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Historians Are Interested in Digital Scholarship but Lack Outlets

A new survey of 4,000 historians found that most are willing to try digital scholarship—such as interactive maps or online databases—but that the number of journals interested in publishing such online scholarship is tiny.

Enter the Sustaining Digital History project, which is trying to make it easier for history scholars to publish digitally in well-established forums. The group held a daylong meeting last week at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, where about 30 attendees tried to figure out how to translate this burgeoning interest in digital publishing into a new breed of scholarly work. Among the attendees were editors from eight historical journals (including the editor of the discipline’s flagship journal, The American Historical Review)—and by the end of the afternoon, each had committed to experimenting with digital scholarship.

The group also made plans to create a database of authors interested in writing this content and an advisory board that helps editors create digital content using the latest Web technologies.

Digital work has struggled to find respect and exposure in an academic world where clout comes from a system of peer review and print journals. Although some journals, including The American Historical Review, have sporadically featured digital work, only a few have made digitally born scholarship a mainstay of their publications.

Much of the digital work that scholars do now is outside of the traditional academic-publishing realm—published in blogs or on Wikipedia. About 20 percent of scholars in the survey said they had published some kind of work in a native digital form. The survey was conducted by Robert Townsend, assistant director of research and publications at the American Historical Association.

Doug Seefeldt, a historian who is one of the project’s directors, believes that digital scholarship delves into history in ways that works on paper cannot. “The complexities of the past, it seems to me, are a perfect match for the capabilities of some of these digital tools,” he said in an interview. He pointed to work like the University of Virginia’s Texas Slavery Project and Stanford University’s Spatial History Project, where interactive maps, searchable primary sources, video, and audio are as important as text.

The Sustaining Digital History project directors have established an apparatus to help editors publish digital scholarship. They are making a database of authors interested in producing digitally born work. They are also putting together a team of experts that will help editors with the nuts and bolts of this new sort of scholarship. “It’s not too long before we drop the digital, and it’ll just become history,” Mr. Seefeldt said.

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