Tuesday, December 02, 2008

History Needs to be More Accessible for Historians

Tim Lacy is worried that historians are engaged in "a dichotomous conversation" based on their ability to pay for (and thus access) historical sources. This follows a similar concern he expressed about the costs involved in doing good intellectual history. In short, Tim thinks there is a class problem whereby better-financed historians have access to journals that lesser-financed, and usually younger, historians do not. At the same time, the latter are generally more reliant upon--and willing to use--on-line (read "free") sources. The essence of his point is this:
It seems to me then that digital subscription issues tend to detrimentally affect non peer-reviewed output by history professionals more than other kinds of writing. This means writing on subjects where historians are acting as public intellectuals. Of course this also extends to audience---print and online audiences are only seeing writings by those who work in each medium. It's an obvious point, but it is important to remind ourselves of the consequences.

If historians can't afford the time, energy, and money to go to their home institution's library to read print subscription output, their non-peer reviewed, public-intellectual work will likely be based on easily accessible web resources, resulting in two tracks of professional conversation about larger subjects.
Tim is seeking input, so here's mine: You bet it's a problem, especially for independent types like me. As a non-academic making my living in an entirely separate field, there's no way I can regularly keep up with the latest in scholarship. However, I also understand that I'm significantly in the minority and that the entire profession needn't change to suite me!

That being said, it is worth considering how younger historians on an academic track regard these access and financial roadblocks. As a profession, historians had better work towards easier and more cost-effective individual access to journals. A new generation that is used to operating on their own (ie; without having to be "affiliated") and having vast amounts of information at their fingertips is coming fast and they correctly expect that the "scholarly superstructure" of their profession is up-to-date and "user friendly." Right now, their in for some considerable disappointment.

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