Change or Die: Scholarly E-Mail Lists, Once Vibrant, Fight for Relevance


H-Net, which is a collection of 180 e-mail lists on various topics in the humanities, plans to add blogs and other services to maintain readers in a Web 2.0 world.
June 25, 2009

Once they were hosts to lively discussions about academic style and substance, but the time of scholarly e-mail lists has passed, meaningful posts slowing to a trickle as professors migrate to blogs, wikis, Twitter, and social networks like Facebook.

That's the argument made by T. Mills Kelly, an associate professor of history and associate director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Naturally, he first made the argument on his blog, and he has mentioned it on the technology podcast he hosts with two colleagues.

A close look at some of the largest academic mailing lists, however, shows signs of enduring life and adaptation to the modern world.

Mr. Kelly is not swayed, though. He says he was once an enthusiastic participant in several scholarly e-mail lists, mainly ones run by the H-Net service, which offers e-mail lists on various topics in the humanities. He even moderated one of them. But he says one of those lists shut down for lack of use in 2005, and the activity on the others sputters along with little useful information.

"As more and more people become comfortable with blogs and Twitter, e-mail lists will become increasingly irrelevant," he said. "They're just a much less dynamic form of communication."

After hearing Mr. Kelly's striking thesis recently, I began asking around about whether other scholars are clicking "unsubscribe" so they can spend more time blogging and Twittering.

When I posed the question on my Twitter feed, a few tech-forward scholars heartily agreed. "In the last month, i unsubscribed from 4 academic lists," wrote David Silver, a professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco, abbreviating his comment to stay within Twitter's 140-character limit on all messages. "Thru other means, mostly Twitter, don't feel like i'm missing much."

"I find that I almost hate e-mail now," wrote Kimberly Gibson, an instructional designer at Our Lady of the Lake University. "It feels so slow and outdated. Thus, I'm not really reading my scholarly lists anymore."

Even a participant on the scholarly e-mail list about scholarly communication agreed when I posed my question there.

"While I am still on a few listservs, it is mainly because they give me no other option for receiving information," wrote Kay Cunningham, an electronic-resources librarian at the University of Memphis. "I find them increasingly annoying —even those with digest options, and for the most part I delete them unread."

I pitched the story to my editors, who loved the headline "Death of the E-Mail List."

But then a surprising thing happened. I started to hear passionate defenses of listservs from other people in my digital network, even those who are just as plugged in to the latest trends.

"I'd venture that academic librarians would not be able to function without e-mail mailing lists!" wrote Lorena O'English, a social-sciences librarian at Washington State University, when I posted a question about the issue to my Facebook profile.

Researchers and administrators from a range of disciplines joined that chorus. Eran Toch, a postdoctoral fellow in computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, said that all of his colleagues use them, too. "Not everybody has Twitter/Facebook accounts, and social networks are too public for most of the content flowing through mailing lists," he wrote.

It turns out that the audiences for many academic mailing lists are actually growing —though even some organizers admit that the lists are less likely to contain the spirited debates that once thrived there. Administrators at some of the largest academic listervs say they are beginning to upgrade their services for the Web 2.0 era.

Subscribers Up, Messages Down

Listservs, a trademarked software for running e-mail lists whose name is often used to refer to the lists themselves, were once a "killer app" that tempted many professors to try the Internet in the first place, back when many established scholars were skeptical of computers. A Chronicle article nearly 15 years ago proclaimed the exciting new world of academic e-mail lists, calling them "the first truly worldwide seminar room."

"This is the academy of the 1990s, where 'being connected' has taken on a whole new meaning," the 1994 article went on. "Attending the right graduate school and being published in prestigious places are still important, but establishing a name for oneself online has become the newest way to win recognition."

But now collaborating online with colleagues is so accepted that scholars are trying new tools that are easier to use and, well, a little more exciting. When was the last time someone enthusiastically recommended a new e-mail list to you?

That fact is not lost on the organizers of H-Net, one of the largest networks of academic discussion lists. H-Net now runs about 180 lists, which together boast more than 120,000 subscribers, according to Peter Knupfer, executive director of H-Net and an associate professor of history at Michigan State University.

He says the numbers of subscribers to the lists rise each year. "Rumors of our impending demise," Mr. Knupfer said, "are therefore a bit premature."

But the total number of messages on the system has declined steadily each year since 2000, he admitted. Which means that Mr. Kelly is probably right that the lists are less vibrant than they once were.

In many cases, the way the lists are used has changed, explaining the dip in message traffic. Some lists now have less discussion and instead focus on notices of upcoming conferences, job ads, or other announcements. Perhaps that is because so many of the lists are now so large that discussions become unwieldy. When a few dozen or even a hundred colleagues dash a few notes back and forth through e-mail messages clearly marked by topic, it's usually easy enough to follow. But get a thousand or more subscribers on a list, and the volume and noise can become excessive, even with moderators on duty.

The H-Net service's most valuable items are its book reviews, written by volunteers on each list. Mr. Knupfer says more than 1,000 new reviews are posted to the lists —and simultaneously to the H-Net Web site —each year.

And don't forget the elegant simplicity of e-mail. E-mail lists are easy to use and can be accessed from even the slowest Internet connections, said Mr. Knupfer.

One sign of the audience's dedication to the e-mail format is that when H-Net asks subscribers to make a small donation to keep the free service running, people open their e-wallets.

"This year we brought in about $45,000 or so," said Mr. Knupfer, noting that typical donations are about $45 each.

"Listserv is going to be with us for quite a while," he predicts. "It's remarkable how durable and how popular that particular medium remains."

Even so, the organization is working to offer new social-networking tools alongside its venerable lists. Last year the H-Net leadership voted to add blogs and other services to its mix, and a pilot version of new services is expected in the next six months or so.

"We've always thought of H-Net as an organization of networks rather than an organization of e-mail lists," Mr. Knupfer told me. "The limitations of listservs are obvious to everyone."

He said the new system will enhance the service's Web site, which already offers searchable archives of the e-mail lists and links to related Web resources. The hope is to let users create their own profiles and post files to their H-Net accounts to share with other scholars. "We don't allow attachments on our lists, but we do want people to share documents and sound and video," he said.

Embracing New Technologies

Similar changes are under way at the Linguist List, which —with about 29,000 subscribers —could be the largest single academic mailing list out there.

Helen Aristar-Dry, who has helped run the list since it began in 1990, is co-director of the Institute for Language Information and Technology at Eastern Michigan University.

"The linguist list is actually kind of a big deal in linguistics," she said, reporting that its audience is growing each year. The list also asks its subscribers for donations to support it, and this year it exceeded its $60,000 goal by $10,000.

The list has tried to embrace new technologies as they have emerged, even as organizers kept the list going. Ms. Aristar-Dry got a grant from the National Science Foundation many years ago to set up a searchable Web archive of the lists. More recently, the organizers set up RSS feeds for the list so scholars can follow it on Google Reader, Bloglines, or other software designed to keep track of blogs and Web sites (H-Net has set up a similar service).

Like H-Net, the tenor of the Linguist List has evolved. "It used to be a discussion list, but it's not that so much anymore," said Ms. Aristar-Dry. "Now it's mainly job announcements, conference announcements, and book reviews."

"I think that community discussion has been largely replaced by the blogs," she said.

Perhaps e-mail lists will occupy a space like radios did in the television age, sticking around but fading to the background. Although people are fond of declaring the death of e-mail in general, it remains a key tool that just about everyone opens every day. As long as that's true, the trusty e-mail list will be valuable to scholars of all stripes.

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