Organiz­ing and Commu­ni­cat­ing Historical Knowledge: Some Personal Observations

In my initial academic encounters with Germany in the late 1980s and early 1990s, one of the things that impressed me was the availability of handbooks as well as specialized encyclopedias such as Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe. The textbook series Oldenbourg Grundriss der Geschichte was a new experience for me.[1] Each volume offered a concise, chronologically organized survey (with key terms in the margins for rapid orientation), followed by a substantial historiographical discussion and bibliography. At the time, I did not appreciate the massive effort behind such compilation and systematization efforts. I just found these tools were quite practical for orienting myself in a given historical subject. Why didn’t we have such useful tools in the United States?

Nowadays, it seems pretty clear to me that the difference had to do with how academic projects are organized and funded, and how their merits are perceived when hiring decisions are made. Perhaps, too, there is something in the academic culture that sees particular value in such projects, although I have no idea how one would separate such possible cultural predilections from the institutional organization of scholarship generally and of the discipline of history more specifically.

I do know that my doctoral advisor’s approach to reading lists for our comprehensive exams at Georgetown University in the mid-to-late 1990s was unusual in the history department there. Roger Chickering gave us a massive bibliography for research purposes along with a so-called canon (read: very long list) of the texts that he expected every PhD student to know or at least know about.[2] For my reading in Soviet, Imperial Russian, modern French, and modern British history, I had to write up my own reading lists, sometimes with suggestions by the professor, never with the ambitious, perhaps Sisyphean intention of producing a canon.

Roger Chickering, of course, is both product and producer of the American academic landscape, and he has deep ties in the German one too. The above example, however, is not meant to suggest that his approach was in any way related to its proximity to German academic culture. Instead, I mention it in order to underline what I sense is an additional reason for the (to my mind) weaker handbook culture in the United States, at least among historians. Such systematization is hard and its desirability not clear.

I bring this up because I was struck by a recent post on the francophone blog Germano-Fil, a Franco-German production. The post is entitled “Recherche bibliographique en France et en Allemagne” and contains a wonderfully useful list of resources, the kind I would like to have had when I was studying German history. This list would also fit in one of the more traditional handbooks, but it is on a blog and can be accessed easily via the site’s category links, which act like a table of contents. Does such a detailed resource even exist in English for the study of German history? Hard to imagine.

The nice thing about this blog is that it does not require massive overhead, although it does seem to have some institutional support. Nor must an entire handbook be conceived and created before anyone can use the knowledge being gathered and produced for it. The blog simply grows over time (since 2011) and can respond to new concerns and concentrations with tweaks to its categories and tags.

There are other German websites that mirror the old handbook and encyclopedia culture more closely in that they are the products of specific research grants, and they begin with a structure, like a book, instead of waiting for a structure to emerge, as is possible on a blog. In its current iteration, German History in Documents and Images (GHDI), a German–North American project, is organized in chronologically bounded volumes, each edited by a different historian (or team of historians).

Another site, historicum.net, is a cross between a reference work and a reference library for students of history. Such an undertaking, of course, requires substantial institutional support, at least that is the impression I get from the extensive content, not to mention the logos of the project’s sponsors—the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, Universität Köln, and the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek.

Docupedia-Zeitgeshichte also recalls a multivolume handbook with a correspondingly large editorial team. Like on GHDI and historicum.net, Docupedia’s articles contain no tags or links to establish connections across entries. Instead, each piece reads like a traditional handbook article. In other words, the enterprise comports with the traditional research and writing practices of professional historians.

I have been thinking about blogs in terms of academic cultures for another reason as well. The above-mentioned blog has an ISSN, an identifier for periodicals. My encounters with academic blogs in the past decade or so have not involved this kind of identifier. Yet a number of academic blogs in Germany, at least blogs with some sort of institutional support, not to mention all blogs on the Hypotheses portal, are now using the ISSN. Why?

According to the international organization behind this numbering system, “The ISSN role is to identify a publication,” thereby preventing possible confusion with similarly named publications, for example. But this “digital code without any intrinsic meaning.” The ISSN contains no “information about the origin or contents of the publication,” and, most importantly in the present context, “it does not guarantee the quality or validity of the contents.”[3] Nevertheless, on the blogs I have been encountering, this number appears to be about making the web publication look more serious or legitimate. In Germany at least, but maybe further afield, the ISSN can apparently make blogs accessible to library catalogs, as well as to an international open access directory called ROAD; however, it is hard to escape the impression that for blogs, the ISSN is more about gaining recognition.[4] Academic culture might be a factor too.

Academic cultures with a long and deep history tend to influence the ways in which new media formats are used. Blogs, for example, offer the advantage of speed. One can put pixels to screen and share one’s thoughts almost instantly. Gatekeepers are practically nonexistent. Instead, it is up to bloggers to make clear who they are so that readers can judge for themselves the worthiness and reliability of the blog. In my view, these factors constitute advantages, but they can leave scholars uneasy, steeped as they are in a specific academic culture. Thus, some blogs take on the forms of more traditional academic publications.[5]

See, for example, the impressive and seemingly well-funded Verfassungsblog: On Matters Constitutional, whose posts often even include a DOI, a tool to ensure the long-term availability of a piece, even in the face of changing hyperlinks or dying websites. Aside from longevity, this approach might have the merit of making it easier for scholars to include any substantial blog posts they write on their curricular vitae. On the other hand, DOIs would seem to entail a prohibitive amount of extra work for many of us, perhaps militating against the rapid communication of ideas and research results that a blog can make possible.

Many research blogs give me the impression that their authors understand blogging and peer-reviewed journal publications as complementary. The former allows faster publication as well as more provisional and personal writings, but it in no way precludes developing one’s blogged thoughts further toward a peer-reviewed article or book. Conversation can also occur more easily in the blog format, since a response to one blog post can be written and published in a matter of mere hours or days, if that long. The benefits of such speed and interaction would seem to outweigh any need to “legitimize” a blog by adding the trappings of a more conventional periodical.

None of these observations amount to a specific argument or program, but I thought they might be worth sharing in the context of a blog about knowledge. Self-reflexivity should be part of any scholarly undertaking. Moreover, some of our contributors might be new to or skeptical about blogging as a form of scholarly communication and knowledge production.

Mark Stoneman holds a PhD in history and is an editor at the GHI, Washington, DC.


  1. Now there is the similarly conceived Enzyklopädie deutscher Geschichte.
  2. There was also the extremely helpful and systematic Imperial Germany: A Historiographical Companion, edited by Roger Chickering (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996).
  3. What is an ISSN?, ISSN International Centre. See also the Library of Congress’s explanation of the ISSN, last updated February 19, 2010.
  4. See, for instance, Mareike König, “ISSN für Wissenschaftsblogs—mehr als nur Symbolik?,” Redaktionsblog , March 10, 2016, which is as revealing as it is informative.
  5. See Hannah Birkenkötter, “Blogs in der Wissenschaft vom Öffentlichen Recht: Ein Beitrag zur Erschließung neuer Formate,” in Formate der Rechtswissenschaft, ed. Andreas Funke and Konrad Lachmayer (Weilerswist-Metternich: Velbrück Wissenschaft, 2017), 117–39. Thanks to Alexandra Kemmerer for bringing this piece to the attention of my colleague Kerstin von der Krone.
Suggested citation: Mark R. Stoneman, “Organiz­ing and Commu­ni­cat­ing Historical Knowledge: Some Personal Observations,” personal blog, June 16, 2018, https://markstoneman.com/2018/06/16/organizing-and-communicating-historical-knowledge/.

Blogging before Conferencing

We tried something new in connection with a conference called Learning by the Book. The conveners asked participants to submit a blog post to History of Knowledge in lieu of precirculated papers. One of the conveners, my colleague Kerstin von der Krone, did most of the coordinating work, prescreening posts for length, permissions issues, and content. Then I edited them, trying to ensure they spoke to a multidisciplinary audience, not just specialists in their authors’ respective fields.

Of thirty-seven potential posts, we managed to publish thirty-five on a rolling basis between May 2 and June 5. Four of these were crossposted on the Recipes Project and edited by Jess Clark instead of me. One piece wasn’t published because of an unresolved copyright issue and another because the author had trouble conceiving of a short blog post that spoke directly to the conference’s concerns while giving the original research context a much more cursory treatment. These numbers tell a success story. An overwhelming number of scholars, from graduate students to senior scholars, were able—and willing—to convey their core ideas in only 1,000 to 2,000 words. And they did so to good effect.

Sometimes, scholars will read aloud what they precirculated to conference participants. I experienced only half the conference in person, but the papers I heard generally did not duplicate the blog posts. Some presenters made their blog contributions a foundation on which to build fuller versions of their posts, while others consciously used the blog format to present a specific aspect of their work, presenting other sides of the story in the conference room. A great example of the latter strategy was offered by Jennifer Rampling, whose blog post focused on an alchemic experiment in the lab, but whose talk dove into the alchemy manuscripts and how they were read.

One participant also suggested that blogging before conferencing forced participants to prepare better because their ideas were being made public in advance. Moreover, the process of writing and revising can force one to become clearer about one’s own positions.

The higher volume of activity on History of Knowledge lead it to garner many times its normal number of readers, thereby expanding the reach of the conference, getting ideas to an audience many times its size. Conclusions synthesizing the results are missing, of course, but what a way to get a first draft! If all history is an act of interpretation, why not make earlier iterations of that work public for other scholars and for engaged members of the public?

Reader engagement (visible in visitor statistics and in reader engagement with our accompanying Twitter posts) and the discussions at the conference itself underlined that knowledge as an object of historical inquiry can open productive dialog across seemingly impermeable disciplinary and sub-disciplinary boundaries. (Researching what hashtags to use for which communities on Twitter helps too.)

The following quote from an article about art education seems to have broader implications:

Early excitement for the Internet’s democratic potential has been replaced by a complicated marketplace of competing agendas of consumption, entertainment, social networking, and political action that continues to offer both opportunity and exclusion. Increased participation is coupled with a persistent digital divide, a gap in who has access to digital technologies and who does not, illustrating that ‘disparities in technology access and use are related to socioeconomic status, with income, educational level and race among the factors associated with technological attainment‘ (Mehra, Merkel, & Bishop, 2004, p. 782). Opportunities for participation have evolved through the advent of social media, mobile computing, and increased access to computing networks. These opportunities continue to be shrouded in inequitable distributions of access and expertise, functioning as a ‘new form of the hidden curriculum, shaping which youth will succeed and which will be left behind’ (Jenkins, Purushotma, Clinton, Weigel, & Robison, 2006, p. 3).[1]

For me, such concerns about access to and literacy in visual culture raise a question in a different debate: open access. How open are so-called open-access publications? Besides the question of digital access, who possesses the requisite know-how to locate such academic works, not to mention read, understand, and critically engage with them? Open access might be desirable, but we should not fool ourselves into thinking that academically sound, openly available scholarship will automatically be freely accessible to nonacademic readers.


  1. Aaron D. Knochel, “Assembling Visuality: Social Media, Everyday Imaging, and Critical Thinking in Digital Visual Culture,” Visual Arts Research 39, no. 2 (2013): 13–27, here 15.  ↩

I’ve been off RSS readers for a while, in part because of Google’s exit from the game, but also because of information overload. Thinking about using it again and revisiting some old stomping grounds in the blogosphere, I found Dan Cohen’s relevant comments on Ann Blair’s Too Much to Know. Seems I am in good company with my occasional ignoring of information—ignoring that I prefer to think won’t lead to, might even prevent, ignorance.

I treat Twitter rather cavalierly too, as if it were a place to hang out, learn stuff, share things, and then leave—sometimes for longer spells. If I view all these information inputs in social terms, this is a perfectly rational way to engage with the Twittersphere. If I worried about missing some bit of news, some fascinating article or weird event, I would never get anything done and my mind would become a still murkier mess. Besides, meaningful ideas and conversations tend to have longer lifespans, and they make themselves felt in other contexts.

Dan’s piece, indeed his whole blog, reminds me of another thing. Much ostensibly older writing on the web has value, and sometimes we should take a moment to read bits of it instead of gulping down and spewing forth a remixed version of the latest clever insight or rant. (I’m talking about myself here, bigly, uh, big league.)

If we pass around quotes on images without even a hint of the quotes’ origins, aren’t we part of the problem?

#socialmediabehavior

Dissertation on Internet Archive

Uploading one’s dissertation to the Internet Archive is certainly not for everybody, because publishers will not want to publish something that one can get elsewhere for free. Nonetheless, I took this big step after initially just making it available on GoogleDocs and Dropbox, where I had the freedom to delete the file. After careful consideration, I have concluded that any articles or book I write will be substantially new pieces of scholarship, not just recycled, even when I draw heavily on my empirical findings and analysis. Read more

Blogging and Myth-Busting

Kevin Levin of Civil War Memory has posted good material to his academic blog under the category, myth of black Confederates. Several recent posts include criticism of efforts by modern-day Confederate patriots and would-be historians who want to appropriate Weary Clyburn, a slave, as a defender of Southern liberty. In one he points out that writing good books to debunk myths is all well and good, but on the subject of black Confederates “the real fight must take place on the web.”

In the same post he points to an earlier one he made in late March: “Should Civil War Historians Blog (academic that is)?” In it he observes how vast the public discourse about the American Civil War is, while the discourse in which professional historians participate is relatively narrow. Historians need to continue their current research and publishing mission, but they also have “a responsibility to engage a wider audience and contribute to the public discourse.” Since much of the public turns to the internet for ready answers, historians need to offer these answers in an accessible format, especially for highly sensitive questions that shape American identity.

I agree with Kevin about the need for Civil War historians to blog. I have also observed a similar need with respect to Holocaust denial, since I have found that Google can get it wrong. Until now I have used this blog mainly to reflect on what I do and to communicate with other historians, but as Kevin points out, Google brings him search engine traffic for important topics such as black Confederates, so his blog posts reach a wider audience. I have written a few of my posts with that awareness, but his arguments make me think I could do much more. So could other historians.


This piece originally appeared on this day on my old history blog, Clio and Me. The links have been updated.

Do You Link to Your Sources?

This short piece appeared on this day on Blog Catalog’s blog. At the time the site was a hybrid blog portal – social networking site with an active community. Instead of reproducing the whole piece here, I link to the version saved on the Internet Archive’s WayBack Machine for the sake of context. (June 2018)

Too often I come across an interesting piece of information on a blog that does not contain links to the author’s sources. That’s too bad. All I can do at that point is shrug my shoulders and wonder if the story is true. Then I’ll probably close that browser tab and go somewhere else, because I won’t risk experiencing similar frustration with a second story on the same blog. Of course, if the story is really important to me, I can do further research on Google, which is fair enough. At the same time, though, what reason have you given me to go back to your blog? None. Offer me a good, well sourced post, though, and I will be back.

Links to your sources are important for at least four reasons: Continue reading →

When Google Gets it Wrong

My wife is reading a crime story I got for Christmas and read over the holidays, Christian von Ditfurth, Mann ohne Makel. It’s sleuth, Josef Maria Stachelmann, is a historian of the Third Reich. Wonderful read, if you know German. Anyway, my wife asked me about the Hossbach Protocol that Stachelmann is supposed to give a talk about. My memory failed me, so I took the easy way out with Google. Bad idea.
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