Links, Spaces, and Changing Habits of Historical Research

A significant underlying problem in the recent controversy over the European Reading Room is the declining numbers of researchers in the Library of Congress reading rooms. Staff at the library could not provide me with specific numbers, but they did confirm my anecdotal impression (as someone who has used the library regularly over the past 23 years) that there has been a sharp decline in the number of people using their resources on site.

So if researchers are not at the library, where are they? The most obvious answer is that they are making greater use of digital materials, which can make trips to the library much more targeted and focused. Some recent studies help to validate that impression, but also point out a few problems that occur on the path from idea to publication.

The preliminary findings of a new study from Ithaka, for instance, highlight the changing starting points for historical research, particularly when compared to other disciplines. Meredith Quinn (soon to join the ranks of history doctoral students) found a striking contrast in the way historians conduct their literature reviews when compared to scientists (in this case, biologists). Historians apparently use digital resources to climb to the highest point, and look out as far and wide as they can—or as she describes it, for historians “it’s impossible to get enough” information. In comparison, it seems, scientists want to stay as close to ground level as possible, and try to follow paths already laid down by their predecessors. The report’s findings suggest that historians use digital source materials to climb higher and look wider than they ever did before.

But a second report from Ithaka seems to challenge the way that method of starting a search affects the final publication of results. In an exacting analysis of journal citations, Roger Schonfeld reports that journal articles published online receive only marginally more citations by historians than those published only in print (a five percent “online advantage”). But when historians in the Anglophone countries are separated out on their own, there appears to be almost no appreciable difference (the online advantage appears largely limited to historians from other countries). According to their analysis, historians again differ significantly from scholars in other disciplines—particularly the sciences—where the availability of an article online seems to significantly increase its chances of being cited.

My surmise about this difference (and I would welcome alternative opinions) is that our discipline is much more fragmented than other disciplines. Our Directory of History Journals, for instance, currently lists 379 peer-reviewed publications in the Anglophone world. So while I believe that the American Historical Review still sits at the core of the discipline, there is a lot of room from the center to the margins of the discipline. And that is without even considering the privileged place for monographs in our discipline.

An interesting new study in the journal Technology and Culture (a Project Muse journal) points to another possible concern for historians—link rot.Edmund Russell and Jennifer Kane (both at the University of Virginia) examined the citations to Internet sources in the AHR and Journal of American History over a five year period (2001 to 2006), and found that 18 percent of the links had stopped working within 7 years. According to their analysis, around one-in-ten citations stopped working within a few months of their publication. That could not be the only reason for being more cautious in citing online journal articles—all of the journals in the Ithaka study had print versions as well—but it certainly suggests good reason for caution.

The apparent need for caution when using Internet citations raises a serious concern for the AHA, as the context for our goals of promoting access to historical materials and disseminating research seems to be changing. Access is no longer just a physical act—though physical access clearly remains critical at important stages in the research process. And one of the vital tools of dissemination—the footnote—seems a bit less secure. As the discipline becomes more “linked in” to digital sources we will need to be more aware of the way our changing work habits may affect the physical spaces we rely on, and present new problems for the way we present scholarship to each other.

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  1. Kelly Woestman

    Many times it is the more specialized journals that contain the articles that most interest a researcher. The AHR covers a broad range of topics, and rightly so, but often doesn’t have the more narrow source material that needs to be cited.

    It would be interesting to track links going bad just over the last few years given that that appears to be less of a problem than in the past. Standardization of I.T. system upgrades that change website configurations and utilizing bots to track those updates down are two possible solutions to “lost” URLs. A significant number of our peers still dismiss the web as a big black hole instead of seeing its true potential – especially for those of us without major research libraries readily available geographically.

    Additionally, search engines like Google have become much more useful in finding matches to exact titles if for some reason the original link goes bad, especially if the correct metadata has been applied to the document before placing it online.

    It will certainly be interesting to see where we are even two years from now. Tools like Zotero certainly make research much more manageable.