Create Change

Shouldn't the way we share research be as advanced as the Internet?

Scholars Speak


Roy Rosenzweig
Digital Historian

Roy Rosenzweig
Roy Rosenzweig

The late Roy Rosenzweig was professor of history and new media at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, where he founded the Center for History and New Media. He was involved in a number of digital history projects, including The September 11 Digital Archive website that uses electronic media to collect, preserve, and present history of the terrorist attacks. Another digital archives is a collection of documents from the French Revolution, including maps, songs, texts and images. Most recently, The Hurricane Digital Memory Bank was established to record the stories of those affected by the Katrina, Rita and Wilma hurricanes. Rosenzweig’s groundbreaking work in digital history was recognized in 2003 with the Richard W. Lyman Award (awarded by the National Humanities Center and the Rockefeller Foundation) for “outstanding achievement in the use of information technology to advance scholarship and teaching in the humanities.”

How have the Internet and computing technology changed the way historians work?

In terms of research, we are just starting to see a big effect now. I think the volume of material available, particularly in American history, has gotten exponentially greater in the last five years. A large number of non-profits, libraries and commercial organizations are putting literally millions of historical documents on line. Because of this people are able to do research faster, more effectively and we are beginning to see people doing research in new ways. Email has, of course, had a huge impact for 15 or 20 years now. It’s connecting people. Scholars tend to work in micro-communities. With email, they are able to be in touch more. More recently, blogs have begun to change modes of scholarly communication further.

What are the benefits of this new age of digital scholarship in your field?

For people who are not in places with major libraries, the advantages are enormous. In terms of teaching, the biggest impact is making primary sources available to students. At places like George Mason, which is a new school, we don’t have as many old books and journals in history so if you want to find a primary source you don’t have access unless it’s digital.

At the Center for History and New Media, we try to use digital media and computer technology to democratize history. Now a wider range of people has access to primary sources, putting resources from the past in the hands of a greater number of people. It also incorporates more diverse voices giving a broader social history. Technology also allows more people to participate in writing, recording and preserving the past by allowing them to record their thoughts. It’s about opening up things to democratic participation.

What are some of the challenges and changes to publishing in your field?

Most of the history journal literature is available in electronic form. But it is just a digital representation of the same analog literature and is recognized by scholars. There are some digital-only journals, which face some of the same barriers for acceptance of all new and less established journals. Even less common have been scholarly works appearing in non-traditional formats such as hypertext. There are only a few scholars in a position to create those works and only a few journals willing to “publish” them. And it is not clear that there is an audience for this work especially in a traditional field like history. There has been much talk of a “scholarly publishing crisis” for monographs but so far the evidence about this in history has not been clear cut.

What do you see as the benefit of open access?

Open access fosters the circulation of historians’ work, which is what all scholars should want. In part, it enhances the circulation of ideas within the scholarly community. But it also pushes scholarship beyond the formal boundaries of the academic community. History is a field that can be read by a well-educated layperson. To be sure, not every non-academic wants to read history scholarship. But it does have an audience—whether the enthusiastic amateur devoted to studying the Vikings or the American Revolution or the high school student competing in National History Day. Scholars like to complain about the quality of information on the Internet, but they should also work actively to ensure that the best of historical writing is available on line to the widest possible audience.

Looking down the road a decade or so, what do you expect will be different when it comes to digital scholarship in your field?

The big changes are going to come in the way people do research. We are just beginning to figure out new ways to recover and analyze the past through the wealth of digital sources that have become available. I’m less confident that the form of the presentation of scholarship will change. The area where you may see more of a transformation are things like blogs. They have accelerated the speed of scholarly communication so people will find out more easily about work being done.