July 19, 2006 | Tom

History will be unkind to those who do not write it

Winston Churchill is supposed to have said: “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.”. But when and where did he say it? Without knowing that, do we really know he said it? This is a lesson Australian historians may not have learnt.

The Australian Historical Association held its 2006 Conference at the Australian National University in Canberra July 3-7. On the program there were presentations on “Pool Politics: the emergence of a distinctive swimming pool culture in suburban Sydney” and “The early Chinese Restaurant and ‘White’ Australia”.
My only knowledge of how historians work, comes from Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia. In this a history academic is parodied as being vain, long winded and not about to let a lack of evidence get in the way of a good theory. So I went along to the history conference to see how different reality is.
At the conference I attended the Thursday session on “Comparing Menzies and Howard”.
With me I took a wireless modem and did a “live” report of the session for OnLineOpinion. The idea was to write a quick summary and reaction to what the speaker is saying and send it out as soon after they finish as possible:
* Introduction: Comparing Menzies and Howard, 10:03 AM.
* Associate Professor Malcolm Mackerras, UNSW@ADFA, Comparison of the Menzies and Howard Electoral Strategies, 11:19 AM
* Frank Cain, Defence, Political & Economic History, UNSW@ADFA, Differing uses of ASIO Comparing in the Menzies and Howard Years, 11:42 AM
* Richard Broinowski, Adjunct Professor at the University of Sydney, Foreign Policies in the Menzies and Howard Years
* Professor Stuart Harris, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, The Differing Economic Policies of Menzies and Howard Government, 12:13 PM
The idea was that my readers could then click on a link to the conference proceedings to see what the speakers actually said, as opposed to what I said about them. But there were no proceedings from the conference, no abstracts, not even the full names of the speakers on the conference web site.
The presenters at the history conference were apparently eminent in their field, articulate, and entertaining. There comments are relevant to important current events. In one example, Australia’s role in the Joint Strike Fighter Project was discussed. This has implications for regional politics, as well as for Australian researchers helping build it.
But what I can’t understand is what did the speakers hope to get out of the event. How did it contribute to the discipline of history?
There seems to be a gulf between the computer conferences I am used to attending and a history conference. Before a computer conference you expect to have a web site with at least the full name, affiliation and biography of each speaker, along with the title of their talk and an abstract. This helps you plan what sessions to attend and to do a quick background check on the speaker and their topic.
Increasingly you expect to also have a link to the speaker’s institution web site, their list of papers and even a copy of the paper they are presenting. For a commercial conference you may only get the slides of their presentation and then only after the conference. For an academic conference you can expect to get the full text of their paper online before, or shortly after the event.
The motivation for an academic speaker at a computer conference is to get a paper published. Academics are promoted on papers published and may in some cases receive a cash bonus from their institution for every paper. The discipline gains from having quality certified material on the permanent written record. Even non-academic speakers, who do not present a formal written paper, will likely make their slides available and receive publicity as a result.
With no proceedings, the history conference will have little place in history. It will have very little footprint in the electronic history record. My postings live from the event will be about all that is recorded about the conference and so that is what it will be judged by. As a result history may be unkind to the history discipline, the event and the speakers.
That may seem an unkind judgement. Perhaps the speakers will produce papers from a journal or a book, from their talk at some time in the future. Perhaps they will. But where and when will that be? Who will be able to access the material and what will that cost them?
In contrast, at an open source software conference you can expect to be able to download and read the speaker’s paper during the sessions using a wireless modem. At one conference a collogue took this to an extreme by giving an excellent presentation, and judging the audience to be receptive, then sat at the back of the room and typed up the text of the paper, ready for publication at the end of the day. In other cases I have seen the audience correcting errors in the presented paper, live on their laptops during the session. This way of working may be more suited to computing than history, but some form of more efficient electronic working from the history profession should be possible.
After several years of helping the Australian Computer Society decide how to do journal and conference publishing on-line some things seem reasonably clear. It is possible to maintain academic rigor with electronic publications. It is expensive and time consuming to produce journals, even without printing and postage costs. But it is worthwhile as a service to the future, as well as to the present. History will be kind to those who take the trouble to write it, even where they write it with electrons, rather than ink.
ps: Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia seems to keep echoing. On a visit to Oxford I stood on the bank of the lake of Blenheim Palace and was reminded of Canberra. That is recorded, for history, in my closing address to an IT conference in Canberra in 1995.

Posted by Tom at 11:27 am | Comments (2) |


  1. You aren;t looking to re-ignite the history wars again – relativism and post-modernism vs objective history?

    Comment by WeekbyWeek — July 19, 2006 @ 1:13 pm

  2. Tom, On Line Opinion was partly conceived of as a way of bridging that gap you are talking about. Conference papers are one thing, dissemination of ideas another. The journal provides electronic infrastructure not just for recording, but for publicising and enfolding into the public debate.
    We actually approached some of the authors from that conference for op-eds. As far as I know we haven’t been successful.
    Oh, and I should welcome you as a fellow blogger on Ambit-Gambit!

    Comment by Graham Young — July 20, 2006 @ 9:57 am

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