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On the use-value of blogs and communities for historical research…

In an introductory session of my program’s Doctoral Colloquium, a member of the program came in to talk about blogging history.  It’s only logical– George Mason’s History department seems determined to shed the Luddite image so many Historians are more than happy to propagate.  (At the last University I attended, there was one Prof in the History department who I suspect took a certain special glee in absolutely refusing to use either email or voicemail.  Some people seem to confuse living immersed in History and living in History… but that’s a different matter…)

At any rate, one of the big concerns voiced by many of the people in the Colloquium– or at least those slower to adapt to new technologies, or the usefulness of blogging– was that of authority.

If one of the big advantages of blogging is the interactivity, the fact that it’s a bi-directional medium, they asked, how can you trust anyone who tells you anything?  Couldn’t they be wrong, or deliberately misleading you?  If one searches through books or journals, the argument goes, those authors have been put through the rigors of editorial and/or peer review.  Their voices are thus lent authority, their opinions given weight and value.  But anyone with a modem can make claims on your blog– how can you trust them?

Well, the short answer is, you can’t.  Of course.  Obviously. 

Of course, in the last year, Hwang Woo-suk has proved you can’t trust the journal Science, despite it’s wonderful reputation and system of peer review.  And anyone who is either a pomo-debunker or a pomo-debunker-debunker is familiar with how Physicist Alan Sokol proved you can’t trust Social Text not to print what the author describes as absolute "nonsense."

The (only slightly) longer answer is you can’t trust anybody, ever.

It’s the duty of an academic to sort through data, test hypotheses, and generally act as a skeptical interpreter of (always slightly suspect) data.  You can’t trust anyone, in other words– or at least not completely.

But this in no way means that one should distance oneself from any possible provider of support, in tackling difficult research questions.  And the web offers historians and other academics a superb networking tool– not to mention one that can bridge the gap between the professionalized halls of academe and the world of public historians, witnesses to history, and amateur enthusiasts– all of whom may be key to unlocking that one perplexing puzzle. 

Why refuse that help if it fails to come with a PhD and a peer review?  Match the advice you’re given against what you know, and what you can deduce, and use your better judgment.

All of these comments are really just a preface to this: I found a great example of the best-case scenario, when it comes to enlisting the help of others on the web, and I thought I’d share it with those and any other classmates: it’s a discussion in the academics_anon community on the journaling site Livejournal, a community that, despite its sometimes intense snarkiness– especially during finals season– has been a lifesaver for me on more than one occasion. 

The original poster came with an illustration that wasn’t properly attributed in the book she found it in, and was a difficult piece to decipher– check it out, it’s a really interesting image— and the members of the community came up with all sorts of avenues of investigation for her.

This isn’t always the way these things work, but it’s one of the possibilities, and it’s the one that keeps me optimistic about the overall use of the net to academics.

Just felt like sharing.