Today’s guest post comes from Andrew M. Schocket, Professor of History and American Culture Studies and Director of American Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University, and Billy G. Smith, the Michael P. Malone Professor of History, & Distinguished Professor of Letters and Science at Montana State University.
Data. Before postmodernism, or environmental history, or the cultural turn, or the geographic turn, and even before the character on the old Star Trek series, historians began to gather and analyze quantitative evidence to understand the past. As computers became common during the 1970s and 1980s, scholars responded by painstakingly compiling and analyzing datasets, using that evidence to propose powerful new historical interpretations. Today, much of that information (as well as data compiled since) is in danger of disappearing. For that and other reasons, we have developed a website designed to preserve and share the datasets permanently (or at least until aliens destroy our planet). We appeal to all early American historians (not only the mature ones from earlier decades) to take the time both to preserve and to share their statistical evidence with present and future scholars. It will not only be a legacy to the profession but also will encourage historians to share their data more openly and to provide a foundation on which scholars can build.
In coordination with the McNeil Center for Early American Studies and specialists at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries, in addition to bepress, we have established the Magazine of Early American Datasets (MEAD), available at http://repository.upenn.edu/mead/. We’d love to have your datasets, your huddled 1’s and 0’s (and other numbers and letters) yearning to be free. The best would be in either .csv or, if you have commas in your data, .txt, because both of those are non-proprietary and somewhat close to universal. However, if the data is in other forms, like Access Excel or SPSS, that will do fine as well. Ultimately, we should be able to convert files to a more permanent database and to preserve those files in perpetuity. In addition, we are asking scholars, out of the goodness of their heart and commitment to the profession, to load a separate document as a codebook explaining the meaning of the variables. The files will all be available to any scholar regardless of their academic affiliation.
How will a free, open centralized data center benefit Early American Historians and why should you participate in using and sharing data? Let us count just a few ways. In our experience, most historians of early America are extremely generous in sharing not only their expertise but also their evidence with other scholars. However, that generally occurs on an individual, case-by-case basis in a somewhat serendipitous fashion. A centralized website would permit scholars quickly to investigate rather quantitative evidence was available on which they might begin to construct their own research. Ideally, scholars setting out on a new topic might be guided somewhat the existence and availability of data. Moreover, it would set a precedent that future historians might follows—routinely sharing their evidence, either before or after their publications analyzing the data have appeared in print or online.
As individual scholars, we now enjoy access to many more resources electronically, and that access will only increase in the future. However, there are negative consequences for our profession. As historians spend less time in archives and libraries, we engage in fewer face-to-face conversations and interactions with fellow researchers. Hopefully, we can use this website in the future as a foundation to afford historians more opportunities to participate in both serious and playful discussion about researching, analyzing, and writing.
If you’ve got questions, please send them along to Billy G. Smith (bgs at montana dot edu) or Andy Schocket (aschock at bgsu dot edu).
We hope you will join us in this endeavor.