Monthly Archives: February 2016

E-harmony? Digital media and the practice of history

As I mentioned in a previous blog about Studs Terkel, one of my main areas of interest is oral history. I could easily write an entire blog on that topic alone, but for now it is suffice to say that, in my opinion, oral history is the most interesting and rewarding area of history available to us as historians, and so you can imagine my reaction late last year when I was asked if I wanted to help organise an oral history project. During one of the training sessions, myself and the training supervisor, Sean, started talking about some of the other projects he was working on, one of which was teaching people how to publish ebooks; and our conversation got me thinking about the pros and cons of ebooks.


After all, it seems that, at least once a year, The Times, The Guardian and every other self-appointed weathercock of modern culture boldly asks whether this is the year “the novel as we know it dies out?”, without ever really contextualising the question (coincidentally, every year the answer is a resounding no, but that’s a different post for a different day). Whilst ebooks and the internet have made it far easier to self-publish, one also has to ask the question of what exactly this ‘democratisation of publishing’ will produce in the long term, particularly in terms of the effect it will have on the quality of history writing.


When it comes to fiction I believe the increased popularity of ebooks is, overall, a positive development. Yes, there is an awful lot of dreck published via digital platforms, and you only have to look at the slew of BDSM related titles which were released in the wake of Fifty Shades of Grey, or the amount of Twilight knockoffs that hit the Amazon Kindle store when that series was at its peak, to see that ebooks are to quality control as a kryptonite chez longue is to Superman. However, as the saying goes the high tide floats all boats, and even if they produce a million Half a Hundred Tones of Silver, I’d argue ebooks would still have provided a net benefit for the world of literature if it means it’s easier for someone to publish the next 1984, Grapes of Wrath, or War and Peace.


The same applies to autobiographies. One of the sad things about history writing is that it is just as prone to following the latest trends as fiction, and as a result certain areas of history are woefully under-represented in the popular historical discourse. However, with ebooks this isn’t so much of an issue, and as a result there is a far more diverse range of autobiographies available on the Kindle Store (or any e-book store for that matter) than in Waterstone’s or a similar chain book store. As someone who believes very strongly that diaries, letters and autobiographies are the cornerstones of engaging history, this can only be a good thing, as it means first hands accounts of those areas of history which are usually ignored by mainstream publishers can be widely distributed with very little effort and at relatively little cost, which can only aid us in our appreciation of history as an interconnected whole.


However, what is good for autobiography is not necessarily good for history writing as a whole, as what ebooks and digital publishing have allowed for is the unchecked promulgation of half-baked conspiracy theories masquerading as respectable academia. It goes without saying that I have no issue with revisionist history, or history that challenges the accepted view point: as I’ve said in previous blog posts, history as an academic discipline needs debate to survive. What history doesn’t need is bullshit dressed in a Chanel suit; and there’s a huge difference between revisionist historians who argue whether the Final Solution was always Hitler’s end goal, and Holocaust denying dickheads who say that it didn’t happen at all, and that we’ve all been conned by the ‘Zionist Conspiracy’, or whatever they’re calling it this week.


But why do I have a particular problem with ebooks when it comes to this issue? After all, there are plenty of blogs, vlogs and similar media which spout ill-informed and poorly researched opinions (assuming they’re researched at all) on a regular basis. I think it’s because, to most people, books still have a degree of authority which blogs and the like do not. If you ask most people what a blog is, they’ll likely say that it’s someone’s opinion: yes, they may feel some blogs are better articulated and more trustworthy than others, but at the end of the day it is clear they are still the author’s opinions, and as such people treat them with a fair amount of scepticism.


When it comes to  a book, however, I believe there’s still a general assumption that, even if it’s been published on a digital store, it has been subject to some level of editorial oversight, and that at the very least the book has been checked to make sure it isn’t completely made up. This is why digital publishing is so potentially toxic for the writing of history, in that it allows idiots to publish utter tripe and bile without having to worry about peer review, or even the most basic fact checking process, through a medium to which the general public still attaches a great deal of authority and respect. Yes, ebooks have allowed for the democratisation of publishing, and have made it far easier for people who may not have been able to publish their material through traditional channels to gain access to a wide audience; but I’d argue that, in the case of history writing at least, academic standards are far more important, as once they’ve gone, it’s very difficult to get them back.


There is also the interesting topic of the benefits and dangers digital media have for the preservation of historical material, and in all likelihood I’ll do a post on it sometime in the future. Despite what I’ve said, I do still think ebooks are a good thing, not just for authors but also for readers. Thanks to digital publishing and tablet devices it has never been cheaper or easier to find a good book, and maybe this is the real issue: that we, as readers, have to learn to be more critical of the books we read, and more willing to challenge those authors who try and pass off their lies and falsehoods as ‘challenging the accepted historical narrative’. After all, the Amazon store has a user review section for a reason: why not use it?