the reason that their value is being called into question is because both the
manner in which the practitioners work and the forms by which that work
is communicated sometimes seem divorced from our times. We know that
part of the point of the academy is to be a separate space, with clear boundaries, hived off from the rest of the world, for careful inquiry and knowledge
production. But we also know that we need to work with and speak to the
world around us, one in which information knows no boundaries.
In my fields of digital humanities and digital history, we’ve been experimenting with how we produce knowledge since the dawn of computing.
We’ve tried new models of researching, writing, publishing and communicating. Here is what I think it means for knowledge production in the
Begin with research
In 1996 when I was working on my PhD, I faced a scarcity of information
and limited access to resources. It was the same for all of us. When I did
my research, I had to do it in person, consulting sources in places like
the Douglas Library at Queen’s University or the Birks Reading Room at
McGill University, where I had to leave my boots at the door and walk
around in my socks. I then returned to my office and began filing notes
in folders and boxes.
This long-established research method doesn’t make sense for the new
arrivals to Congress 2014. Their libraries – at least any that have been built or
renovated in the last decade – look nothing like ours. Their biggest problem
is not scarcity; now they, indeed now all of us, face what the late American
historian Roy Rosenzweig called “a culture of abundance.” One might even
We used to describe the World Wide Web as a library where all the
books, journals and magazines had been pulled off the shelves and thrown
on the floor. Those were the good old days. Researchers at the University of
California at Berkeley estimated in 2003 that about five exabytes of information had been created the previous year (one exabyte equals one billion
gigabytes); if we printed five exabytes in traditional book form, those books
would fill 37,000 libraries the size of the Library of Congress.
A similar study a few years later estimated that Americans used 3. 6
zettabytes in 2008 (one zettabyte equals 1,000 exabytes). If we printed 3. 6
zettabytes it would blanket the United States, including Alaska, to a depth of
seven feet. We know that the online world is big in the same way that a fish
knows that the ocean is big: it seems limitless every which way you turn.
Of course, a good chunk of this is pure amusement and focuses on
things like cats playing pianos. But for humanists and social scientists who
study culture, societies and relationships within societies, there’s a lot that
falls under the umbrella of “research material.” And then, of course, we
need to include newly digitized forms of traditional scholarship that are
being added to the Internet. Google Books has said it will digitize every
book published in modern history. According to Google, there are about
130 million books in the world, and at the rate they’re going they will complete this work within our students’ lifetimes. Depending on the rate at
which they speed up the process, and they are speeding it up, they might be
finished in ours.
The challenge comes into view when we think about the work of a his-
torian. My colleague Dan Cohen, executive director of the Digital Public
I want to address these questions by focusing on the
essential practices of scholarship: researching, writing,
I’ve been thinking about these young, new scholars because I was a new
arrival the last time Brock University played host. Congress 1996 – whose
slogan was New/Nouvelles Perspectives – marked my entrance into aca-
deme. It was the first Congress I attended; it was the first academic paper I
gave. And I was nervous.
The scholarly practices by which I created and gave that paper were
well established. I researched primary and secondary sources in libraries
and archives, organizing my notes along the way. I wrote the paper and read
it at Congress. I subsequently published it in a reputable journal, thereby
sharing my conclusions with interested members of the scholarly community.
Research, write, publish, communicate. It was very straightforward.
Think for a moment about your first academic meeting , and the scholarly
practices that you followed. Now think about the young scholars, in their
mid-20s, who will be arriving to their first Congress this May.
They are arriving at a time of uncertainty in the social sciences and
humanities. The social sciences and humanities have benefitted from the
strong leadership of Chad Gaffield (president of the Social Sciences and
Humanities Research Council) and others, but it’s been an uphill climb.
From the federal government in Ottawa and our provincial governments,
we hear calls for investment in research, but primarily applied research
in the sciences, engineering and medicine. Influential newspaper colum-
nists are calling into question the value of social sciences and, especially,
humanities degrees. And newly minted social sciences and humanities
PhDs are finding themselves in the worst academic job market in memo-
ry – a recent study from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario
predicted that less than 25 percent of PhDs graduating today “will
secure full-time, tenure-stream research and teaching positions.”
These challenges have forced us to think about what is required for a
healthy social sciences and humanities, for the new arrivals to Congress
2014 and those that will follow. The answers have been varied. Harvard
University has launched The Humanities Project, and proposed a new cur-
riculum. A host of respected scholars such as Martha Nussbaum (Not for
Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Princeton University Press, 2010)
have renewed calls for a liberal arts that actively contributes to citizenship.
What we’ve heard less about is a careful consideration of the way in
which we practise the social sciences and humanities. I believe that part of