Digital publishing and distribution are creating a whole new host of issues for historians to deal with, in the realm of source use, authentication, and citation. Obviously, that’s been true for some time now: we’re gradually getting up to speed on how to cite websites properly, for example. Working with scanned .pdfs or images of printed material—such as those provided by JSTOR, Google Books, or the Russian National Library’s Dokusfera project—raises other questions, but I think those are likewise being solved. If nothing else, the credibility of these known organizations can serve as a reference point for believing that the materials they provide are legit and can be legitimately used. (And if one or the other acquires a bad reputation, well then their identity is stable enough that this bad reputation will be useful to scholars, in evaluating whether to use them.)
A third category of questions, it seems to me, arises from the rapidly growing world of BitTorrent scans of major publications, available for download from peer to peer servers and produced by individuals with names like “jbjc2”.
The upside: complete runs of things like the 19th century newspaper Severnaia pchela (Northern Bee), and the rare publication Sobranie gosudarstvennykh gramot i dogovorov (a collection of early Russian charters and treaties, published in the early 19th century) can be had, it seems.
The downside: copyright horror; unclear provenance, legality and use rights; unclear authenticity and accuracy. No doubt institutional controls on publication of rare materials are often violated in making them, potentially making subsequent readers accessories to whatever crime was committed (and in violation of, say, archival rules). Scanning errors are probably common, and while it’s hard to imagine someone intentionally forging an online edition, they certainly can figure out clever ways of editing it.
That’s all I really have for today: but I’d be interested to hear what people think. Does anyone know of any guides to this whole world of publishing activity and how it relates to scholarly use? Or have any thoughts on the issues involved? Are there specificities in the Russian / East European space that need to be taken into account?
Should historians work with such sources? On what terms, if so? My impression is that libraries won’t touch them, for a number of really good reasons (see downside, above). But should someone somehow catalog and archive them?
It seems, both for good reasons and for bad ones, that the Google Books decision will clog up the larger scanning projects for some time. But what about these pirate editions?
I hope to explore this more in future posts, and maybe organize a blog conversation about the issue (if it seems like a good idea). So if you’re interested in that as a possible participant, please let me know.
Links to good thought pieces or articles or professional guidelines will, I’m sure, be appreciated by all!
PS: Note for non-Russian speakers: “Istochnikovedenie” is the Russian term for the discipline of source study in history.