on-line publication of information.  Scholarly societies, including H-Net, can play a critical role in providing cultural resources for scholars, students, and citizens in many nations.  Free and open access to these cultural resources, we believe, vastly increases their value.

There is nothing new or particularly radical about this belief. One might recall, for example, that Benjamin Franklin defended his decision not to patent his inventions by arguing that as ‘we enjoy great advantages from the invention of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours, and this we should do freely and generously (Marx, 1987: 39)’. Franklin’s reasoning about the social benefits owing to the free circulation of knowledge indeed seem remarkably prescient in the light of contemporary thinking about economic innovation. In the view of many policy analysts, the success of economic development in the post-industrial or ‘informational’ economy largely hinges on the capacity of governments, industries and university-based research communities to promote innovation through the rapid widespread dissemination and uptake of specialist knowledge.

The dissemination of new knowledge is furthermore enhanced by providing free or publicly subsidized access to, and ensuring the integrity of, existing knowledge.   Indeed, some analysts go further and argue that successful innovation - given the myriad new uncertainties of the contemporary world - depends upon open, democratic assessment of the social and cultural implications of how new knowledge is used by industry and government.  For example, the recent New Zealand government report, ‘Knowledge, Innovation and Creativity’ stresses that innovation and creativity are complex social processes that can best be fostered through reflective engagement between humanists and scientists (New Zealand, 2000). This emphasis has been seconded by organizations like the American Council of Learned Societies, who make free access to and creation of “a significant mass of digitized networked information in the humanities and arts” central to “enrich[ing] a sense of community, foster[ing] intellectual collaboration, preserv[ing] cultural information, and improv[ing] the quality of teaching and learning” (ACLS 1997).

Bringing Historians and Historical Scholarship On Line

During H-Net’s first years, like many early adaptors of the new communication technologies, we focused much of our attention on proselytizing about the virtues of networked communication.  In 1993, email was new to humanities scholars and the World Wide Web was not yet invented.  For years, we held workshops around the world teaching historians how to use the Internet.  H-Net sponsored affiliated sessions at the AHA each year to demonstrate the potential of networked communication.  Amidst the cacophony of voices especially from elite institutions and more established scholars about the frivolity of electronic “chat,” H-Net grew exponentially.  

The debate over the potential of the Internet and networked communication for scholars and teachers seems like ancient history. Washed away in the worldwide euphoria of IT development in the nineties and buried under an avalanche of invaluable online resources developed by libraries, museums, and other cultural institutions, scarcely an objection is made today to the usefulness of electronic communication. Elite universities have leapfrogged into the lead in developing online resources; even the most staid and established scholars today incorporate email and online research into their professional lives. 

The issue is no longer one of whether the History community will embrace the Internet, but rather what type of knowledge networks we will build and who will use them.  Unfortunately, as more and more scholarly societies overcome their initial skepticism about integrating networked communication into scholarly practice, most have chosen to transfer their print-based pay-for-access practices to the on-line world. In contrast to libraries, museums, and other cultural institutions worldwide, which are building vast online freely accessible cultural repositories, our scholarly societies are locking up historical research within commercial distribution channels.  Scholarly societies are choosing either to give their online content to commercial publishers to sell back to our scholarly community, or publishing online themselves but limiting access to those who take out membership in the society. Strikingly, it is not only current issues of journals that are being locked behind fee-based systems, but access to back issues also are included within these commercial licensing systems. These are frequently available only with subscriptions to current issues or at additional cost.

Believing that only ‘pay for view’ systems ensure that colleagues and students can secure on-line access to high quality, well-organized scholarly materials, many institutions and individuals have surrendered this knowledge, and accepted that it would only become available to others at a price. In short, they have assumed that the best way to translate historical practice into the networked environment is to replicate the relationship they have with commercial publishers in the networked environment.  Understandably, commercial publishers and their supporters have encouraged this migration path, arguing that fee-based access will allow for the creation of ‘value added’ services such as on-line indexes, dynamic searching and access to back issues of journals.

We, however, firmly believe that locking up on-line historical scholarship behind closed database walls and subscription services is short sighted, and overlooks alternatives which have greater benefits for both researchers and those with whom they seek to share their insights into the richness and complexity of the past. If the historical community continues to structure its scholarly publication and communication along the commercial nexus born of print scholarship, we will miss out on the enormous opportunities afforded by the revolution in networked communication.  

The Irrationality of the Commercial Model for Historical Scholarship in a Networked Environment

For many reasons, it makes little or no sense for historians to look to commercial publication of scholarly knowledge for many reasons. The outcomes of historical research are cultural resources.   They are highly specialized intellectual products, created through time-consuming, wide ranging and often-expensive processes of investigation and reflection.

 Judged by conventional economic criteria - as publishers must judge it – historical research is a commodity with limited value beyond a small and highly specialized market.  Its worth in conventional economic terms derives from the low cost by which they can be obtained and the willingness of a small specialist audience to buy it, or as is more often the case, persuading the libraries serving them to buy it.   In other words, researchers give away their intellectual property – often produced at high public cost – to commercial publishers who then sell it back to our institutions – which often rely heavily on public funding.

The economics of “pay-for-view” access to online historical scholarship are in the words of a former president of the United States, “voodoo” economics.  Authors of history articles do not get paid for their intellectual property (nor, for that matter, do the overwhelming majority of those who write history monographs.)  Nor are their colleagues that serve as peer reviewers compensated for their intellectual labor. Indeed, outside of a handful of editors at the most prestigious journals, journal editors are not paid by their journal. The cost of their intellectual work, like that of authors and reviewers, is subsidized by themselves and by their universities. It is in the interest of all whose intellectual work goes into producing historical scholarship to have that work as widely distributed as possible. 

In the print media, where paper and postage cost money, each additional copy of a journal or book had a real cost associated with it.  Commercial publishers with wide distribution networks offered the best opportunity to distribute print scholarship and thereby serve the interest of the entire historical community.  Ironically, the opposite is true for online scholarship. Digitization, mark-up, and online delivery costs are largely fixed (given the size of the audience for historical scholarship and the cost of servers) regardless of use.  It is far more costly for scholarly societies and commercial publishers to run subscription management systems and limit access to online content than it would be for them to make their online journals freely accessible to all. 

Naturally those entrusted with managing scholarly societies for the history community are fearful that they would lose their financial base if they gave away their publications.  Who would pay for a membership, they wonder, if their journals were freely available.  In effect, they are using the intellectual labor of their member authors, reviews, and editors to support the society.  Such expropriation was rational when the print journals of scholarly societies offered academics the best route for wide distribution of their intellectual work.  That is no longer the case.  Authors, reviewers, and editors are not having their interests served by scholarly societies that limit access to scholarship to those who can pay or work at institutions that pay for access.  In the long run, we believe that it is not a viable strategy for scholarly societies to base their financial future and institutional existence on limiting access to the intellectual work of their own members.  Such strategy not only is not in the best interest of their members, but it also undermines the entire history profession.


Marginalizing Historical Scholarship

Almost all of the major history journals in the world are now available online through commercial publishers, content aggregators such as EBSCO and Gale, and/or independent ventures, such as the history cooperative. Virtually all of this scholarship is gated, however. It is sold as a commodity and delivered through proprietary gateways. Universities throughout Africa have gained access to the Internet, but our professional history journals are no more accessible in Accra than they were twenty years ago as we have locked them behind economic gates.  (Our back journals, many of which have been long digitized by JSTORE, remain unavailable as well, a decade after being digitized.)  The same is true for much of this country. Access to on-line historical scholarship in journals is limited to researchers, students, and the public who pay for that access, or work and study in institutions that pay for that access.

The economic hurdle for access to historical journals is severe, but it is not the only problem with this system.  Equally problematic, is the decision to gate off this scholarship from the larger Internet and the searching tools that students, researchers, and the general public are using to uncover and navigate their way through online resources.  Much research still needs to be done on how we find content on the World Wide Web, but existing studies show that people prefer searching for information by using one of several highly sophisticated and free of charge commercial search engines.  Teachers and researchers may also consult commercial products (but even then we would postulate that they vastly prefer free online tools), but students tend to be conscious of the limitations on their time and will usually go no further than discovering and using free on-line resources.

In countries with high levels of networked access, high school and undergraduate students are disposed to access and use free on-line information to complete assessable research and writing tasks.  Why should we expect otherwise when we are now teaching students in the higher levels of education for whom the World Wide Web has been part of the fabric of everyday life from their first days of schooling?   When faced with writing a paper on some historical question our students may go to the library, but rather than first consulting on-line catalogues of the library’s holdings they are likely to use one of the more commercial sophisticated search engines such as to find full text information.  With the diffusion of the Internet into homes throughout the United States, the general public too, increasingly has access to this powerful research tool. Thus, when they want to look something up---they go through yahoo, google, aol or another search engine to discover free on line recourses.

In many instances searching via or similar engines leads to high quality on-line resources offered by libraries, museums and art galleries. One can also find the growing number of excellent resources created with limited funds and, still in many cases, little professional recognition by university researchers and history teachers.   However, for every one good resource discovered this way, one also finds many created by enthusiastic amateurs containing factual inaccuracies or offering dubious interpretations of events.  Increasingly, commercial entities are moving in as well. The Discovery Channel, the History Channel, the History Place and hundreds of more specialized online ventures are setting themselves up to be major doorways to delivering historical content on line.  Needless to say, regardless of the value of these individual sites, the concerns of professional historians are not their paramount interest. 

There will doubtless be those that argue that this is precisely why we need on-line ventures between historical societies and commercial publishers.   But while there is no question that commercial ventures can guarantee provision of high quality resources, we would do well to question whether students accustomed to finding information quickly and at no costs beyond those of connectivity will prefer commercial resources, especially when those resources are highly selective in what they offer, are often cumbersome to use, and in many instances are only usable within on-campus networks.  Try as we might to convince them otherwise, the engrained preference of students and the public is for free on-line resources.  If we circumscribe what is freely and conveniently available to them by commercializing historical knowledge then we risk leaving them outside the walls of ‘pay for view systems’ imagining the past in inaccurate and trivial ways.

The appetite for historical content on line is vast and growing. So is the amount of historical content on line.  Gated access and “pay-for-view” systems marginalize our profession from this interest, however.  To take but one relevant example, both back issues and current issues of the American Historical Review are digitized and available on line. For the first time in history, the technology exists and the product exists for students, scholars, the general public worldwide to easily and rapidly find out what the best historians in this country have written about any given history topic.  But unfortunately the AHR is now gated off from the rest of the Internet.  As a result, searching through commercial search engines leads to the Discovery Channel rather than to articles and reviews by professional historians. Is not an enormous opportunity being missed here?


Free and Open Access to Scientific Research

Outside of the Humanities, a very different model is emerging for distribution of scholarship on line. We believe that it is important for historians to take note of this model and consider how we might adopt it to our needs. In the physical and natural sciences, an increasing number of communities have established pre-print servers giving access to copies of papers either under review by leading print journals, or which have been accepted for publication.   Given the nature and costs of experimental work in the sciences, the virtues of pre-print servers have long been apparent. They provide access to research results and (often) associated data weeks or months before appearance in print form.   In many communities print-based versions of papers are now less a means of disseminating research outcomes than archival artifacts charting the development of research in a field, and recording the professional contribution of the authors.

Among scientific research communities that have embraced networked communication, a number have gone as far as to established e-journals, thus transferring the entire process of submitting, peer reviewing and disseminating the outcomes of research.   In some instances, the decision to go digital has occurred with the coalescence of new fields of research, notably in areas of the biomedical sciences and information technology.  However, an increasing number of established communities are exploring a fully electronic publication cycle.

What is also noteworthy is that research communities are not simply opting for networked publication but, in many instances, are establishing servers in collaboration with research libraries to make what they publish freely available to colleagues and other interested researchers. To serve this information, many are using open source programming and shared standards for the encoding and description of knowledge information. Much effort has also been devoted to creating search and retrieval programming to enhance discovery of knowledge that may reside on one of a large number of such servers located in libraries throughout the world.  The Open Archives Initiative (OAI), funded by the NSF, has established a common protocol for all paper servers as a first step towards increasingly networked research repositories.

To a large extent this shift has occurred because researchers in various scientific fields have seen the economics of conventional publication evolve to the point that it now works against their interests.   Over the past decade, the cost of print journals in many fields of scientific inquiry has risen steeply while university and research center operating budgets have remained static or have declined in real terms.  In many instances the move to commercially produced electronic editions of journals has brought neither reductions in the costs of subscription, nor enhancements such as on-line indexes and access to digital archives that seem to justify the outlay.  Journal editors and reviewers continue to contribute their time freely in return for peer-recognition.  But now many find themselves obliged to take on services such as copy-editing that publishers argue they can no longer provide if the journal in question is to remain a commercially viable undertaking in either print or digital form.

Importantly, the migration of research communities to free on-line modes of publication has not simply been a reaction to the costs of commercially produced journals rising beyond what researchers and librarians are prepared to pay.  The decision of scientists to augment or replace commercial publication with free on-line access is also motivated by wider philosophical and ethical considerations.  Even more than humanists, scientists appreciate inter-connectiveness of scholarly research and the economic and social importance of rapid and widespread circulation of knowledge in the post-industrial or ‘informational’ economy.

The Potential of Networked Scholarly Research

We are conscious that there are significant differences between research in the sciences and history.  It is certainly true that traditional historical research has centered on writing books, whereas scientific research revolves around the production of what are often highly technical papers that are less discrete entities than parts of an evolving dialogue about a particular problem among a large number of researchers. Indeed, it is worth recalling that hypertext mark-up language (HTML) came about because of the desire of high-energy physicists to aggregate, digest and respond to rapid advances in the knowledge of their community.

However, it is worth pursuing the contrast a little further. Reviewing discussions among historians about the potential of electronic publication over the past three or so years, it strikes us that this has largely been a conversation about replicating the form and function of specialist books and learned articles in the on-line environment. It is a conversation that betrays nostalgia for tangible printed forms and does not look forward to the potential benefits that networked information, collaborative research, and hypermedia can offer.

Historical societies and commercial publishers engage in ‘pay for view’ publication generally think of electronic publication as something to be produced in much the same way as print-based books or articles.  In other words, an electronic resource is something produced retrospectively after the completion of a research project as one of a number of publishing formats.  Published scholarship are individual pieces of work that can be licensed and sold separate from other pieces of scholarship.

The popularity of H-Net, in contrast, demonstrates the hunger of scholars for a more interactive, iterative process of research, teaching, and publication.  The rapidity of communication, the ease of online publication, and the ability to build connections from scholarly work with hypertext bespeaks to new opportunities for scholarly collaboration and the development of new forms of scholarship, which are not isolated pieces of individual work, but rather built upon connections to sources and other scholarship.


We believe that it is more useful to think about conventional print-based books, articles and their electronic surrogates as destined to become increasingly interconnected with new forms of research outcomes that exploit the hypertextual, visual and sonic possibilities of networked communication.  There is no reason why historians should not continue to publish in traditional print-based genres, but the future of these genres is very likely to be one in which they will be disseminated electronically and will be interconnected in new and diverse ways with on-line research that employs hypermedia to do things that are either poorly done or impossible to do in print-based media.

The catch, of course, is that to build these connections, online resources have to be open and freely available.   Links to other work, examination of visual and audio sources, statistical analysis across databases is not possible when scholarship is gated by economic boundaries.  The “pay-for-view” system that drastically limits access to historical scholarship is also holding back the development of more interactive, iterative, networked research and publication.

The Promise and Implications of Hypermedia

For scholars interested in moving beyond text and working with images, sound, and video, an open networked environment is essential. Hypermedia demands a very different relationship between research processes and outcomes than conventional print-based publications.  Hypermedia is created by editing and analysing sources created during the research process – video, animation, and audio recordings – in addition to incorporating digital copies of more conventional kinds of textual and graphic materials.  This contrasts markedly with the conventional process of publishing in the humanities and social sciences, where appraising and incorporating evidence in the form of writing results in a text.  Working with hypermedia involves constructing key elements of the final product during the earliest stages of the research process.  Indeed, this is beneficial to the research process by requiring that analytical and interrogative work be done from the outset.  Researchers, moreover, must be aware of the need to communicate with their intended audience, to ensure communication through good information design, which in turn adds a further analytical dimension to the research process.  In short, while such considerations should be present irrespective of the communication medium, in hypermedia it is an essential dimension to research.

What attracts younger scholars to working in networked hypermedia is the potential to facilitate more dialogic modes of scholarly conversation, in which research results are presented, discussed and perhaps challenged by incorporation or connection with new hypermedia artifacts.  

For this potential of hypermedia to be realized there is a need for shared technical processes and protocols for creating seamless exchange and interconnection of on-line resources within highly structured and contextualized web spaces.   As recently argued by Gavan McCarthy, one of Australia’s leading researchers in the field of heritage informatics, ‘the key principles or functional requirements of web object publication…are citability, coherence, communicability and endurance.  Adherence to these principles will not only enable the building of connectedness at the micro level but will enable the building of larger scale structures and architectures based on the concepts of scale-free complex networks (McCarthy and Evans, 2001).’

The critical point is that these networks are emerging.  So too are the technical processes and protocols for ensuring the translation of the critical assumptions and practices of disciplines such as history into the networked environment.   Much essential work has been done within library and museum circles over several years now on resolving key problems relating to the exchange and description of scholarly knowledge in digital forms.  Indeed, much of this work is of direct benefit to historians wanting to work in hypermedia because personnel within museums and libraries have very similar intellectual objectives to historians.  From long immersion in print culture and the creation of complex bibliographical resources they know the importance of ensuring citability, coherence, communicability and endurance in the networked environment.   Like historians they are concerned to ensure that the digital surrogates of cultural objects and information they create embody standards which will allow future generations to determine who created a particular resource and the assumptions they employed in doing so.   Libraries and museum have moreover built upon international co-operative links established over many years to implement open standards and create software tools using open source programming for creating structured and conceptualized on-line resources. Thanks to library and museum based research, historians already have much of what they need to ensure the translation into the digital realm of the kinds of editorial procedures and standards which, in the world of print, have traditionally enabled historical inquiry.

A Historical Perspective on The Transformation of Scholarly Publishing

As historians we not surprisingly often look to the past to help understand the changes wrought by the revolution in communication technology. It is, therefore, not uncommon to find what we are experiencing compared to the development of print-based modes of communication in European scholarly communities through the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  However, comparisons drawn between contemporary and past experiences of technological change have generally relied on a problematic interpretation of the relationships that existed between scholars, publishers and readers from the Reformation to the era of the scientific revolution.   As Adrian Johns has argued, the way these relationships have been understood, notably in Elizabeth Eisenstein’s highly influential work on the press as an agent of cultural change, has tended to over-emphasize the transformational power of print technology – i.e. its capacity to create networks, which functioned so as to produce widespread conformity in intellectual practices and products.   Johns suggests that the mistake has been to see the medium as the message, in the sense of being not just an agent of change, but new processes and criteria for determining scholarly knowledge.  Hence the book has been seen as an artefact that, in displacing the cultural premium traditionally given to oral recitation, has radically changed human cognition - a view that seems implicit in works such as Sven Birkert’s, Gutenberg Elegies.

However, as Johns has persuasively argued of the seventeenth century London book trade, print-based communication did not permit the imposition of consensus as to what constituted scientific truth, or agreement as to the criteria by which truth was most certain to be established.  Seventeenth century English natural philosophers found themselves entangled in new and often antagonistic relationships between different learned societies, publishers, booksellers and readers.   This complex sphere of interaction was in turn subject to the influence of wider cultural forces in operation in the highly volatile religious and political climate of the seventeenth-century.

One could argue that we are experiencing a similar predicament. Herbert Van de Sompel, for example, has recently suggested that much of the current uncertainty about the future of scholarly communications stems from the shift away from the traditional nexus between paper journals and libraries controlling all the various functions of scholarly communication: registration, certification and distribution of new ideas, and importantly, the archiving of intellectual activity. Van de Sompel views the disruption of the status quo by pre-print servers as a healthy development, in that it promises to accelerate the distribution of new ideas and greatly increases access to new scholarship.  What is happening is in part a ‘decomposition’, breaking scholarly communication into various component parts in contrast to the print-based system where journals and libraries linking the system together.

One could further argue that, like the turmoil characterizing scientific communication in seventeenth-century Britain, much of the debate about the strengths and weaknesses of networked communication is similarly entangled within wider cultural considerations of the outcomes of this process of ‘decomposition’.

From the perspective of historians, the breaking of the traditional nexus between print journals and libraries serves to remind us of the provisional and shifting nature of the production of historical knowledge.   We in H-Net find this in many respects an exciting development that raises interesting questions about how on-line historical scholarship may evolve.   For others, ‘decomposition’ raises fears about what the future holds, and we suspect figures strongly in the decision of historical societies to opt for ‘pay for view’ systems.  It is understandable that entrenched assumptions and practices should inform how new technologies might best be used.

However, we believe that the interests of historians and their readers are best served by taking advantage of the robust and inexpensive means of free on-line publication developed by scientific communities and librarians.  Unlike commercial on-line publication systems, these tools and the protocols for information management they embody have been designed from the premise that scholarly knowledge is a cultural resource, and like other kinds of cultural resources its value derives from its generating insight and creativity through free circulation.  Further, the work so far done in creating tools for open publication give historians not only cheap and effective means of sharing their knowledge, but the tools by which to build the kinds of structured and contextualized web resources that will truly facilitate the evolution of historical scholarship in the networked environment.


Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies. The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (London: Faber and Faber, 1994)

DOTFORCE, Okinawa Charter on the Global Information Society,

Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, l983)

Adrian Johns, The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1998)

Gillian Lindt, “The Implications of Electronic Information for the Sociology of Knowledge,” Technology, Scholarship and the Humanities: The Implications of Electronic Information (Coalition for Networked Information Working Group Reports, 2001)

Gavan McCarthy and Joanne Evans, ‘The Open Resource Scholarly Network: new collaborative partnerships between academics, libraries, archives and museums’ (VALA 2002 Conference Proceedings: forthcoming).

Pamela Pavliscak, Seamus Ross, and Charles Henry, Information Technology in Humanities Scholarship: Achievements, Prospects, and Challenges – The United States Focus (American Council of Learned Societies, Occassional Paper Series, No. 37: 1997).

New Zealand. Ministry of Research, Science and Technology, ‘Knowledge, Innovation, and Creativity: Designing a Knowledge Society for a Small, Democratic Country’ (Internet resource, 2000