A Book-Based Discipline?

“History has been and remains a book-based discipline.” This was in the AHA statement regarding the publication of dissertations, and it’s a statement that many in the historical field find to be true. Books and articles seem to be the end goal for many historians, and many times, tenure and promotion depend on these works. Many times in my young career, I have encountered statements of, “oh, this project is great, but it’s not like an article. Can you publish one based off of this?” or “that particular project doesn’t count for much to traditional historians.”  I, as someone who enjoys and probably prefers doing projects over articles and papers, feel that maybe this concept should be overhauled. Why DOESN’T it count as much? Why, if we are using the same values and methodology, should one output be devalued due to its presentation? Dr. Jason M. Kelly explains in his article “Open Access and the Historical Profession” that, “at research institutions, the book is the standard of scholarship.  Many justify this perspective by arguing that the work it takes to prepare a book is very different from other research outputs. “

In particular, one quote stood out the most to me–“Prioritizing the book over other forms of scholarship reinforces a division between those who produce work for other scholars and those who produce work for and with the public when, in fact, both academic historians and public historians should be producing work for and with other scholars and the public.”

I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment. History shouldn’t be available only to those who pay for a book or an expensive journal subscription (which JSTOR has kindly decided that individuals can purchase a membership for $200 a year.) History isn’t just for scholars–it’s for everyone.


9 thoughts on “A Book-Based Discipline?

  1. I’d venture that the distinction is probably based on whether a project creates or disseminates knowledge. Books and articles tend to put forward new findings and interpretations, while works for the public tend to (though certainly don’t have have to) disseminate those findings to a wider audience. While I think academics tend to unduly devalue the latter, I think DH and other sub-fields are going to have to find ways to do the former with new media before they’re going to be able to unseat the book.

    • But several projects can and do make an argument with original research. They’re just presented with a new medium. Yet, we still have the distinction. I think we have to get beyond the idea that the book is the primary method for historians.

      • I agree, digital history should not be debased because it’s in a nontraditional format. I think books and articles are a valuable method of disseminating information, but they shouldn’t be the only method. Our focus should not be on whether the book is obsolete or whether digital projects are providing new scholarship, our focus should be on how we are influencing the public and furthering our understanding of the past.

      • I most certainly agree with this. Why does it seem that books/articles are more prone to creation of/extension of scholarly insights and that projects are utilized more for the dissemination of knowledge (production versus delivery)? It could be because the current institutional paradigm simply values the book and the article so much more than the scholarly “project” that no one considers it a viable avenue for the pursuit of knowledge construction over knowledge dissemination. I wonder if this will continue to be the case as the current traditionalists are replaced by people who are more ready to use digital methods in the robust way that other fields are already using them. I think that it’s entirely possible that the way scholarship is conducted and presented in the humanities will be radically different in 10 years than it is right now.

      • Can you provide links to these? In my own admittedly limited experience with DH I haven’t seen any projects structured like that.

      • The particular one I’m thinking about was a public project, but the link is here. http://floridacivilrightsexhibit.blogspot.com/?m=1

        Most of the work I’ve done this far is public with a mix of digital. This particular exhibit was done by researching both the national movement and the Florida Civil Rights movement and arguing that the movements were both long (beyond the traditional 50s and 60s most people think of), and that they paralleled each other. I can’t see how that wouldn’t “count” as traditional scholarship.

  2. […] this week, I wrote a blog post regarding history as a supposedly book-based discipline. While reading David J. Bodenhamer’s […]

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