On Open History

For the last fifteen years we have been building digital history projects, web sites, and archives, and as we take stock we can see that the change has been momentous in the practice of history. Back in the 1990s we talked about the digital movement as “democratizing history” and that idea still resonates and excites. The early Valley of the Shadow project aimed to open up history by providing access to sources and including more people in our story of the past. The work at George Mason’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media continues to inspire as it brings citizens into the making of history on a range of projects.

We still need to find more ways to open history. The digital technologies allow us to do this now more than ever, of course, but it remains unclear just how far historians will move in this direction. At the University of Nebraska our (HIST 970) graduate students in the digital history seminar have been forging ahead this term exploring how they can use digital tools either to explore the past in new ways or to represent the past in new forms. Their digital narratives integrate sources and analysis, and weave historiography, evidence, and data together. Their work inspires me that we will see younger scholars use digital tools in ways we could not have predicted a few years ago.

The idea of open history, however alluring, is not easy to achieve in our current mix of proprietary and public domain sources. We need only to consider what has happened to scholarly practice in an environment now dominated by Google Books.

The Google project has certainly enabled the discovery of new data, information, and links in the past. As an example, let us look into a little-known, but nonetheless important, Supreme Court case in 1873, Catherine or Kate Brown v. the Washington and Alexandria Railroad. Other than Kate Masur’s excellent 2010 book, An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle over Equality in Washington, D.C., there are almost no monographs that cover this case. I am interested in the case because Brown was one of the first women to challenge segregation in the American South. She rode a railroad across the Potomac River in 1868 from D.C. to Virginia, and once in Alexandria, Virginia, she was forcibly thrown out of the white ladies car. What’s remarkable was that Brown’s experience was not unusual–thousands and thousands of African Americans began riding the railroads in the days, months, and years after emancipation. We have little sense of this movement, but Brown’s case included affidavits from black passengers, and we might use other sources to learn about how black freedmen and women moved, when, and under what conditions.

Using Google Books to search the lawyers names, we could quickly discover all sorts of information from obscure county and local historical society publications held by the various libraries in Google’s project–a sequence of research that would otherwise have been largely impossible just a few years ago. This sort of immediate and detailed access is unprecedented. The same is true for Ancestry.com (which libraries do not generally subscribe to). Searching across all individual census entries for the U.S. from 1790 to 1930, we could find the jurors in the case, where they lived in city directories, their occupations, their family relationships. This work takes about 1 hour. Both of these ventures–Google and Ancestry–have problems in metadata encoding, scanning quality, and data interpolation. But taken as they are now, they and the other large data aggregation projects that digital libraries are undertaking have led to a “revolution” in how we do scholarship.

The recently issued Council on Library Information Research (CLIR) report on “The Idea of Order” cautioned that monographic literature represents only one type of text scholars analyze: “Humanities scholars will increasingly want to do much more with text than use it simply as an alternate format to print. They will want to mine and recombine it, which is not possible with the current products of mass-digitization projects. Indeed, future reading will be done in part by machines in such a vast repository of information.” Robert Darnton in calling recently for a National Digital Library project is responding to these concerns. Clearly, scholars need access to “big data” texts for research, but we are a long way from having reliable, open-source, rights-free, and richly encoded texts.

So, how can we open history? First, we need more than ever to continue to build digital projects with integrated tools, and create open access archives of historical texts, sounds, maps, videos, and images. The American Council of Learned Societies report, “Our Cultural Commonwealth,” correctly pointed out that humanities scholars will have to build the tools they need, no one else will. We can create works that allow others–readers, scholars, colleagues, students–to examine the sources and “run the data” again. Perhaps to add materials and engage with history through associations that they build into our interpretation and materials.

Second, we need to open our projects to experts in a wide variety of fields who can contribute data. In the field of railroad or Civil War history, these individuals and groups are obvious and expert. Genealogists helped us with entering thousands of individual census records for the Valley project. But there are other experts equally well-positioned to support and work with scholars. Just take a look at the “Confederate Railroads” site by Dave Bright is an example of this work by non-academic experts–it is fabulously comprehensive and detailed, but it is also an example of a supremely herculean effort in the archives that might be difficult to preserve and access as technologies change.

Open history should also come with different pedagogy for history. Here, we could turn to ways to democratize the learning process in our college classrooms. There is much to be done in this area, but we might give our students a chance to create their history and take an active role in its interpretation.

About William Thomas

William G. Thomas III is a professor of history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the John and Catherine Angle Professor in the Humanities. He teaches digital humanities and digital history, 19th century U.S. history, the Civil War, and the history of slavery.
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3 Responses to On Open History

  1. The project I am currently involved in has amassed a large amount of primary source material which is a wonderful resource for us. It could be a wonderful resource for other researchers or the general public, but sadly due to copyright restrictions we cannot publish it. I can envisage researchers who wish to further our research having to follow our trail to libraries and archives around Australia and repeating what we have already done – ordering items, copying them, recording them in a database. The extra handling of the original documents will accelerate their deterioration.

    This is all such a waste of time and money. Rather than working on replicating the same data collection, we should be encouraging researchers to put their efforts into analysing the data.

    There is a need to make original sources freely and easily accessible. There is also a need for the articles that academic historians write to become more accessible. There is so much good history locked up in journals that are only accessible through subscription or by visiting an academic library. The knowledge in these journals is relevant to the general public and should be shared, albeit presented in a manner that is more engaging for the general reader.

    At the moment the easiest way to do this is by doing what you have done, writing a blog. Thankyou for sharing your work.

  2. wthomas says:


    I agree, thank you for the thoughtful comment. Scholarly work is definitely available on Jstor, but largely limited to big universities that subscribe. More and more, historians are taking advantage of open access digital repositories in their universities. Our is “Digital Commons” at University of Nebraska. I would encourage others to submit their work to these open repositories–it’s a great way to open our scholarship.

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