Over the last week, I’ve noticed several quasi-heated discussions about historians and what some call “the digital landscape” (which may soon turn into a battlefield and for some is already hallowed ground). There’s been a discussion about the quality of online primary sources that raises some interesting questions about quality control (but precious little in the way of solutions). At the same time, an interesting reflection about the discussion about black Confederates (in which it is advanced that the issue’s basically been settled and is now something of a distraction) called forth a response in which the use of the internet by the public and in education as a source of scholarly knowledge was highlighted. That in turn sparked an exchange between Kevin Levin and Matt Gallman (see the comments section following Kevin’s response) over professional historians and the digital landscape, especially blogging (which Gallman dismisses as a hobby). This came at the same time that I was reading about the origins of Mother’s Day from professional historian and blogging hobbyist Heather Cox Richardson (and other professional historians have left comments in the section where Levin and Gallman have traded views).
One thing I’ve learned over the years is just because the internet allows one the opportunity to offer an immediate response does not mean that one should respond immediately. That’s especially true given the tone of Matt Gallman’s remarks, which strike me as a bit provocative and perhaps provoking. Moreover, there is a more serious level at which this conversation should take place, because I think teaching historians (and teachers in general) are beginning to realize that students’ increased dependence on online resources opens the door to all sorts of information and misinformation making their way into education. I know I’ve had some teachers report to me that when students are asked to defend their sources, they respond that they found it on the internet, as if everything there must be true. Professional historians may continue to point to their books on the shelves as representing their contribution to knowledge, but they ignore this seismic shift at their peril. Yes, I know some folks tend to overestimate the wonders of the net, and I’m also aware that some of this has to do with the virtues and vices of the democratization of authority (the internet opens up the world of historical discussion and scholarship to people who are not professional historians or who are professional historians who have fared poorly in more traditional paths of publication).
In short, this should be a serious discussion, and it deserves more than an immediate response. It deserves serious thought and some detachment from the comments that have spurred these reflections if it’s to mean anything more. I’ll get there, but I won’t rush. For now it’s back to copyediting/indexing and so on.