Yesterday I took up the question of the future of the American Historical Association in the Web 2.0 world. Today I want to continue that discussion by taking a look at the part of the report I mentioned that deals with the AHA’s plan to “maximize use of the Internet.”
I think that the committee charged with drafting the report was absolutely correct in making the changes being wrought by digital media on our profession a central aspect of the report. So for that they deserve praise.
But I also think that they’ve really missed the boat with their recommendations and so I’m very pessimistic–at least for now–about how this report is going to have a positive impact on what the AHA does with respect to digital media and history.
The first problem I see rears its head right at the beginning of the “Internet” section of the report:
“Thus it is incumbent on the AHA to both understand and utilize all the cutting-edge possibilities of these new technologies, while transferring its traditional role as gatekeeper and authority for the discipline to this new medium.”
Yes to the first part of this sentence, but a definite no to the second. “Gatekeeping” and “authority” are concepts that worked very well in the analog and even Web 1.0 world. But for the AHA to really be relevant in the Web 2.0 world, where “authority” is a much trickier concept and “gatekeeping” is almost anathema to the whole idea of social computing, the association is going to have to really rethink this approach. As scholarship moves more and more toward the open source model, a focus on maintaining authority or being a gatekeeper will seem pretty anachronistic. Already it seems so 2005.
A second problem with the report is that the authors say that the AHA should “become known as the home for a number of history blogs…” Alas, that ship has already sailed. The History News Network already offers such a place to history bloggers. And, because the blogosphere is a place of dispersed conversations, seveal sites have already begun to aggregate history blogs on specific topics–the excellent Frog in a Well site being the best example I can think of.
The other part of the sentence I just quoted asserts that, in addition to history blogs, the AHA should become home to “gated discussion forums for members on specialized subjects.” Alas, that ship has both sailed and is foundering. For a very long time now (in Internet years) H-Net has provided an admirable platform for such gated forums. I know the report’s authors know this, so I’m puzzled as to why they would propose duplicating what H-Net already does. And, as I have previously written here, I think the entire gated discussion forum idea is doomed.
Moreover, the whole idea of creating “gated discussion forums” specifically works against the other big goal of the report, namely, to expand the AHA’s membership base. I’m simply at a loss to understand how denying the general public access to what we are discussing among ourselves will in any way help to expand the association’s membership list.
The last of my complaints is that there is no mention of digital scholarship. Could the report’s authors have missed the transformation of the profession taking place before their eyes? Born digital historical work is appearing all over the Internet in all sorts of shapes and sizes. To not even mention a role for the AHA in this transformation of the discipline is, well, very surprising.
Lest it seem like I’m down on the whole thing, I have to say that this part of the report is not all bad. While I think it’s a really bad idea for the AHA to invest its scarce resources in hosting blogs, I do think that the AHA could play a very positive role in a slightly different way. The single biggest problem with history blogs is that they go off line and disappear. Thus, one thing they AHA could do that would be a real service to the profession would be to create some sort of partnership with the Internet Archive to archive and aggregate history blogs and put an access point on a redesigned AHA website. Rather than acting as a gatekeeper or “authority”, the AHA could provide a very useful (and quite inexpensive) resource to its members and the general public.
I loved the language in the report about making sure that someday the entire annual meeting will take place in a wireless environment. This year’s meeting in Washington was mostly wireless and that was a real boon to those trying to do digital work at the meeting–blogging, presentations, looking up information, etc. I would also encourage the AHA to create a blogging space at the annual meeting where history bloggers can sit together in a sandbox environment, work, collaborate, and put faces with blog titles.
I could go on with what I think is good and less good about this report as it relates to digital history, but I think you get my drift by now. I think it will be a real shame if the AHA Council decides to act on these recommendations without putting them out for further review and comment–in particular review and comment from leaders in digital history. To do otherwise will be to commit the association to spending money on ideas that are, as I said above, so 2005.