Speaking of the survey (Part 5): The NCPH journal and digital publishing

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people looking at documentThis is the fifth in a series of posts about the findings of our summer 2012 survey on the current state and possible future directions of The Public Historian journal and other NCPH media.

from Cathy Stanton, NCPH Digital Media Group:

I looked at the question “In what ways would you like to see the possibilities of digital history and digital publishing transform the NCPH journal?” Predictably, the 187 responses to this question covered a wide range from strongly positive to strongly negative. I didn’t do a detailed analysis of the demographic breakdown between the strongly-pro-digital-only people (“Everything online would be great. No paper.”) to the strongly-pro-status-quo people (“I think digital history/digital publishing is overblown and trendy. Stick with print–it works!”) because they were about equally balanced and I think we already have a sense that broadly speaking, this reflects a generational difference in perceptions of digital materials and media.

The most frequently mentioned idea (from 27% of respondents) was that digital media should be primarily an enhancement to the current journal. Closely linked were numerous comments (20%) that NCPH still needs a print publication. Many of these respondents seemed to have interpreted the question as suggesting that there was a possibility of doing away with the journal altogether, which was never the intent. Others saw print and digital as more complementary. “Digital media can build out from the journal but should not replace it – we need more not less,” said one respondent. Another agreed, “I would love to see an online component to the journal, a place to expand upon articles, provide primary source documents, or include photo exhibits, etc., but I do not wish to give up a print journal.” Several people worried that digital publication was a trend that might not endure, and pointed to the importance of making it serve the core mission and values of the field rather than becoming an end in itself.

About equally balanced were comments that spoke positively or optimistically about digital media as an exciting direction for NCPH (12%) and as a good way to facilitate conversation, primarily among public historians but also, in a few responses, with wider publics as well (11%). Respondents mentioned ideas like collaborative research, greater use of blogs, the importance of timely interaction, and the possibility of creating online archives and indexes of exhibits, preservation projects, and oral history archives. Issues relating to accessibility were mentioned in 9% of the comments, although only 3% specifically mentioned the idea of making NCPH’s digital publications open access, a figure that surprised me given how high-profile an issue this has been in general discussions about scholarly publishing of late.

I was also surprised by the assumption, shared by several respondents, that digital publication has inherently less gravitas than paper. “I think the digital realm could be significant for the conversational aspect,” one wrote, “but it’s the difference between intelligent break rooms discussions (which are important) and a deeper/slower level of writing and reading and thoughtfulness that goes into research and intellectual development.” Another said, “Digital is good for short bursts of information, but not for long pieces of scholarship, which the field still needs.” Given the increasingly blurred line between paper and digital publication (including the online availability of nearly the entire universe of scholarly journal literature) and the expansion of serious journalism and scholarship into all areas of the web, these comments seemed to say more about the wide range of different ways people use digital media than about digital content per se.

Finally, 16 respondents said that they saw digital media as suited to more timely reviews of a wider range of public history work. That’s just 9% of the total, but some of the most positive comments were in this category, and they probably jumped out at me because it’s a direction I’ve been hoping to see NCPH’s digital publications moving in for some time now. People mentioned the possibility of adding digital reviews of exhibits, books, web projects, films, and perhaps other materials. “Publish things that those primarily using digital channels for their professional dialogues will want to forward and discuss widely,” one wrote. Another said, “Put the book reviews online – don’t kill a tree for them.”

In the aggregate, I would characterize the responses to this question as “cautiously optimistic,” with a noticeable side current that was less happy with the idea of moving farther toward digital publishing. Another side current urged us to embrace the new possibilities that digital media offer, and I’d like to end by quoting at length from one of those responses, because it seemed to reflect a “big tent” vision of NCPH and public history—a “both/and” approach, rather than “either/or”:

“Can I say all ways? The heart of digital history is public history, that is part of the transformative power of the web. I would love to see digital history make up a substantive component of the content that is covered in the journal. I would also like to see the format of the journal take lessons from digital history. In this respect, I think NCPH has a chance to embrace digital publishing as a way to make the journal’s format more inline with the mission. That is, everything from open review, to enabling commenting, to places for working papers, to aggregating blogging from public history scholars and students offers the potential for the medium of the journal to better align with the public history message.”

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