September 11, 2007
By Robert B. Townsend
Mills Kelly over at edwired wonders about the health of H-Net in the Web 2.0 era. Resorting to a little number crunching, he found that traffic on three out of four lists he surveyed dropped by from 10 to 77 percent over the past three years. Sadly, that seems to fit with my own experience on the lists I have subscribed to over the past 10 years or so.
Aside from level of traffic, Kelly also notes that the content has grown quite different over the past few years as well. In many cases, these lists are no longer the “communities” of discussion envisioned by H-Net’s founders (at least as I remember it). They seem more like bulletin boards, generally marked by a one-way style of communication, or as Kelly observes, “conference announcements, requests for papers, or cross-postings from other lists. Definitely not the cutting edge of scholarship these lists used to offer.”
Another troubling indicator of the health of H-Net is the evident decline in the number of book reviews published on the lists over the past year. Last year the H-Net lists published 960 reviews before September 1—up from 825 the year before. So far this year, only 506 reviews appear in the database at H-Reviews, a pretty precipitous decline.
I find this quite sad. As an early fan of H-Net, I helped engineer a free booth for them at AHA meetings in the mid-1990s to bring the cutting edge of technology into our meetings. H-Net serves an essential function for the profession as a channel of communication. Over the past 12 years I have used the H-Net lists to distribute information on jobs, prizes, and events as well as requests for articles and a survey on part-time employment. In almost every case, I received a wider and more immediate response from the H-Net lists than I did through print publication of the same information. In that respect, H-Net represents a valuable tool in the exchange of information about scholarship and history.
I am not prepared to write H-Net’s epitaph by any means. There are plenty of smart people working over there, and I assume they are developing new plans for H-Net. But as we at the AHA struggle to shift the balance our traditions in print with the imperatives of new media, it is troubling to see an organization that was “born digital” seemingly falling behind the fast pace of technological progress.