I’m sure I’m not the only one who, as I read some interesting history in one of those paper-inscribed book-things, wonder if information about the history in question is available online. Perhaps there is nothing but a badly written article, a 1911 encyclopedia entry, or a visually painful homepage with flashing graphics? Sometimes we only find a stub on Wikipedia or Everything2.
Other times, those of us fortunate enough to be associated with large universities have access to all sorts of powerful databases in which we can find lengthy articles on a topic but only as long as we stay within our ivory towers (or at a large library). I remember only too well how it feels to be rejected access to them when I was between schools.
When I find nothing satisfying online and in the open, one response I have to this discovery of a “hole in the internet” is to add something to wikipedia (for all its flaws), or write a blog entry about it. Other times, though, I’m motivated enough to want to create something more. I have been playing with the idea of creating “history mini-sites” which give a compact presentation of a particular idea, event or person. It would not be much different, admittedly, from a wikipedia article, but it would go one step further and contribute a bit, even a little bit, of primary material (with an expired copyright or within the limits of fair use) that I might have access to at the time.
I spent an hour or two today playing with a simple template (the technical design for which was taken from the public domain web designs of Mr. Ruthsarian) for this kind of mini-site. While the content is not as expansive as the kinds of sites I have in mind, you can get the idea of what this kind of “mini-site” would look like here in this example I slapped together while taking notes on Michael Auslin’s new book Negotiating with Imperialism:
The idea would be to have an introductory summary about the theme to start with. Then along, say the left side, would be links to short explanatory or interpretive articles on various people, events, and ideas connected to the central theme. Finally, there would be a list of sources which deal with the theme. On the opposite side would be some links to the primary materials that have been scanned, typed, or OCR’ed for the purpose. This way, the viewer would get both the short summary, “peripheral” articles which feed one’s curiosity, and then some primary material of some sort or other which serves two purposes: 1) give the reader a feeling of authenticity and historical distance 2) to get some of this kind of material online for reference purposes.
Now here is the problem: If this material is often made up of summaries of published work or quotes frequently from various sources, as well as occasionally containing public domain (which can’t thus be licensed in any way, even into GNU or Creative Common licenses) raw historical materials, can it be released under a Creative Commons license? The advantages would obviously be that others can then come and use the materials to contribute to sites like wikipedia, or in their own more thorough online history sites. While I may be creating problems where there are in fact none, I suspect that the quote and cite academic world and the creative energies behind the open access and creative commons movements are perhaps going to collide at some point…