Open Sources: Realizing the Potential of Hypertext for History

Sunday, January 4, 2015: 10:00 AM
Beekman Parlor (New York Hilton)
Yoni Appelbaum, Harvard University
More than three decades after the advent of the Web, the revolutionary potential of its central innovation – hypertext – remains unrealized. The humble hyperlink offers a chance for historians to link their claims directly to their sources, rendering the process of scholarship transparent and accessible. This presentation highlights a series of digital essays published on the website of The Atlantic which experiment with hyperlinked sources. The results suggest that opening our sources to our readers can transform both the ways in which we compose our scholarship, and the ways in which our various audiences encounter it.     The footnote and its reclusive cousin, the endnote, underpin the credibility of historical scholarship, assuring readers that the factual claims made in the text are properly supported by evidence. Any reader can, in theory, consult the same sources and produce the same set of facts. In practice, though, such replication is vanishingly rare. And when historians engage broader audiences, via lectures, op-ed pages, popular publications, and broadcasts, we tend to abandon even these citations, resting our claims on our inherent authority.     Hyperlinks, however, can convert the unfulfilled promise of citations into a practical reality. Using examples drawn from my work for The Atlantic, I will show how essays aimed at popular audiences can drive thousands of readers to encounter the primary and secondary sources on which they rest. I will explore how this alters both relationships within the academy, and those between scholars and their publics.  And I will offer a series of practical steps that will enable any historian, even those without specialized knowledge of digital tools, to compose traditional texts and yet enable them to have an unprecedented impact.
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