Last Wednesday I posted an essay by Dr. Patricia Daley that I first read on an H-Net Listserv, H- Urban. This is one of the hundreds of free email lists facilitated by the H-Net organization. Long before academic blogs, websites, and Twitter accounts, these H-Net lists were a key form of electronic communication among academic historians (and related disciplines). These email lists go back as far as 1992 and now connect with more than 100,000 people around the world. The technology remains pretty simple; historians send messages to list editors, who moderate and distribute them out over to a listserv. Some of the lists are restricted and require an application, but most are open to anyone interested in having their email flooded (most also provide an RSS feed). While many of the posts spread news about upcoming events, jobs, publications, and the perennial questions of finding affordable housing in archives London or Paris, they also provide the opportunity to discuss history and current events.
The lists are generally broken up by topics and nationality. I follow, for example, H-Albion, H-Environment, H-Urban, H-Canada, H-Labor and H-Water. This results in thousands of emails a year – which I keep segregated from my main email inbox – and try to skim a few times a week. Now and again a topic gains traction in one of these dispersed internet communities and leads to dozens of replies. The strikes in Wisconsin (H-Labor) and a potential boycott of the environmental history conference in Arizona last year (H-Environment) resulted in dozens of emails.
While some interesting historical questions result in large numbers of responses (What was the most important strike in US History?), the posts related to current events are among the most active on some of the H-Net lists. In response to the U.K. riots last month, H-Urban posts included some of the best analysis of the events on offer (along with some self-promotion). Some contributors lived in London and provided some firsthand reflections on the events, while others provided links to interesting newspaper articles or blog posts. Some of the emails were long, while others provided, short, but sometimes poignant reflections. You can look through the email chain here.
Reading through this particular chain of emails, I found myself wishing there was a simple way to share more of these emails with a wider audience. The reaction of the political elite and judiciary in Britain left much to be desired. We needed an analysis that went beyond blaming the riots on bad parenting or a moral crisis, and better solutions than rapid harsh sentencing and evicting families from public housing. The various perspectives provided by the historians on H-Urban discussed the decades long development of urban social problems and the related weakening of the welfare state. They provided an important extra layer of analysis to the articles I read in British newspapers and the interviews I heard on the BBC.
I forward a few of the better emails on to a friend and reposted Dr. Daley’s essay here (as it was already published on a Creative Commons website). While the copyright page on H-Net suggests that authors give “permission to H-Net and its subscribers for electronic distribution and downloading for nonprofit educational purposes with proper attribution to the author, the originating list, and the date of original posting,” I don’t think a lot of these authors expected to see their email reposed on a blog like ActiveHistory.ca. Moreover, most were written as informal emails and would need to be reformatted for publication on a website. Clearly historians have something to contribute to the analysis of events like these riots, but currently too many of discussions take place semi-privately over email lists.
A number of major media outlets presented perspectives on the riots from a few historians (Guardian, BBC), some of the emails point to a few interesting blog posts, and History&Policy published two opinion articles (Fire and fear and Get Local). Nonetheless, I think there is a lot of room to increase the presence of historians in the public reactions to major current events. The email chains on H-Net lists demonstrates the interest among historians in commenting and reflecting on the historical context of today’s crisis, so we need to provide more pathways beyond listservs to share these ideas.
From time to time we, the editors of ActiveHistory.ca, contact authors of interesting H-Net emails and ask them to contribute a post on this website and maybe we should do this more often. Group blogs like ActiveHistory.ca are an easy start, but as one of editorial board members, Adam Chapnick, recently commented on Lisa Madokoro post, we also need to think bigger and publish OpEds more frequently and by a wider range of historians. Maybe this would lead to more historians interviews on TV and the radio. How do we do this if newspaper editors tend to reject most of the contributions historians like Madokoro send? We need more Popular Publishing workshops and opportunities to share information on how to get the media interested in contributions from historians. Maybe this could be a regular workshop at major historical conferences? We also need to be ready to find the time when an event related to our research presents the opportunity to publish an opinion piece. Hopefully in the years ahead the H-Net lists will continue to discuss current events, but with significantly more emails pointing to blog posts, OpEds and media interviews where historians shared their reflections with a wider audience than their fellow academic historians.