H-Net: Past, Present, and Future

Jean Stuntz's picture

The Ghost of H-Net Past

When H-Net began in 1994, email was a rarity, the internet was a collection of text-based gopher files that you could access if you knew the right commands, and scholars in small departments or isolated areas never had the chance to talk with someone else in their field. Into these dark times, H-Net editors took on the challenge to teach their colleagues how to use email. Editors promoted discussions of which archives were the most useful for which subjects. H-Announce soon started to replace physical paper flyers to announce conferences. Isolated scholars learned about funding opportunities, could research archives before visiting, and increased their intellectual life by having discussions with fellow scholars. Listserv lists connected people around the world in ways that had never before been possible. It was all very exciting.

But then, Netscape invented a way to put images on the web. People learned how to make their own webpages. Archives started digitizing images and texts and putting finding aids online. Facebook came around and suddenly the problem was not how to find someone to talk to but how to find time for all your new Friends. Twitter made it easy to follow other scholars. Instagram and snapchat made discussions of far-away places more visually interesting. And H-Net lists went on as usual. Discussions dropped off as scholars found other ways to communicate and research.

The Ghost of H-Net Present

In 2008, the H-Net Executive Council learned that the listserv software was not going to be usable much longer. It could not deal with increasing numbers of spam messages. The software was going to be unsupported soon. H-Net faced some major changes and the choice was not whether to change but how to change. It took a few years for Council and the Staff to settle on Drupal as the new platform. H-Net has always been committed to open-source software and having all of our products free to the user. (Institutions pay for the Job Guide ads but the job searcher has free access.)

Once the decision had been made to use Drupal, there were another few years of deciding what H-Net needed and how to make it work. There were wireframes, discussions, lots of changes, more discussion, input from editors, more changes, and on and on until a few years ago we had a design that could be field-tested. This was announced as the H-Net Commons, and networks – no longer just lists – moved to the new system. We immediately found flaws and bugs and the staff found fixes. The second version of the Commons went live and the number of issues has gone down.

There is still room to improve. We can make the experience for users and editors better and those changes are taking place. Many networks are doing about the same as they were before the move: sending out announcements mostly and maybe having the editors spark a few discussions. New editors could bring new life to old networks.

The Ghost of H-Net Future

For some networks, the move to the Commons has sparked a burst of creativity. They have experimented with the new tools and found amazing ways to use them. Take a look at H-Diplo’s Roundtable reviews, essays of various sorts, and discussions. Several networks have blogs, some have started collecting teaching materials. H-War has its "Hand Grenade of the Week" blog.  Networks with ties to professional associations can be of much more service to their organizations now. We have H-Podcast and the book channel coming out. The future looks bright – if . . .

We need more editors to make use of all the Commons has to offer. Imagine H-Net as a place to find primary sources and discussions on those sources. What a boon to students and teachers alike! Imagine H-Net as a place to publish conference papers, to house bibliographies and historiographies, to highlight student projects in digital humanities. The Commons can be a wondrous place – if . . .

H-Net runs on mostly volunteer labor. A few staff people are paid out of Job Guide proceeds but that budget is limited. If we have more money coming in, we could hire more staff at MSU to help with the under-the-hood work that goes on out of sight. If we have more in the budget, we can offer some support to editors so they have time to create this wonderful content. You have given H-Net your time. Now we are asking that you give a little money, too, so H-Net can continue to grow and reach its potential.

Don’t be a Scrooge. Give generously. H-Net needs your support.

Thanks and Happy Holidays!

Jean Stuntz
H-Texas, H-SAWH
President-Elect, H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online

Since the change over to H-Net Commons in February 2014 and despite the fact that I have registered to receive the weekly email digest of posts to the Stained Glass forum I have never received any email except H-net technical information which I have tried hard to understand but which is so complex and technical that as a maker of stained glass with a layman's command of computing I have found incomprehensible. Could there be others out there lost in cyberspace?

David Palmer

Hi David and All,

As VP for Networks at H-Net, I've been managing H-Stained-Glass for a while now. I'm happy to give you the lay of the land.

Activity dried up on H-Stained-Glass when we moved the network from the old listserve to the Commons (which we did with all networks, most of which did not fall silent), but the move is not to blame for the reduced activity. When we moved, the person who had been managing H-Stained-Glass didn't move with it. Instead, as she later told me, she emailed every person who had posted to H-Stained-Glass and told them she was setting up a new discussion board somewhere else. To my knowledge, she never told anyone at H-Net about this until about a year later. So indeed activity ended here: H-Net relies on field experts to run their networks and there was no one running H-Stained-Glass. When I came in to take a look after I became VP, I found a lot of new attempted subscriptions that no one had been approving, and several posts from subscribers that had not been approved and had become out of date.

Since then I posted a call for new editors to step up and rebuild H-Stained-Glass on February 23, 2015 and another on November 10, 2015. I also added a mention of the need for editors to the front page of H-Stained-Glass that everyone can see. None of this has yielded any response. If no one wants to run a particular network on H-Net, we typically decommissions that network. As it happens, decommissioning H-Stained-Glass is on my list of things to get done by March 15, so your message is timely. Beware the Ides of March.

I post what I can, including my call last June for contributions to a list of Stained Glass Museums and your response (thank you David) but I'm no field expert in this area by a long shot. I'm also still open to reviving the network with one or more new editors. The Commons is a web 2.0 format, unlike listserves and traditional discussion boards, meaning we can do many things those other platforms can't. We are built, for example, to host multimedia resources, like image galleries and even video which seem to me would be pretty cool for a field like Stained Glass Window Studies. We can build these into highly organized and easily searchable collections that can be curated and made far more usable than threads in a list that simply display whatever was posted most recently. We can do the same with other content, like course syllabi, databases, timelines... We can and do host podcasts and publications, from blogs and roundtables to peer reviewed content. H-Net networks also put out an unparalleled collection of book reviews and reviews of exhibitions and other events that would, again, a pretty ideal and unique contribution to this field. And we have a staff that is expanding our capabilities all the time in response to requests from editors.

What's needed on H-Stained-Glass are folks to step in who know the field, who can make a fair assessment of what it needs and what people in it might want, and are willing to work with each other and our tech-savvy staff to get things done. Its good if editors are "tech-comfy" and we do provide training but the main focus for editors is to be experts in the field, not web wizards. We've got a lot of tools here, and can do more than I've mentioned. If someone wants to put these tools to use for the field, please get in touch with me.

Patrick Cox
H-Net Vice-President for Networks

Thanks Patrick for your comprehensive reply. I for one feel reassured that I am not the only H-Stained-Glass contributor who has not been able to cope with the change over. Part of the problem could be that we stained glass people are a decidedly aging species and tend to find it difficult to learn new tricks in a rapidly changing world.

David Palmer
Portsmouth UK