Sep. 19, 2006

Free Beer vs. Free Speech

This week's set of readings for Digital History (02. Open Source) examined the topic of open-source information and used the example of Wikipedia to demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of taking an open-source approach to sharing historical information and research. A number of observers have noted that collaborative projects such as Wikipedia and Flickr are picking up a great deal of momentum; however, despite their popularity, there is still room for individuals (both casual users and historians) to help define the overriding structure of such projects. (1) Historians have the opportunity to use a number of novel and traditional tools to create a large quantity high-grade historical information available for public use. It is advisable that historians make use of these tools in order to address observed deficiencies while at the same time encouraging an environment where ideas can be shared, revised, and expanded upon. Open-source software and information provide the foundation upon which historians can develop such a project. The delayed digital release of journal articles upholds traditional practices of academic scholarship while making information essentially free. Although students will continue to face sources of bad history, instruction in evaluating sources will also continue to serve students in using appropriate Web resources.

An open-source solution to creating a quality database of historical information does not mean that historians need to re-invent the wheel; rather, software and information that are freely available for the public to use have already provided historians with a headstart to creating such a database. Open source means that the material in question can be reused, reproduced, and modified without the creator's permission. (2) Wikipedia and Google are two sites who's managers allow others to make use of the sites' resources. Wikipedia's information is all open source, and although Google does not share all of its software, it does allow other users to make use of its substantial search power. A search of Wikipedia using Google could possibly be an effective way of retrieving history articles that have already been published by Wikipedia users. Historians might then create a separate wiki requiring a password to edit, re-publish the Wikipedia entries, and allow scholars to edit these entries at their leisure. Such a solution would enable experts (without having to compete with other contributors) to raise the quality of historical information provided by Wikipedia while maintaining the creative energy derived from allowing anybody to develop an entry for the online encyclopedia.

Roy Rosenzweig suggests multiple ways that scholarship could be made free for public use; however, there are consequences for scholarly publications were made free and public. The most notable challenge needing to be addressed is that the responsibility to pay for and review such scholarship falls because more onerous if no revenue is being created through journal sales. (3) Companies that provide gated access to scholarly journals likewise would lose enormous amounts of revenue. The best option that Rosenzweig proposes seems to be one that continues to support journals' existence in paper-form while also allowing academic research to be made public in a reasonable amount of time. Delaying the digital release of journals would encourage many libraries to continue to subscribe to the print versions in order to remain up-to-date, but the eventual public release of these articles (which are often written with the support of public funding) would enable the general public to easily benefit from this information as well. Much research that is hidden in the deep web would also be uncovered, again improving the quality of historical information available on the web. It is important, and I believe more realistic, to continue to allow journals and the "middle companies" providing e-journals to libraries to conduct business in such a way that allows them to adjust to an open source model of sharing information; however, I would agree with other writers that users, be they academics, libraries, or enthusiasts, should receive the greatest benefit from the research that scholars publish.

The greatest challenge of an expansion of open-source material will be teaching students how to judge sources. Although with open-source information, it is hoped that there would be a relatively greater amount of scholarly work available to students, it is likely that hobbyists would also make use of this information to augment their own sites. The implication of open source history for students is that search skills will also have to be honed in order to effectively navigate the information available while judgment skills will also be necessary in order to interrogate digital sources for their worthiness. This will require more intentional instruction not at the college or university level, but at the secondary level, where students are learning the fundamentals of researching and argumentative writing. Both teachers and students will have to adjust strategies in order to make use of an open-source database, but in the end, the principle of open source should be achieved in a historical context: to build on previous ideas to make something new, different, and hopefully, historically compelling.


1 - Daniel J. Cohen, “Raw Archives and Hurricane Katrina,” dancohen.org (28 Aug 2006) and Jim Giles, “Internet Encyclopedias Go Head to Head,” Nature (14 Dec 2005) both comment on the growth of collaborative projects. Sanger, Larry. “The New Politics of Knowledge,” Constructing the Digital Universe (31 Jul 2006) describes how online governance is still being decided upon.

2 - Please refer to Google definitions

3 - Rosenzweig, Roy. “Should Historical Scholarship Be Free?” AHA Perspectives (Apr 2005). Cohen, Daniel J. and Roy Rosenzweig. “Owning the Past,” Digital History. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2005.