Week Four Practicum Blog: Will Digital Sources Scuttle a Journal Article?

My survey of the main articles published in the last three years of the Journal of the Civil War Era suggest that until precisely one year ago, scholars submitting articles for publication avoided citing Web sites or any other digital sources. Could it be that citing such sources, or even using a database, in this particular journal was the kiss of death until this past year? These results intrigued me, so I carefully surveyed the footnotes in each journal article beginning with Volume 4, Number 3 (September 2014) and worked backward to Volume 2, Number 1 (March 2012). Overall, the dearth of digital sources, or at least the admission by an author that he or she used a Web site to locate a cited source, was striking, particularly since we know with some certainty that many historians routinely shop for source material on the Web, especially for journal articles.

Each edition of the Journal of the Civil War Era carried an average of three articles in addition to standard features such as editorials and book reviews. I focused solely on the articles and visually scanned each footnote section for any hint of a database in use or the mention of a Web site. The most recent edition published this month (September 2014) yielded no hits. But the June 2014 issue seemed like I hit the jackpot with an article by Chandra Manning, whose monograph titled What This Cruel War Was Over (2008) just happens to sit near the top of my personal hierarchy of masterful scholarship. In this particular article, Manning cited Web-based or digitized sources in six separate footnotes. Her use of each Web reference did not discuss any specific ways of using the Web site other than as a repository for some specific information. In one case, she argued quite pointedly that “antebellum state constitutional conventions demonstrated that a citizen was someone seen by others in the community as independent, self-reliant, and capable of contributing to ‘the harmony, well-being, and prosperity of the community.’” Her source for this assertion was a database titled “Debates and Proceedings of the Convention for the Revision of the Constitution of the State of Indiana, 1850″ (http://indiamond6.ulib. iupui.edu/cdm4/document.php?CISOROOT=/ISC&CISOPTR=6357&REC=10). She even offered up in the same footnote a database of state constitutions titled “The NBER / Maryland State Constitutions” (http://www.stateconstitutions.umd.edu/index.aspx) in case anyone wanted further examples. Unfortunately, she provided no insight into how she used these databases other than as repositories for specific historical documents. Given the  methodological transparency of her 2008 monograph, I was surprised that she was not more specific in describing how she used these digitized sources.

My sense of “hitting the jackpot” diminished quickly as I continued my backward trek through the journals. Manning would turn out to be the most prolific “citer” of digital sources whom I would encounter in the practicum.  In the March 2014 issue, three authors cited at only one digital source each to support a specific assertion. For example, Nicholas Marshall relied on a digital database titled “Dyer, A Compendium” (http://www.civilwar.net/searchstates.asp?searchstates=Ohio, http://www.civil-war.net/searchstates.asp?searchstates=Massachusetts) to distinguish war-related deaths from those that occurred due to illness or accidents. In that same issue, Sarah Bischoff Paulus used a database named “America’s Historical Newspapers” (http://www.readex.com/content/america%E2%80%99s-historical-newspapers-college-edition-1690-1922) to locate April editions for the years 1854, 1855, and 1856 in order to illustrate the admiration many Americans felt for the late Henry Clay through news reports of annual observances of his birthday. At least in Bischoff’s case, her use of the database seemed obvious: she searched for newspapers published in mid-April for a specific year and then selected the editions that mentioned celebrations of the late Henry Clay’s birthday.

Only a couple of articles in each of the September and December 2013 editions yielded any evidence of digital sources in the footnotes. In her article in the September issue, Beth Barton Schweiger queried the “UNESCO Institute for Statistics” database (http://stats.uis.unesco.org/unesco/TableViewer/document.aspx?ReportId=121&IF_Language=eng&BR_Country=7160&BR_ Region=40540) for the 2010 adult literacy rate in Zimbabwe (92.2 percent) to contend that high literacy rates did not necessarily equate to economic prosperity. In her article in the December issue, Thavolia Glymph used the “National Register Properties in South Carolina” database (http://www.nationalregister.sc.gov/berkeley/S10817708014/index.htm) to illustrate the historical significance of an antebellum inland planter-class settlement in South Carolina named Pineville Village. In both cases, the authors neither elaborated on their search techniques nor explained how they manipulated the databases they cited. My own impression was that they simply used these databases as encyclopedic repositories for information they could obtain from a basic search.

The next five editions of the journal represented a remarkable dry spell in digital source citations. Not a single article mentioned any type of digital source, even though several articles relied upon newspapers that could only have come from an online database search. The final digital entry I located came from the very last edition in my survey population, the March 2012 issue. In that edition, Matthew C. Hulbert used the Missouri Division’s “Sons of Confederate Veterans” Web site (http://www.missouridivision-scv.org/littledixie.htm) to argue for Missouri’s cultural link to the Old South and the Confederate cause. Once again, in the absence of any further explanation, I can only assume that he accessed the database strictly to see the information posted there.

After this detailed survey of three complete volumes (12 editions) of the Journal of the Civil War Era, one message echoed very loudly: citing digital sources for an article published in this particular journal was not (until very recently) a widely accepted — or perhaps tolerated — practice. More than half of the editions surveyed did not even list a single hyperlink in any of the articles’ footnotes, despite the citing of some sources the authors almost certainly found online.  I am hesitant to jump to conclusions based on such limited evidence, but this exercise has suggested to me that until very recently (and I mean within the last 12 months), transparency in the use of digital sources has remained elusive in the world of academic historical journals. The Academy seems to be undergoing its own “cultural turn” as digital sources claw their way to relevance — but ever so slowly. Few scholars seem as bold as Chandra Manning in identifying those sources for what they are – digitized products housed in online databases. From my perspective, digital sources are fully acceptable as long as the methodology remains clear. The potential pitfalls I have already witnessed in my brief exposure to digital  history suggests that we can’t accept all digital products at face value. We have to know the strengths and weaknesses of our digitized sources and explain to our readers how we compensated for those factors when we employed these sources in the service of our arguments. That standing theme of  cautious optimism when using digital sources dominates the existing landscape of digital history — and for good reason.

Steve Rusiecki






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