Also digitally produced history needs a shop to sell its products

A contribution to the Debate about Texts and Books in the Digital Age

Production and distribution of books are expensive, which is why researchers are in need of financial support. In Switzerland, so far, researcher counted on the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), which subsidizes such projects. However, the SNSF has now changed its conditions: It finances only work before printing on the condition that the texts after a certain time, for example two years, are accessible online. So, the SNSF confirms its strategic support for the #OpenAccess Strategy in the sciences. But, apparently unexpectedly for the SNSF, parts of the scientific community respond comparatively fierce and critical. The debate was also held in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ, see below) in the last weeks.

Historians communicate via e-mail, too

This debate is important. The humanities can not escape the digital transformation. Its practice has already quite long been dominated by it – historians communicate by e-mail, research, write and save their texts electronically, too. Why just the latest step in their production process, the communication of research results, should further be done analogue, that is under a media break, is, at least, questionable.

Of course, there are good reasons to look back with pride on the era of the book. Printing made ​​possible the success of science. Whole societies have been freed from their “self-imposed immaturity” by the dissemination of knowledge. But even more than thick books, thin pamphlets have contributed to this – relations and pamphlets, which compiled the latest news and carried it quickly to the people. This would also be important today, Michel de Certeau observed, in order to overcome the paradox of authority of experts: that their knowledge also outside of universities will be credible again.

The hierarchy of media

The hierarchy of media is a legacy of Gutenberg and the Renaissance. But, actually, the reading culture as a social formation was only of short duration, as Michael Giesecke explaines. Only in the 15th century writing was a synonym for publishing. The person that entered information into the “typographic system” was now the author. So the owner and manager of a text could be held legally and economically responsible.

For a long time already, and at the latest in the information society, this concept does not function any more. Wolfgang Schmale has described how also scientific information is produced and distributed in “a liquefied and accelerated form” in networks. He therefore calls for the establishment of standards for the quality of content against the openness of the transnational scientific networks. Here, the Austrian historian moves close to considerations of the French sociologist (and Jesuit) de Certeau. For him, writing history meant designing a text with excerpts from sources and pieces of other inventions. Briefly, a “bricolage” in a “workshop”, as would have said Claude Lévy-Strauss and Marc Bloch, respectively. And so, just now, under digital and virtual signs.

In Switzerland, among young people, the need for a paradigm shift seems to be clear since quite a long time, Monika Dommann said in the NZZ. In France, sciences and editors are a good deal further. Sponsored by the French Government and promoted by Universities, OpenEdition operates a platform for scientific publications for quite some time now. Universities and libraries can manage their subscriptions to scientific journals there. Users have access to scientific publications in open-access area. And editors and publishers find a whole infrastructure for electronic publishing. Currently 440 journals, 1457 books and 852 blogs on a variety of humanities fields and topics are accessible.

OpenEdition takes largely account of today’s requirements for the production and communication of research findings, which probably explains the success of this platform outside of France, too. Historians actually work more often in partly open workshops, as Marc Bloch advocated. And when they want to publish, they need intermediaries. Scientific platforms, legitimated by scientific authorities authenticate, filter and channel scientific information, as called by Wolfgang Schmale and also by Caspar Hirschi in the NZZ. Securing underlying research data in the long-term is a challenge that still must be resolved. Infoclio.ch, the professional portal of historical sciences in Switzerland, will increasingly deal with the issue in the next years.

Every workshop needs a store

Conclusion: From the history of the media is seen that a message is usually looking for a simple disposable medium. Because it wants to be with the people as quickly as possible – and affordable. But is also known that new media do not displace old media entirely, because each one has its advantages and disadvantages. There are no differences to this in sciences. They have always taken place in networks and relay on practical means of communication. Every workshop needs a shop, a platform to sell its products. So does the digitally produced history.

This article has first been published in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. Here the link to the German original of August 15, 2014: http://bit.ly/1l8aNWW.

For a compilation of the mentioned articles in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and an English summary see bit.ly/1jqxJNE.


Guido Koller

Senior Historian, Swiss Federal Archives, CH-3003 Berne, Switzerland

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