By Professor David Stack
In danger of being lost amidst the many centenaries, bicentenaries and jubilees modern historians are set to mark in 2012, is a significant 21st birthday. In the fairly recent past what the Americans call the ‘age of majority’ signaled the most important rite of passage in one’s transition to adulthood. It was only with the passing of the 1969 Representation of the People Act that Britain’s voting age was reduced to 18 and it remains the case that if you want to be elected as an MP or councilor, adopt a child, drive a HGV, or hold an airline transport pilot’s license you will first need to ‘come of age’.
It was on 6 August 1991 that Tim Berners-Lee, a physicist working at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, posted the world’s first webpage. Forty-six years to the day after the Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Berners Lee unleashed a rather subtler, and in its own way more powerful, force. There was no explosion, not even a figurative one. Only CERN staff possessed the browser software to view the page, the contents of which were extraordinarily dull. Yet twenty-one years later, with the rhythmic intonation ‘World Wide Web’ a daily accompaniment to almost all our activities, it would be easy to make a case for regarding 6 August 1991 as a ‘landmark’ in history.
A ‘landmark’, moreover, which has changed the way historians work, and possesses the potential to affect even greater changes in the future.
The advantages, in terms of access, are easy to see. A multitude of digitization projects have made a plethora of primary sources available more or less (literally) at the touch of a button. And not only can we access such material without the trouble of traveling to libraries or accommodating ourselves to awkward opening hours, we can also search documents for keywords, and thus eliminate the need to painstakingly pore over page after page to find one obscure reference.
This makes some of our research quicker and easier. A recent piece I wrote, for example, was facilitated by the ability to search nineteenth century newspapers online, which spared me many dispiriting trips to the British Newspaper Library at Colindale. But against this has to be balanced the dangers inherent in the web unleashing a tsunami of undigested material. In my own research area, there are ongoing projects to place every piece of Darwin’s correspondence and marginalia online, which will probably encourage a tendency to focus on extraneous detail.
Even if we are able to restrain the inner Namierite lurking within, we still need to be alive to other historiographical implications of digitization projects. To take the Darwin case again: the decision to digitize his scribbled notes, annotations, and correspondence, implicitly encourages us to focus on Darwin as an individual, engaged in material scientific practices. These projects, that is, contain a rebuke both to the notion of the scientist as a ‘genius’ – experiencing a ‘eureka moment’ on the Galapagos Islands – and to the ‘social’ model, that sees science as a response to broader social and economic trends. This is not the place to decide on the relative merits of these approaches. My point is that digitization itself is rarely historiographically neutral.
But what ‘riches’ might the future of the web offer for historians? Well, if it is riches in the sense of monetary wealth you seek then disappointment beckons. In fact, the Google-isation of our books is likely to rob us of any pittance of royalties we might have earned. In return, however, we might grab a greater prize: the broader dissemination of our work and an improved public understanding of history. For this to become a reality, however, we will need to break our self-imposed subordination to publishers.
One of the greatest scandals of modern academia is that the research we produce – funded by a public subsidy – is sold privately, at an exorbitant price. Those working in universities research and write papers for academic journals, published by multi-national companies, who exploit the inelastic demand for their product, by charging university libraries to buy access to these same papers. Members of the public (who have paid for our research activity through their taxes) have to pay up to £25 to read a single article. Academics edit these journals for relatively little reward and peer-review for free. This system, reinforced by the REF’s emphasis on ‘quality’ journals, serves no one but the publishers. Certainly not the public, who, as George Monibot has recently argued in the Guardian, ought to have free access to publicly funded research.
Tim Berners-Lee has given us a means to extricate ourselves from this madness. We no longer need to publish in paper journals. There is absolutely no reason why the historians who edit, peer-review and submit to profiteering private companies cannot do so equally well for a public access archive, freely available on the web, without the intermediary publisher. The webpage is coming of age. It is time academics came to their senses.
Dr David Stack