Web Magazine for Information Professionals

The History of History

Stephen Smith explains the background to the relaunch of IHR-Info as HISTORY.

In the early modern era of computing the first server and gateway to the humanities in Europe was established in London, UK. It was the product of the Academic Secretary of the Institute of Historical Research looking over the shoulder of a member of the Institute who had used Lynx, a text-based browser, to establish a personal list of addresses and search engines. “Could we do that for the subject of history?” And so IHR-Info was born [1].

It set out to provide four services: a bulletin board for the Institute and history in general, including information on seminars, conferences and training courses; an online publisher which provided the annual publications of the IHR including an annual bibliography of all books published on history in the UK, a list of all university teachers in history, and all theses in progress and completed; a gateway to electronic sites world wide, including libraries, datasets and other servers; internet navigational tools with an autodidactic set of menus which explained the various engines.

In October 1997 IHR-Info was relaunched as History, one of a number of subject-based servers funded in large part by the eLib Programme of JISC. Its history is now in its address (www.ihrinfo.ac.uk) and at its launch it was surrounded by more recent information services offered by the Public Record Office, the British Library, the Royal Commission for Historical Manuscripts, the Royal Commission for Historical Monuments of England, and the Arts and Humanities Data Service. The Historical Association also has its own site at history.org.uk.

The aims of the new History are: to provide a dynamic, high quality, user friendly, easily acessible, cross sectoral national service to the United Kingdom in the field of history and cognate subjects; to train and encourage students, researchers and historians to exploit the advantages of telematics; to bring about a cultural change in the learning, teaching and research habits of those interested in history; to work with ROADS and the Royal Historical Society to enable better and more comprehensive classification of history Internet resources; to develop the service technically so as to exploit opportunities, but also to maintain access for those whose facilities are not of the latest specification e.g. an anonymous login telnet version of History (telnet.ihrinfo.ac.uk); to respond to evaluation and to stimulate opinion; to present formal reports and also publicity material in order to raise awareness of the service in a variety of sectors or populations.

The server and gateway was originally set up on a Sun machine at the University of London Computer Centre, but the Institute of Historical Research now maintains three IBM RS6000 Internet servers of its own, with a fourth as a hot spare thanks to the generosity of JISC. The quality and quantity of the service is underpinned by a number of History Internet Editors from the academic sector and within Europe by the History Research Discovery Exchange whereby information and Internet links are provided by historians and librarians of other countries in exchange for those held and identified in the UK. Wider afield, for example in North America and Australasia, mirroring agreements are being established in an attempt to avoid the delays of slow traffic!

It was the result of many visits abroad, particularly to western Europe, that triggered this year’s change of name to History. The use of acronyms is very much de rigeur when applying for funding in the UK and the EU, but causes much confusion to the wider community in higher education and elsewhere. History, Histoire or Geschichte is much clearer to all. The service History has a choice of all three languages to lead those interested in history through most of its higher level menus, thus serving those countries with the largest number of Internet hosts in Europe. Further languages will be added as interest and time dictates. Language is a major problem for historians on the Internet. Beautiful maps of Venice, for example, from the State Archives but put up by the Institute of Architecture in Venice will not be found generally by searching for Venice or Venedig. History along with about twenty of its European friends applied for a multi-million EU funding project to establish a European network using a common concordance, much along the lines of a similar project that Venetian academic architects are involved in, but for the whole of East and Western Europe. This passed its initial review, but seems to have failed at the final fence. However, the enthusiasm of those involved is likely to prevail on an informal basis, relieving me of the burden of writing all those long reports to Luxembourg!

Demonstrations in the UK and around many other parts of the EU made it clear that a new structure was required for History and this is a major aspect of the relaunch of the service. To be user friendly across sectors within the UK and across countries in the EU, servers and gateways need to be as simple as possible, so that they attract maximum use. Average use of History at the moment is about 15,000 hits a week, with the UK taking one third of that and the rest of the EU about another third. The new structure will be at the level of Who? What? Where? The information and sources available must be accessible to all members of the modern information society, since marginal costs of additional distribution are absolutely zero, unless use drives up the power and provision of the hardware.

Another concern of any subject-based server and gateway is that of cognate subjects, and discussion is in progress with sites which might offer resource discovery in theology, philosophy, art history and archeology. It will be interesting to see how a faculty-based arrangement of information and links will work. How interdisciplinary subjects are served, and cartography is one that comes to mind, is of concern to those who are considering future national funding for services to the Higher Education community. Eventually we will wish to include Further Education as well as more general interest groups. Should such a service should be monolithic or distributed across many different sites? Should it be provided through classification at metadata level? Just how can quality be controlled? Who is willing to give up their time to do it? In many respects gathering and classifying data and links on the Internet is like that of constructing biblographies in that it requires cooperation from academics to essay quality and identify the class of the information.

The intellectual challenge for History in the final years of this century is to make itself truly international, multidisciplinary and structured in a way that makes the information easily accessible to all citizens in the information society. A challenge which is even more demanding, however, is to ensure the financial future of the service. The situation of History within the Institute of Historical Research goes a long way to securing its future. Additional funds from JISC have allowed History to comply with the ROADS project on classification technology and to lay the basic foundations of a resource discovery service. It is to be hoped that JISC will continue to provide sufficient funds to ensure national uniformity across the various subject and faculty-based servers and gateways in the UK, so consolidating the clear lead that this country has been giving to the rest of Europe and most of the world.


[1] IHR-Info (History)

Author Details

Steven R.B. Smith B.A., Ph.D.
Academic Secretary and History Project Manager,
School of Advanced Study, University of London,
Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU
Tel +44-0171-636-0272
Fax: +44-0171-436-2183
E-mail: ihr@sas.ac.uk