Speaking of the survey (Part 6): Models for a 21st century public history journal

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people looking at documentThis is the sixth and final 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 Anne Mitchell Whisnant, NCPH Journal Task Force:

As a member of the NCPH task force considering the future of The Public Historian, I, like several of my colleagues, have been mining the data from last summer’s survey about the journal.  I focused on questions that asked about the “most or least compelling, interesting, or useful” aspects of other publications respondents identified as “exciting models” for NCPH.

“Hmm,” one respondent mused, “I usually don’t put ‘journal’ and ‘exciting’ in the same sentence.”  Nevertheless, 229 survey respondents identified over 100 different publications that might be worth a look.  Only eight publications, however, (discussed below) garnered four or more mentions.  Meanwhile, nearly 100 respondents either named no models or seemed satisfied with the status quo.

These results suggest that, for all of us, the path ahead for scholarly journal publication remains foggy. I will, however, make a few observations based upon survey responses and my own efforts to peruse some of the models mentioned.

First, we are all awash in information and short on time.  One respondent pleaded, “please help us sort out the relevant from the noise because I really don’t have much time to invest in deciphering all of the materials thrown at me.”

Second, the content we value should drive format.  One respondent consulted journals for “[i]ntellectual stimulation, critical thinking, and useful information, but excitement doesn’t even enter my mind. I think there’s a risk here of confusing the package with the content . . . what gives the field its credibility remains the quality and nature of the content. I sense the NCPH is losing sight of that.”

Respondents reflected a subtle difference between the journal of record they clearly thought we ought to have and what they actually regularly read.  The journal, one noted, “provide[s] a great service to the field, but I find myself using more magazine type publications like History News and Museum.”  Yet, another recognized, these publications “tend to be more like magazines than the typical history journal . . . The magazine approach seems to be an attempt to attract a wide audience by making them more visually appealing.  I am not sure a journal put out by NCPH needs to have that quality.”

Asked what they valued about other publications, survey respondents identified a long list of needs and desires that probably no single publication could address.  Here I’ve created a somewhat impressionistic distillation (shaped by my own thinking) of those key needs:

  • A portal that aggregates, assesses, and curates the proliferation of public history-related resources, articles, news or job announcements, exhibits or projects, books, and “gray literature” one might want to explore.
  • A place where topics of pressing concern can be taken up in a timely manner.
  • A place to present and permanently archive serious, critical, contextualized, peer-reviewed scholarship on both theoretical and practice-related issues in public history.
  • Ways to make greater use of visual and/or dynamic modes of presentation, explanation, and learning.
  • Spaces for interaction between authors and readers.
  • Free/open/easy/digital access (although there is debate about this); easy searchability.

I reviewed the eight publications most mentioned by survey recipients.  Only one, Digital Humanities Now (and its related Journal of Digital Humanities), seems a truly “exciting model” that might fill all or most of these needs.  But let’s inventory the others:

  • History News: Paid, print-only magazine published by the American Association for State and Local History; related History News: Your Turn  feature includes a PDF of one article and space for discussion.  Leans to the practical; exists to “foster publication, scholarly research, and an open forum for discussion of best practices, applicable theories, and professional experiences pertinent to the field of state and local history.” Accessible (print only, no search via JSTOR or other tools) through my UNC Libraries.
  • Common-Place: Free, web-only magazine sponsored by the American Antiquarian Society and the University of Oklahoma. “A bit friendlier than a scholarly journal, a bit more scholarly than a popular magazine”; footnoted feature articles and comment boxes.  Not blind peer-reviewed; articles receive developmental editing. Format, though digital, feels cramped and static.
  • Museum Magazine: Paid, print and digital magazine published by the American Alliance of Museums.  Focus is on “issues and challenges that face museums today.”  Access only for subscribers; available (print only, no search via JSTOR or other tools) to me through UNC libraries.
  • Journal of American History: Paid, print-based, refereed scholarly journal; selected articles and features freely available through an attractive website. Available to institutional affiliates through JSTOR; searchable.
  • Common Ground: Online and print magazine (free) published by the National Park Service.  Web links to back issues presently broken.
  • American Archivist:  Refereed journal; reflects “thinking about theoretical and practical developments in the archival profession . . . and about cultural, social, legal, and technological developments that affect the nature of recorded information and the need to create and maintain it.” 1938-present (except last six issues) available free online; indexed through 2008 in JSTOR; all but the last year seems to be electronically available through my library.
  • Environmental History:  Refereed journal; “world’s leading scholarly journal in environmental history and the journal of record in the field.” Available in print and online to paying subscribers; also to me via my library. Companion website with some free content; “advance access” pre-publication papers available to subscribers.

This leads us to Digital Humanities Now and the Journal of Digital Humanities. Together, the two sites integrate many of the features our readers seek through a well-coordinated process that filters large amounts of timely, digitally circulated material and distills the best of it for longer-term treatment.

DH Now, according to its “about” page, “highlights work from the open web that has gotten the attention of the digital humanities community or is worthy of such attention, based on critical editorial review.”  It also includes job listings, calls for papers, conference and funding announcements, reports and other time-sensitive resources.  DH Now’s editors, in turn, steer the best of the new scholarship to the more formal, quarterly Journal of Digital Humanities.  The publication, freely available in PDF and e-book format, is cataloged like a journal in the library (though not indexed through JSTOR).

In 2011, DH Now Editor-in-chief Dan Cohen suggested we imagine a “pyramid of scholarship” moving from a broad array of materials available on the web through levels of review until a more carefully reviewed and curated (and smaller) body of “publication” that remains for the “journal.”

Given conversations already going on within our Journal Task Force and Digital Media Group, I think the “pyramid” model might work well for NCPH—serving members’ and readers’ needs at all points along the continuum while retaining what we value about The Public Historian and integrating our various publications more seamlessly and thoughtfully than ever before.

 

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