Wednesday, April 25, 2012

JSTOR is Not Our Friend; or, What Should a New Public History Journal Look Like?

[Update 5/10/2012] : NCPH Executive Director John Dichtl stopped by to offer some corrections to this post in the comments. Thank you John for setting the record straight.]

The big news at this year's meeting of the National Council on Public History was that the organization has come to a parting of ways with UC-Santa Barbara, the publisher of the Public Historian. Those interested can trawl through the archives for H-Public for details, but the short version is that the two organizations could not come to terms, and that the copyright for the journal apparently belongs to the university and they intend to keep it. So the NCPH is looking to start a new journal for its members. The conference public forum discussion are summarized in this blog post by Cathy Stanton, The Elephant in the Room.
Scene from NCPH via Flickr user David Blackwell

The necessity of starting a new journal provides a fantastic opportunity to rethink what a scholarly journal can be in the 21st century. My thoughts:
  • Whatever else we decide, it is vital that the new journal be open access. Currently the Public Historian is really only readable by members of the organization. Back issues are online but behind a JSTOR paywall and accessible only by folks with an academic affiliation. The NCPH gets some money from JSTOR for this arrangement (I don't know how much, but I guess in the low tens of thousands?). 
  • Whatever the benefits we get from closed access and a partnership with JSTOR, the costs are both huge and largely unrecognized. Every year, JSTOR turns away 150 MILLION attempts to read journal articles! Imagine the lost relevance when our articles cannot be read, blogged, tweeted, sent over Facebook, assigned in public school classrooms, accessed by poor working and amateur public historians in the thousands of tiny museums, archives, and historical societies. JSTOR is not our friend.
  • Also, refusing this opportunity to become open access will alienate many of the younger and more tech savvy members of the NCPH. A lot of us are increasingly uncomfortable with donating our labor in writing and reviewing articles for the benefit of a huge publishing industry that locks our knowledge away.
  • The objections to open access are misguided. One concern I have heard from NCPH leadership is that people join the organization specifically to get the journal. I think this is unlikely. People join for the conference, the networking, and the affiliation. 
  • At the same time, we must continue a print journal. We must not underestimate the attachment folks have to print. A university library of my acquaintance is pitching a bunch of never-read back issues of journals that are already on JSTOR to make space. Many of the professors there seem to think that this is the equivalent of the burning of the library at Alexandria. Whatever we do, a print journal for members has to come out of it.
  •  The new journal should not be like the old one. As much as I have learned from the Public Historian over the years, the real elephant in the room is that the journal's content has always been uneven. The conventions of the academic article are simply alien to what many public historians actually do. There are not enough good public history articles in the academic style to support two journals.
  • What I would like to see? A magazine-format journal that is open-access and publishes a range of items from semi-academic articles to interviews with public historians (I could use those in the classroom!), visits to institutions where public history happens ("behind the scenes" articles at Colonial Williamsburg, the Buffalo Bill Historic Center, the CHNM, the Smithsonian, Gettysburg, etc.), reviews, and who knows. Everything would be available online and for free, but a print version would go out to members unless they opted out. Could it also be distributed through bookstores, etc?
  • Our model for new NCPH journal could be the Atlantic magazine. Four years ago the Atlantic retooled with an "internet first" strategy. It put all of its content, including back issues, online for free, added blogs, interviews, and other web-only features, and used all of these to promote subscriptions and newsstand purchases. The result: increased print sales and profitability in an era when all its competitors are declining. We can do this!
 I am also interested to hear your thoughts--what should a new NCPH journal look like? Please comment.


Kendra said...

Excellent post--thank you! I work on the open-access Journal of Music History Pedagogy ( We use peer review, and are open to a wide variety of kinds of articles and research. While we're not quite magazine-like, we're not stuck in the most traditional mold of older print journals either. However, we are for a niche market, and I could well see a magazine-style approach working really well for getting public attention and interest. The Atlantic model you mention might be ideal.

John Rudy said...

As far as format for a magazine style journal, I'd suggest taking a look at NAI's Legacy magazine ( whihc has robust, meaningful content that helps push the profession forward while still being readable and accessible to a chiefly public interpretive base.

Larry Cebula said...

John: Good tip, though unfortunately their back issues are not online.

John Dichtl said...

Larry, thanks for the coverage and for the ideas about open access and new article formats for a public history journal. As I mentioned by email and which we agreed I should post here, there are a couple of corrections I need to offer: First, UCSB and NCPH did not come to a parting of the ways in Milwaukee. We agreed to stay together through at least December 2014, at which point we might part ways. During the next 2.5 years of this “interim agreement” we will be trying to resolve some of points on which we’ve disagreed. Second, UCSB is not the publisher of The Public Historian. UC Press is. Third, both sides absolutely agree that copyright, is shared by UCSB and NCPH. That’s stated clearly in our past and current contracts. Fourth, what's not clearly stated is who owns trademark,or the right to use the name “The Public Historian” going forward. According to our contract, UCSB and NCPH are “co-sponsors” of the journal, and that’s as close to specific language we have on the matter. We'll be discussing this in earnest over the next several months.

jacobite said...

H-Net is about to undergo a major upgrade that will allow attached blogging and support archives of material. Lists that are creative with this can do a lot with it. H-War is in the middle of discussions on how to balance scholarly with the enthusiasts.

Sarah Louise said...

I agree on the "must have a print copy." There is something about having it in your hands, and there is a serendipity about reading one article and then seeing what else is there by flipping the pages--I have found research topics just by sitting in front of a journal in the stacks and reading a copy from cover to cover.

Larry Cebula said...

Thank you John for the corrections--this is a complicated story and I appreciate you setting me straight.

Jacobite--glad to hear it! I have an old post here somewhere about the future of H-Net. The network was vital to my early career, but has not evolved with the technology. Until now.

Sarah: Yes, a nice history journal is a good thing to hold. If we make it more popular, it could sell on newstands as well. Imagine the greater impact if you could pick up The Public Historian alongside the latest Harpers and National Geographic at the airport newsstand!

Tom Scheinfeldt said...

I agree that there are very good reasons to continue publishing a print journal, one of them being the kind of serendipitous discovery it affords. But I am always frustrated by the suggestion of some print advocates that serendipity is something that only happens in the table of contents of a print volume or in a library's stacks. Spend 90 minutes with Wikipedia and I'll show you serendipity. You'll be reading about King Argishi of Urartu before you know it.

Larry Cebula said...

Amen Tom. I had exactly this conversation yesterday with a colleague who said that the trouble with digital research is that you only find what you are looking for. I can't count how many times I have heard that sentiment--and it is so absolutely wrong.