SourceLab (An Idea)

More About the Aims: History Education and the New Historical Record

The publication of historical sources was a traditional part of the historian's craft.  Over time, however, this practice drifted out of undergraduate education in the US, with few departments making space in their curriculums for it.  There were reasons for this.  Documentary editing demands specialized skills and training.  In a world where original sources were often physically inaccessible in far away archives–and the definition of what counted as a historical source was relatively narrow–leaving the practice to academic presses and professional scholars perhaps made sense.  An instructor's main job was to select "the readings" and the student's main job was to read them.

But we no longer live in that world.  The new historical record being created on the Web is transforming both the size and the nature of history's source base.  Digitization makes inaccessible information suddenly accessible, objects multiply online by the second, and the kind of sources available is changing as fast as the number.  Personal papers as well as official acts, archives of the intimate and the marginalized as well as the public and the privileged, images, sounds, movies as well as texts: whole new worlds of the past are being made available to explore.  Neither scholarly presses nor professional researchers, it seems, can keep pace with the scale of these changes on their own.

That may be true, but it raises an obvious question.  Why do we need a renewed attention to editing and publishing, if the Web is expanding all by itself and we can just read it? Isn't the raw availability of information provided by the Internet enough?

Not if we really care about the past.  Because you can't write good history with bad sources.  And a source whose origin, nature, importance and evolution over time you don't understand is the very definition of a bad source.  You can't trust the judgements about the past you make from such artifacts, until you understand their own history better. 

In effect, the Internet has provided a solution to one traditional goal of historical publishing–getting people access to sources they need to understand the past–while sidestepping or even ignoring another: getting these materials to people in a format that makes them compelling and reliable windows on history.  And indeed, many instructors report that students are less interested in reading "the readings" than ever before: which if you think about it, only makes sense.  In a world where history is everywhere and nowhere–and with a source base whose origin and nature are utterly unclear–why bother to think about any one thing systematically or seriously?

One way higher education can address this problem, it seems, is to build its resolution back into the work we do in the classroom.  The idea behind SourceLab is to build a new experimental space–a laboratory for the development of new modes of scholarly source publication–within the history undergraduate curriculum. 

In some senses, this involves returning to older, editorial traditions of history instruction, largely abandoned in recent decades.  At the same time, we'll also be taking advantage of digital publishing tools and platforms to make our web-based editions as useful and accessible to people interested in history as possible. 

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