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An Online Arena

By Paulette W. Campbell | HUMANITIES, September/October 2000 | Volume 21, Number 5

When a scholar in Key West, Florida, asked Thomas J. Thurston for historical information that would help her in preserving the Key West Botanical Gardens, he passed her query on to an e-mail discussion list of scholars interested in research and teaching in the field of American studies. "She received several tips from scholars at Arizona State University, the University of Maryland, the University of California at Davis and Georgia Southern University," says Thurston, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Learning Technologies at Teachers College, Columbia University. "Members not only provided information, but tightened her analysis, which one hopes will result in a better project."

Thurston is the web editor of H-AMSTDY, a discussion list moderated by H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. The type of information exchange he describes is networking in the old-fashioned sense: the development of a web of personal and professional relationships among scholars. H-Net has revolutionized the way these networks and relationships are formed, which is exactly what its creators envisioned.

With NEH support, H-Net was founded in December 1992 as an experiment in electronic mail communication over the Internet. It made its debut with the launch of H-URBAN and H-WOMEN, two specialized e-mail groups devoted to daily discussions about scholarly research. By the summer of 1993, H-Net had grown to comprise another dozen lists in fields ranging from British history (H-ALBION) to the American Civil War (H-CIVWAR). Today, H-Net has increased to 111 subject lists through which daily e-mails are sent to more than one hundred thousand subscribers in more than ninety countries. New networks are added at a rate of about two a month.

H-Net sponsors a series of ongoing projects, but its most important activity is sponsoring these lists. E-mail groups are operated by using "listserv" software that allows an online editor at any Internet node to receive, edit, and post messages to the entire list.

"H-Net lists enable scholars to communicate current research and teaching interests, to discuss new approaches, methods, and tools of analysis, to share information on electronic databases, and to test new ideas and share comments on the literature in their fields," says Mark Lawrence Kornbluh, executive director of H-Net.

Much of the appeal of H-Net's interactive networks is that they create these connections. Stacy A. Cordery, associate professor of history and coordinator of women's studies at Monmouth College, is an editor for H-WOMEN, an H-Net-moderated list for scholars interested in the history of women. "The list makes me feel connected to a larger community of scholars, which is important for me as I sit forlornly in the middle of the tall Illinois cornfields at my small college," she says. "Connections get made online--people put panels together, find authors for book chapters and book reviews, locate friends and lodgings, and find speakers for their classes."

H-Net lists also shatter traditional academic hierarchies and boundaries, says Steven H. Mintz, associate dean and professor of history at the University of Houston. "Scholars' written words, not their rank or their institutional affiliation, are what matters," he says. "H-Net has created a vital place in the profession for scholars across the entire country: at two-year and four-year schools, secondary schools, research centers and historical museums, archives, and libraries. Independent scholars, graduate students, junior faculty members, and endowed chairs--all are equal in the online arena. International voices and the voices of multiple disciplines are an integral part of the dialog, forestalling the kinds of provincialism that tend to creep into academic discussions."

From the beginning, H-Net was designed to create an online community that minimized status and maximized the potential for intellectual discussion, says Kornbluh, a political historian who has based his career on technology. "The boundaries of status, profession, discipline, and nationality that demarcate academic life have far less permanence in cyberspace. As a result, bridges can be built."

That these discussions have appealed to a broader public beyond the halls of academic departments, however, was a pleasant surprise, says Kornbluh. "We don't claim to have bridged the gap between the academy and the public--that is huge. But H-Net has created an intellectual space where academics communicate with each other and with a wide range of individuals--archivists, lawyers, teachers, librarians, househusbands, and businesswomen who are interested in the humanities. The community of discourse on H-Net is wider than any other I know of in the academic humanities, and our academic participants see that as a real strength."

Even H-Net lists seemingly defined by disciplinary boundaries have a broad interdisciplinary membership, which Kornbluh says is a surprising development the organization wants to exploit.

As with any other community of scholars, H-Net has had its share of controversies. For instance, list editors continually struggle with issues concerning copyright and intellectual property. "H-Net is about access to humanities material," Kornbluh explains, "so that somebody in a small Montana community can have the same type of access to intellectual discussions and resources as someone at a large university. One of the problems we face is that ownership of intellectual property can restrict access. But we are publishing scholars, so we believe in copyright. The law is unclear on these issues, so we spend a lot of time taking care to balance concerns about access with authors' rights." In November, H-Net approved a policy on copyright and intellectual property that differentiates between "posting" to H-Net lists--a form of publication that must be in compliance with copyright laws--and private e-mail correspondence.

"We've also grappled with issues of access," Kornbluh says. "The question was how does a group that wants to build technologically advanced projects accommodate people with poor Internet connections, out-of-date equipment, or no equipment? As the Internet continues to develop and web resources become more useful, it's important that everyone have equal access."

H-Net's commitment to addressing this concern evolved into its African Connectivity Project, whereby the organization sponsors training and equipment to facilitate Internet use in Africa.

Controversies and challenges notwithstanding, the growth of this electronic community of scholars has opened up opportunities for innumerable web-based projects. H-Net Reviews in the Humanities and Social Sciences, an online scholarly review journal, is one example. Each H-Net discussion network has its own review editor. Once the review is submitted to a particular H-Net list, it is posted to H-Reviews and archived on H-Net's website.

These reviews are assigned and edited according to the same standards used by major scholarly journals, says Kornbluh, who serves as the managing editor for H-Reviews. "But because the reviews are published and distributed via the web and the discussion lists, the time between the publication of a specific work and the publication of the review is two to six months as opposed to two to three years. And the reviews are often longer and more in-depth." Unlike print reviews, he adds, H-Net's reviews are interactive and easily searchable by author, title, subject, publisher, or reviewer. At the end of each review is a place for the reader to contribute comments and browse through what others have written about the review.

H-Net's reviews bring a new dimension to the world of academic publishing, Kornbluh says. "In fact, many print journals are considering online review publications."

The development of H-Reviews is a priority for H-Net. Several of the discussion lists are looking to sponsor online journals, and H-Net is planning to develop an interdisciplinary journal that takes advantage of hypertext and the multimedia capacities of the web.

Editors and subscribers to H-Net discussion lists, from the beginning, have been interested in ways to improve teaching. "We are continually looking for ways to use communication technology, not as a substitute for teaching, but as a way to help teachers," Kornbluh says. One project that demonstrates this commitment is "Historical Voices." In 1998, H-Net began creating a user-friendly, web-based resource for teachers who want to use multimedia materials in the classroom. Working with the Michigan State University Vincent Voice Library and Jerry Goldman' s "History and Politics Outloud" at Northwestern University, "Historical Voices" promises to provide a wealth of materials to teachers at all levels for use in their classrooms.

Last year, Michigan State University was awarded a National Science Foundation grant to create a fully searchable, digitized database of historical voice recordings that spans the twentieth century. "Both of these projects hold tremendous promise for teachers and researchers," Kornbluh says.

Individual discussion lists have also launched their own projects. H-Ideas, an electronic discussion group for intellectual historians, is planning "A Century's Retrospective: The H-Ideas Year 2000 Book Review Project." For the project, members of the H-Net community will review fifty twentieth-century texts that played a crucial role in the history of ideas. Subscribers to the listserv are nominating works to be reviewed, and H-Ideas will publish one essay each week, presenting the texts in chronological order. The retrospective will be archived on the H-Ideas site as a resource for scholars.

H-Net's "Job Guide for the Humanities and Social Sciences," which Kornbluh says provides the most comprehensive list of jobs in the humanities, garners H-Net more notes of appreciation than any other service it provides. "Many departments who hire tell us that this service has increased their applicant pool," says Kornbluh.

Hosted by Michigan State University, the H-Net website features home pages for each listserv subject, as well as an entryway page for itself. Each of the pages has hyperlink connections to book reviews, collections, publications, and libraries. H-Net has become an important website for Internet users looking for material on the humanities, and more than 750,000 browsers visit the website each week.

"As impressive as this list of activities and projects is, it's only the beginning," says Kornbluh, whose interest in computers for academic work dates back to his use of mainframes and punch cards for his dissertation on American voting habits. "Rapid technological changes lie ahead and the potential far exceeds what we have done. We want to continue working with scholars and teachers who want to learn these new technologies and harness their potential to assist teaching, publishing, and research."

The H-Net has energized teachers who would otherwise feel isolated and educated teachers in how to use new technologies, says Steven H. Mintz of the University of Houston. "H-Net has drawn thousands of scholars, students, and other participants into a daily, ongoing intellectual discussion. It has built bridges across disciplines and even national boundaries."

Paulette W. Campbell is a writer in Burtonsville, Maryland.

NEH provided $549,876 in support for H-Net in 1995.