Local history and the digital frontier

by

Greg Fewer

(Retitled editorial from Decies 54 [1998])


Over the last decade or so, historians and archaeologists have increasingly taken an interest in the Internet as a venue for publication and as an avenue (or should that be highway?) for research. Until 1993, most computer-literate scholars used the Internet as a means of communication in the form of electronic mail or for exchanging digital texts and data using File Transfer Protocol (FTP). In that year, a new form of a computer program known as a browser and called Mosaic was developed. Its appearance was followed a year later by another browser called Netscape Navigator. These browsers allowed for a new aspect of the Internet to be used by a broader range of people than the physicists who had dominated its use since about 1990 or 1991. This new aspect of the Internet is, of course, the World Wide Web. Because of its ability to combine pictures with variably-formatted text as well as video footage and digitised audio tracks, the Web's growth as a medium of publication has soared phenomenally in the last five years. This growth, which to some extent follows a rise in the ownership of personal computers, has also been reflected in the increasing use of the Web by archaeologists and historians.

Historians have commented on the value of the Internet - and especially the Web - in making more widely accessible a range of primary documents that are rare, fragile to handle or are hard to reach (because they are stored in a foreign country) by digitising them either as pictures or as text files. Meanwhile, archaeologists have realised the value of the Web as a medium for the low-cost publication of highly specialised reports accompanied by full colour photographs and drawings.1 However, in the mid-1990s, some historians expressed the view that 'extensive primary research in history [was] not yet possible' because on-line 'resources of genuine historical interest [were] few and far between'.2 Furthermore, some of the documentary sources made available over the Internet could be found commonly duplicated 'in the appendices of survey textbooks or in supplemental readings collections' for university courses.3 In addition to this, both archaeologists and historians have expressed concern over the selection criteria of the Web publishers, the reliability of the digital versions of the documents now available on the Web and how these might be evaluated for research purposes.4 The transience5 of some Web pages poses another problem - if a Web page is cited in an article, how soon would this reference fall out of date? For example, within a few months of publication of an article reviewing Web sites useful for studying the archaeology of the Great Irish Famine,6 many of the Web addresses mentioned had either changed, or the pages to which they had pointed, were deleted by their owners. Thus, the article's immediate value as a current Internet guide has been severely curtailed, though it does remain as a critical record of the existence of certain former Web sites.

Many of these criticisms are still valid towards the end of 1998, but it has now become commonplace for historians and archaeologists (amateur or professional) to publish on the Web. Most university departments have - at this stage - long-established Web pages providing details of the courses they offer as well as course reading lists and information about departmental staff. Some departments also make available both primary and secondary source material for teaching purposes, and even publish papers written by their own students. Similarly, antiquarian societies, some of them professional but the bulk of them local, have established their own Web sites detailing their activities and publications. A comprehensive list of these can be found on Thaddeus Breen's Irish Archaeology Home Page (http://www.xs4all.nl/~tbreen/ireland.html). Bibliographies form another useful resource that suits Web publication because they can be continually updated to take account of new writing.7

On-line journals, whereby articles and reviews are published exclusively over the Internet, have also mushroomed in the late 1990s, though the concept has been around for some time. Most of these journals can be accessed for free but some of them may require readers to register their names for a password (though no charge is made for this). Examples of on-line journals include HOST: History of Science and Technology,8 Essays in History,9 Internet Archaeology (http://intarch.ac.uk/), assemblage: the Sheffield Graduate Journal of Archaeology (http://www.shef.ac.uk/~assem/) and Chronicon (http://www.ucc.ie/ucc/chronicon/), a publication of National University of Ireland, Cork.

Of course, anyone with access to the Web can set up his or her own site and publish historical or archaeological material on it. In the United States, the popularity of American Civil War history has led many amateur enthusiasts to set up Web sites specialising on this subject.10 Closer to home, the Dungarvan Museum Society (http://members.tripod.com/~dungarvan/) has recently set up a complex site with a pleasing design and informative content, while a university student has put up a substantial site called the Rathgormack Home Page (available at http://www.oocities.org/Heartland/Plains/5416/) that includes a lot of material culled from the works of Canon Power (though without proper attribution) relating to the parishes of Rathgormack and Clonea.

Perhaps it is now time for the Waterford Archaeological and Historical Society to set up its own Web site and maybe to consider the possibility of publishing Decies there as well.11 Although Decies will probably one day be exclusively published on the Web, it might be worth considering publishing the journal in on-line and conventional printed formats simultaneously over the next few years. Members of the Waterford Archaeological and Historical Society with access to the Internet could be given the option of receiving the printed journal or a password to view the on-line version instead. Alternatively, back issues of the journal that have gone out of print could be made available free on the Web as a resource for researchers in Waterford history. This would allow a wide range of people to gain access to the out-of-print issues of Decies from the comfort of one's own home or school classroom, a matter of considerable significance when either location is in a distant part of Ireland or even in another country.

Decies has already come a long way from the mid-1970s when the earliest issues were typed out on a typewriter and reproduced with a spirit duplicator, but the possibility of adding video footage (of a society outing or of old film stock), or even just colour photos to accompany articles, are features that would greatly add to an on-line version of the journal. Moreover, the entire text of each digitised issue of the journal would then become fully searchable using keywords in the Web browser's 'Find' facility and would also be fully indexed by an Internet search engine. Thus, the contents of Decies would be opened up to both a local and an international audience in a way that could not have been foreseen when the journal was first published. We now stand at the edge of a new digital frontier - shall we take the plunge?

Footnotes

1. Sara Champion (1995) 'Archaeology and the Internet', in The Field Archaeologist, 24, pp. 11-19.

2. Andrew McMichael, Michael O'Malley & Roy Rosenzweig (1995) 'Historians and the Web: a beginner's guide', in Perspectives [American Historical Association], December (formerly available on the Internet at http://chnm.gmu.edu/chnm/beginner.html [but see related articles at http://chnm.gmu.edu/resources/essays/]); Alex Gibson (1995) 'WWW and the Internet; new opportunities for historical discourse?', in History and Computing, 7(2), pp. 13-21 (available on the Internet at http://www.ex.ac.uk/~ajgibson
/papers /www_and_history.html
).

3. Michael J. McCarthy (n.d.) 'The historian and electronic research: File Transfer Protocol (FTP)', (formerly) available on the Internet at http://mccarthy.marshall.edu/hmcrev.txt.

4. McMichael, O'Malley & Rosenzweig, 'Historians and the Web'; McCarthy, 'The historian and electronic research'; Sebastian Rahtz (1994) 'Ranter's corner - World Wide what?', in Archaeological Computing Newsletter, 40, pp. 1-2.

5. Gibson, 'WWW and the Internet'; Rahtz, 'Ranter's corner - World Wide what?'.

6. Greg Fewer (1997) 'Archaeology, the Great Irish Famine and the Web', in Archaeological Computing Newsletter, 47, pp. 10-15.

7. Greg Fewer (1997) 'Irish mining history and the World Wide Web: a survey of current resources', in Mining History Society of Ireland Newsletter, 5, pp. 6-8 (p. 7). A longer version of this article appeared as 'Mining history, Ireland and the World Wide Web: a survey of current resources', in Shropshire Caving and Mining Club Annual Journal, 5, 1997, pp. 8-15 (pp. 8-12).

8. McCarthy, 'The historian and electronic research'.

9. McMichael, O'Malley & Rosenzweig, 'Historians and the Web'.

10. Ibid.

11. For nearly a year, I have maintained a Web page devoted to Decies at http://www.infohwy.com/~gfewer/decies.htm but the information presented is restricted to subscription details and the contents of volume 53. The submission guidelines appearing in volume 54 will soon be added to this page. [N.B. Note that since the publication of Decies 53, the Decies Web page has already been updated to include the contents of volume 54.]


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A minor editorial correction was made to note 6 (18 June 1999). A link was deleted on 6 april 2001. Links checked and updated on 1 September 2001. URL changed on 13 October 2001. Link changed in footnote 2 and some formatting changes were made to this page on 2 March 2005.


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