OA and digital history

Interchange: The Promise of Digital History, Journal of American History, September 2008. Interview with a group of historians. (Thanks to Mills Kelly.)

… [Daniel J. Cohen:] The debate about openness on the Internet has generally focused on ethical values such as sharing and libertyâ??openness as â??the right thing to doâ? or appropriate to the nature of education and academia. These are worthy and important values, and ones I believe in. With the exception of one of my books, I have given away everything Iâ??ve written. And for nearly fifteen years at [the Center for History and New Media], it has been a core value that we provide open and free access to all of our archives, publications, Web sites, and software.

But now that we have seen the true nature and impact of the Web, the debate over openness can also be framed in pragmatic terms; often to the surprise of the provider of the open scholarship or primary resource, openness benefits the provider as much as the reader or user of a resource.

Letâ??s begin with secondary sources, historical scholarship. In a world where we have instantaneous access to billions of documents online, why would you want the precious article or book you spent so much time on to exist only on paper, or behind a pay wall? This is a sure path to invisibility in the digital age. …

It is time we historians recognize that we are far behind the curve on open access to our scholarship …

On open access to primary sources, many of the same arguments hold true. Also important is what Clifford Lynch of the Coalition for Networked Information has called â??computational access.â? Open access to historical scholarship is about human audiences; open access to primary sources is about machine audiences. Unless we can have machines scan, sort, and apply digital techniques to the full texts of documents, we canâ??t do sophisticated digital scholarship. This is why truly free and open projects such as the Open Content Alliance are more important than Google Books, and why we should lobby hard for this more expansive kind of access to digital resources. …