• Open Research Notebooks in the Humanities

    What are the pros and cons, the means and obstacles, of keeping an open-access research notebook in the humanities?

    In an 2008 roundtable on digital history, historian William G. Thomas envisioned a future in which websites would serve as "open research platforms where scholars can stage problems and continually modify their work, readers can view the research as it develops, and both can continually assemble new associations as an interpretive model is built." But as Lisa Spiro has recently noted in her series on "opening the humanities" (Part 1 and Part 2), this idea has not yet really taken hold in the humanities.

    The idea of open research notebooks has made more headway in science; for one example, see the Open Lab Notebook kept by Carl Boettiger. And some of the benefits promised by the open science movement—like the freeing of "dark data" often lost in the publication process—seem like they would be applicable to humanistic disciplines like history as well. Keeping open research notebooks might also be one way to respond to the series of challenges to scholarship in a wikified world that AHA president William Cronon has outlined.

    Nonetheless, there are challenges—technical and otherwise—to the idea of open research notebooks in the humanities. Andrew J. Berger has recently outlined only a few. The challenges and questions surrounding this idea are also not exactly the same as those that surround the idea of open-access publication, where discussion tends to center on issues like evaluation, promotion, and peer review. Those issues aren’t precisely the same ones raised by the idea of "open lab" notebooks kept by historians.

    I have recently begun an open research notebook experiment of my own by beginning an online research wiki. I am interested in a talk session with other THATcampers interested in thinking how the open attitude might change the way research notes are kept and managed. What are the technical best practices for this kind of project? Will its benefits be limited if these experiments are too isolated from the discipline as a whole?

    I’m open (pun intended!) to other versions of these questions or this session!


  1. Jeanne Gillespie says:

    Hi, Caleb and all…I think this is a fascinating topic and I would like to participate in a conversation centered on “open notebooks”

  2. Bob Kosovsky says:

    At THATCamp NY (Oct. 2012) two people gave a related talk. Jane Greenway Carr (NYU) and Cecily Swanson (Cornell) spoke about their Archive Notebook, currently on a Tumbler blog, in which they document “rejects” from their work. Get in touch with them:


  3. I love it, Caleb.

    I’ve tried (in the smallest baby-steps) to create a public wiki for my own work. I found it hard to manage the creation of the wiki and its content while the project itself was distinct from the wiki. In my own case it was the difference between the expectation of the form of the dissertation and the non-expected side project of the wiki that clashed.

    I’d love to talk about how open archiving might constitute a form of publishing that stands alongside other professional writing. That idea comes from reading about this project: “Nazi Tunnels: Underground Factory Dispersal Projects of World War II” at nazitunnels.org I.E., His site and archive are part of his dissertation.

  4. Thanks for the links and suggestions. Perhaps one thing to discuss would be how to identify other historians who are doing this sort of thing and link them up with each other. Maybe a wiki and badge system like ONSclaims.

  5. Bob Kosovsky says:

    Apparently the idea of an open electronic notebook has already been talked about in the sciences. Take a look at this:


    Here’s the slides from a talk given at the Special Libraries Association showing additional uses of such a notebook:


    You don’t have any of this stuff on your wiki – it needs a home!

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