Amerikanischer Historiker, geb. 1939. Professor an der Princeton University.
Verfasser zahlreicher preisge- krönter, in viele europäische
Sprachen übersetzter Bücher zur Kulturgeschichte des 18.
Jahrhunderts (u.a. The Business of Enlightenment (1979);
The Great Cat Massacre (1984); The Forbidden Bestsellers
of Prerevolutionary France (1995)).
"I like contradictions"
The American historian, Robert Darnton, on E-Journals and Use of
Interviewer: Gudrun Gersmann
Since the 1960s you have been working
very intensely on the underground booktrade and underground authors
in France under the Ancien Régime. In numerous monographs and
articles you have shown how the clandestine bestsellers of the 18th
century were produced, smuggled and distributed via efficient European
cross-border networks. Or to put it another way, you are actually
a classic book historian and, I presume, a book aficionado. Against
this background, is it not actually a bit of a a paradox to busy yourself
with electronic media?
A contradiction? Possibly. I like contradictions. In my first
attempts to write history, I tried to smoothe things out so that
everything fit neatly into my argument. Now I favor arguments that
bring out contradictions and that take account of the paradoxes
and tensions built into human experience. So, yes, I love old books,
and at the same time I thrill to the possibilities of the Internet.
I do not believe, however, that the codex and the computer are incompatible.
Looking back over the history of the media, I do not see one mode
of communication displacing another but rather several modes interacting
and overlapping in varying degrees. Recent studies of seventeenth-century
England and of eighteenth-century France have demonstrated that
manuscript books continued to flourish late into the era of printed
publications. The radio has revived after the introduction of television.
Communication by means of computers probably will promote the reading
of books and journals.
In these days of Internet, issues
such as censorship, copyright, publicity and freedom of the press
are as topical as ever. In the current discussions can you see parallels
to the debates in the 18th century?
Certainly parallels exist, and one can study them without succumbing
to anachronism. Nothing seems to be more muddled than the current
debates about intellectual property and the freedom of the press.
Yet when I study the 'freeing' of the press in Britain through the
expiration of the Licensing Act in 1695, I find that a (relatively)
free press was an unintended consequence of political maneuvering.
Economic and political interests combined to defeat the lobbying of
the Stationers' Company, and a similar combination of forces pushed
through the first copyright act in 1710. Even then questions of intellectual
property and press freedom continued to be contested through court
cases right up to the famous decision against unlimited copyright
by the House of Lords in 1774. The whole process involved battles
of vested interests as complex as those we see today.
I believe you could detect a similar mixture of ingredients behind
the abolition of censorship in Denmark in 1770 and the restructuring
of the French book trade in 1777. In fact, the freeing of the French
press in 1789 was more ambiguous than most historians realize, and
it had backfired by 1793. And as to the first amendment to the American
constitution, which guarantees the freedom of the press in this country,
it still gives rise to conflicts in the courts. Instead of clear distinctions
between free and unfree regimes, I see constant struggle over competing
versions of freedom.
When I discussed censorship with censors from the GDR early in 1990,
they did not think they were curbing liberty; they thought they were
promoting socialism, and they claimed that censorship existed in the
USA in the form of the market place. I disagree with that view, but
I think it needs to be taken seriously. When I was president of the
American Historical Association, I discovered that American historians
could muster strong arguments on both sides of the debate over new
copyright legislation. As authors, they wanted to defend their intellectual
property against 'unfair' photocopying and downloading on the Internet.
As teachers, they favored legal provisions for the 'fair use' of texts
by students who reproduced them on xerox machines and computers. In
short, the mess we live in today corresponds to the messiness of the
past, and any historian who makes it simple is simply getting it wrong.
A spectre is haunting Germany today
- a spectre of the 'journal crisis'. Libraries are being confronted
with ever increasing subscription prices for professional journals
that they simply cannot pay. Are American university libraries also
affected by such crisis phenomena? Are e-journals an alternative to
the journal crisis?
American libraries are undergoing a severe
crisis, driven for the most part by the sky-rocketing cost of periodicals,
especially in the natural sciences. The economic downturn has also
damaged acquisitions budgets, not only in the case of large research
libraries but also among small town institutions and entire library
systems like that of New York City. Now that libraries buy far fewer
books, university presses cannot publish nearly as many monographs
as they did twenty years ago. The statistics vary according to the
press and the field of study, but many presses lose money on monographs
about subjects such as early modern European history. Their universities,
which frequently depend on state legislatures for revenue, no longer
can subsidize them. So the university presses are cutting back or
going out of business.
That means there is no outlet for many young historians who need to
publish their dissertations. You know the cynical American slogan:
"Publish or perish." Without a healthy university-press
industry, many scholars will not be able to pursue their careers.
In the American Historical Association, we are trying to reverse this
trend through the 'Gutenberg-e' Program, an annual prize competition
that selects outstanding dissertations and helps the prize winners
to rework them as electronic books. We want to legitimize electronic
publishing in the eyes of the profession and also to set new standards
of excellence for scholarship published on the Internet. This experiment,
now in its seventh year, seems to be succeeding.
The older, more conservative members of the history profession are
gradually abandoning the notion that e-books can't be real books.
Can a similar tendency prevail among scholarly journals? Electronic
publishing proved its worth long ago in subjects like physics and
medicine, although we should remember that, despite the importance
of electronic pre-publication, physicists still insist that their
work appear in print. In history, we are promoting e-journals through
an organization known as the History Cooperative. But we have no illusions
about the difficulties that we face: problems of preservation, of
financing, of editing, and even of reviewing. Moreover, electronic
publications - journals and monographs alike - tend to be marketed
as 'packages', and electronic data bases, magnificent as they are,
are wildly expensive. Acquistion librarians now have to find room
in their budgets for electronic as well as for printed products. This
problem exists everywhere, not only in the United States. In fact,
the over-pricing of periodicals began in Germany, The Netherlands,
and Britain. Electronic journals promise to be part of the solution,
but they are also part of the problem.
E-journals and pre-print-archives
are already long established in the field of natural sciences. However,
in the humanities it's quite different. What's the situation like
in the USA? How are e-journals in the humanities received and appreciated?
Are they considered just as something temporary on the fringe or are
they seen as real competition to the classic print journals?
If I may answer this question by drawing on my own experience,
I should explain that the main historical journal in the United
States, the American Historical Review, decided in 1999 to produce
an expanded, online version of its print edition. As president of
the American Historical Association, I was invited to write the
first article to be published in both media. It was to be the presidential
address that traditionally appears as the lead article in the February
issue of the AHR, and it also was to be the first article of the
new electronic version of the AHR, where all sorts of innovations
would be possible.
I chose as my subject the media and the flow of information in eighteenth-century
Paris, and I concentrated on oral networks of communication, especially
gossip and songs. In the printed version, I developed a straightforward
argument, citing evidence in the usual way. In the e-version, I produced
a map of Paris, which readers could use to promenade in their imaginations
through the city, stopping by 29 cafes, where they could click on
links that would make it possible for them to eavesdrop on conversations
reported by police spies. In the case of the songs, I found 641 texts
in 'chansonniers' (manuscript collections of songs and poems) from
the period 1745-1751. The lyrics provided a running commentary on
current events, and they were improvized to fit popular tunes identified
by their titles or first lines. 'Keys' to the titles and first lines
provided the musical annotation. Helene Delavault, an opera singer
and cabaret performer in Paris, kindly agreed to study the music and
record the songs. By listening to her renditions of the most popular
songs, the readers of the e-article could get a sense of how Parisians
took in the daily news as it was sung in the streets.
I think the electronic version of the article
opened up a new way of making contact with the past, but it had two
drawbacks. First, it required a vast amount of labor, not just by
me (it was more like writing a book than an essay) but by a whole
team of editors, programmers, and Web designers mobilized by the AHR.
Secondly, it did not go far enough in exploiting the material to make
an argument instead of merely illustrating one. In the case of the
songs, for example, I argued that music provided a mnemonic device
that both diffused messages and enriched them through associations
with other texts that had been sung to the same tunes. But I did not
show how those associations actually operated. Since then I have discovered
that the same text was sometimes sung to different tunes and that
the same tune could be used for so many different texts that no clear
path of 'elective affinities' could be detected. But these reservations
indicate the inadequacy of my own work, not of the electronic medium
itself. Others have used e-journals more effectively than I have.
A good example is Philip J. Ethington, 'Los
Angeles and the Problem of Urban Historical Knowledge' in the
AHR (December 2000).
So, yes, I think that e-journals are proving their value in the humanities
and that they have proven themselves capable of communicating arguments
beyond the range of conventional print journals.
|Prof. Dr. Robert Darnton
Department of History
Princeton, New Jersey
|Universität zu Köln,
Historisches Seminar - Geschichte der Frühen Neuzeit
Wenn nicht anders vermerkt, gilt als Referenz-Datum für Inhalt und
Funktionalität aller im Text genannter Links der 17.10.2003.
"I like contradictions". The American historian, Robert
Darnton, on E-Journals and Use of the Internet (Interviewer: Gudrun
Gersmann), in: zeitenblicke 2 (2003), Nr. 2 [22.10.2003],
Bitte setzen Sie beim Zitieren dieses Beitrags hinter der URL-Angabe
in runden Klammern das Datum Ihres letzten Besuchs dieser Online-Adresse.
Zum Zitieren einzelner Passagen nutzen Sie bitte die angegebene