More Access = Better Narratives

In his piece, “Should Historical Scholarship be Free” Roy Rosenzweig discussed the challenges and potential benefits of making professional historical scholarship more available to the public. This thought process was a direct result of a policy instituted by the NIH that decreed all publicly funded research should be openly accessible to the public within 12 months of publication. Though this rule does not directly apply to historical scholarship, it did prompt Rosenzweig to consider the benefits and limitations of free historical scholarship. Though he acknowledged that it would be difficult to achieve open access to scholarship in a system designed to restrict access based on ability to pay, Rosenzweig argued that freer access would benefit historical research as well as public education.

Open access to scholarship could mean greater access to scholarly resources for anyone with enough curiosity. Currently, the restriction of resources to those individuals and institutions who can afford subscriptions to databases excludes laymen from the process of writing history and perpetuates the notion of historians as lofty scholars in ivory towers. Open access could change this by allowing people the opportunity to keep up with newer interpretations of history. But open access would also allow students of poorer institutions who may not be able to afford all databases to have access to historical materials and scholarships previously forbidden. It could also allow teachers access to more resources, which could in turn create space for a more constructivist learning environment.

The current limiting of resources has a profound impact on the public understanding of historical study, and the historiographicprocess. The episode of Radio Lab “Sight Unseen” gives insight into how a narrative shifts based on the limitation of sources. The original narrative told by Lynsey Addario’s photographs from a medevac unit in Afghanistan was one of death and mourning in war. The inclusion of images featuring a specific soldier in the moments before and after his death made that narrative a powerful one. In the interview, Addario compared the images she took to those taken during the Vietnam war, which served as a brutal reminder of the cost paid by soldiers and their families. According to Addario, photographs like these that featured the brutality of warfare played a role in the American public’s outrage over the Vietnam war. Because of new rules regarding the publication rights,this sort of coverage is far less common in modern  warfare. However, in Addario’s case, she needed permission from the soldier’s family before she could publish any photographs with identifying marks. In the end, the soldier’s parents denied her request to publish images with identifying marks. Though Addario followed ethical guidelines, and the parents were completely within their rights to publish, their decision completely changed the narrative. By simply excluding a few images, the narrative shifted dramatically and became a less poerful story of a medevac team doing their best to save soldiers’ lives in Afghanistan.

A lack of historical resources is currently having a similar effect all over the United States. The narratives told by high school history papers, and the research done at smaller institutions are limited not only by government standards, but also by restricted access to current scholarship and digitized collections. If historical scholarship continues to be restricted to only the school systems, libraries, and Universities that can afford them, students’ understanding of history will be unnecessarily limited.

 

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