Giving It Away

Earlier this year I uploaded a little over one hundred book summaries onto my website. The short summaries were in many ways the culmination of hundreds and hundreds of hours of reading, note-taking, and studying that I had done in preparation for my qualifying exams. At the end of the process I thought about all of that work that had gone into them and realized that it would be a shame to simply file them away for my own personal use. I might post them to Stanford’s internal history graduate archive, I might forward a few to colleagues or students, but that’s about it.

Book summaries of this kind represent an odd gray zone in the humanities. They’re a slightly more refined version of the scribbled notes that all of us take during classes, workshops, conferences, and colloquia. They aren’t critical reviews meant to stimulate evaluation and debate. They aren’t scholarship. They are certainly not anything I would put in a tenure file. Instead they’re the boring, nuts-and-bolts side of being an historian - ingesting several hundred pages of material and condensing it into a short, schematic summary. But this gray zone is also an important part of our profession. It’s what quals are all about: establishing a command (however tenuous) over the literature in the field. I hear laments all the time about how difficult it is to maintain that command, to keep all of the books in your field crammed into your head. My aim in making these summaries available is to try and aid that process on a superficial level. Nobody is going to be able to write a paper or teach a lecture using these summaries. But they do serve as a quick-and-dirty reference tool: “I keep seeing Kathy Peiss’s Cheap Amusements cited by urban historians. What exactly was it about?” Reading a short, four-hundred word schematic can be a lot faster and easier to digest than searching JSTOR for scholarly reviews, many of which offer only a brief summary of arguments before launching into historiographic debates or evaluative criticism.

I had some minor hesitation about putting the book summaries online. These were written for my own use and, I’m certain, contain the types of inevitable errors that originate from trying to churn out two books a day during the crunch-time of studying for quals. What if I had mischaracterized someone’s argument? What if I missed their point entirely? What if colleagues or job committees or (shudder) the actual author stumbled across those errors? All of these concerns are, of course, patently absurd. The idea of Amy Dru Stanley actually finding, reading, and taking offense at how I summarized her concept of postbellum contract ideology is laughable. More philosophical concerns involve a broader critique of the superficiality of the internet: when you can find everything at the click of a button, what incentive is there to actually learn things on your own? Despite my obvious embrace of technology, I have some sympathy for this viewpoint. The countless hours of reading and synthesizing that went into studying for quals was as valuable (if not more so) for developing the skill of reading books as it was for the content of the books themselves. Yes, a college freshman might take the lazy route and write a (poor) final paper based largely off of these summaries, thereby cheating themselves out of a valuable experience of learning to read and write effectively. But ultimately I had the same reaction to this concern as I did for related critiques of the digital “culture of distraction”: closing off content is not the answer to the problem.

Which brings me to the title of my post: “giving it away.” Like many in the digital humanities, I advocate for openness: open access, open data, open source. This commitment to openness is one of the hallmarks of a field dedicated to collaborative research and expanding the definition of scholarship. But I’m less concerned with humanists who know how to code or are self-professed THATCamp junkies than I am with people who will never attach the “digital” label to their title. While proselytizing digital humanists sometimes exaggerate the closed-off nature of “traditional” humanities into a straw-man, the fact remains: there isn’t a clear non-technical-humanities avenue for, say, uploading KML files onto GeoCommons or releasing a Ruby script on Sourceforge. A journal article or a monograph represents hundreds and hundreds of hours of work. Yet in the end, all of those notes and documents and transcripts and photographs usually end up just sitting on someone’s hard drive. We don’t have an established model for making them available.

For example, when I was doing research on free blacks in colonial New England, I photographed and transcribed dozens of property deeds from town vaults. I reference many of these in the endnotes of an article, but this is only useful to someone who is able to travel to the local archives of Haddam, Connecticut, pull out a volume of property deeds, and laboriously pore over the hand-written pages. What about a genealogist tracing family roots to central Connecticut? Or a researcher looking into colonial rural debtor patterns? Being able to see and read the documents on their computer is a lot more useful than trying to follow the breadcrumb trail of scholarly endnotes. And that doesn’t even touch on all of the transcriptions and sources that I didn’t end up using in the article. I see this kind of material in the same light as my book summaries: they aren’t original scholarship, but they are a crucial component of my work as an historian that should be shared.

I’m not calling for a robust online repository where people like me can upload humanistic material. I know juuuuust enough about digital archiving to know that this kind of proposal is far, far more complex anyone (myself included) might imagine. Instead, I’m simply calling for humanities scholars to give more things away. I’m less concerned with the particulars of how it’s done than the broader culture that accompanies it. I don’t expect busy professors with limited technical expertise to spend hours and hours formatting their material, meticulously attaching metadata, or publicizing its availability. Archivists and open-access champions might shudder at the thought of individual people tossing poorly-documented material into isolated, worryingly ephemeral online silos. But I think the very process of making things available on an individual level, however ad-hoc or clumsily executed, is an important step for a discipline without a strong culture of openness. The broader humanities (not just the digital humanities) need to develop a stronger disciplinary habit of giving things away.