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History in and for a digital age

January 6, 2012

Tags: history, digital

History may be changing now as profoundly as it changed when Gutenberg introduced print, writes William Cronon, president of the American Historical Association. In a thought-provoking essay, The Public Practice of History in and for a Digital Age, Cronon writes that for "those of us in the humanities, the essence of a university consisted of a group of professors and students gathered around a great heap of books. Those days are gone forever." (President's Letter, Perspectives on History, AHA, January 2012).

The changes wrought by the digital revolution are having profound effects--for example, on organizations: "The business model that has sustained such organizations [as the American Historical Association] has involved income from a few key sources: journals; newsletters; meetings; job markets; and—crucially—memberships for individuals seeking access to such services. All of these income sources are now in question." We must reinvent ourselves to become relevant.

Among issues to worry about: the uses and abuses of intellectual property: "Longstanding legal and intellectual traditions of fair use and public domain access that have been absolutely essential to scholarship are being eroded in ways that few anticipated. Even the ability of historians to quote from primary documents is more at risk today than ever before, with the possibility that significant swathes of the historical record may essentially become privatized at the very moment when open access seemed about to triumph."

Stay tuned. Cronon (whose website contains a festival of great quotations) will be writing more on history in the digital age.