Electronic Mail and Historians, 1991
by Donald J. Mabry
From: Perspectives (February 1991), Newsletter of the American Historical
During the summer of 1990, a group of scholars debated a range of historical issues
including the origins of agriculture, warfare, and walled cities. Members of this group
also sought information about specific historical events and queried one another for help
in locating sources and studies on specific topics. During the previous year, they had
discussed women's history, the uses of history, socialism, the history of Scotland, the
Crusades, the invasion of Panama, and the origins of the Cold War. They announced
forthcoming conferences; solicited manuscripts for scholarly journals; posted notices of
job openings; and aided one another in obtaining access to historical electronic
databases. This everyday occurrence would be unremarkable except that the participants
were physically located in the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Israel, Finland,
Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark, Ireland, Japan, Norway, Mexico, Brazil, Germany, and
Canada. Moreover, each of these communications traveled from the contributor's locale to
Finland and then back to all of the participants while a scholar in Germany served as
postmaster. All are members of HISTORY@FINHUTC.BITNET, an electronic mail discussion
Although participation in an international electronic seminar such as HISTORY might
appear to require the kind of knowledge possessed only by computer scientists, such is not
the case. Anyone who uses a personal computer for word processing only has to learn a
little more to use electronic mail (e-mail). E-mail is also easier and faster to use than
the regular postal system. Instead of typing a letter or manuscript on a word processor,
printing it, putting it into a stamped, addressed envelope, and then carrying the envelope
to a mail box, one simply connects to the local mainframe computer, opens one's e-mail
account, types the address of the recipient, and transfers the text to the mainframe. The
mainframe then forwards the e-mail message to the recipient's mailbox, whether that mail
box is on the local computer or on one ten thousand miles away. Normally, the message will
reach the recipient's mailbox in seconds where it will remain until the recipient deletes
it. If the message cannot be delivered, the system quickly notifies the sender.
The full dimensions of BITNET/NETNORTH/EARN (henceforth cited as BITNET) are
staggering. BITNET (Because It's Time Network), NETNORTH (Canada), and EARN (European
Academic and Research Network) connect some 2700 "nodes" (sites) located in
colleges, universities, research institutes, and such organizations as the National
Archives and the National Institutes of Health. BITNET nodes exist in the United States,
Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, every Common Market nation except the United
Kingdom (which has its own e-mail system), Egypt, Yugoslavia, Japan, Taiwan, and Hong
Kong, among others. One can send messages through BITNET to any other e-mail system, be it
academic, governmental, military, non-profit, or commercial, so long as that system is
connected to the backbone network, the Internet.
For individuals, the cost of this service is low or non-existent. Member institutions
pay for the computer time, software, systems operators, and the dedicated telephone line
that connects institution "A" with institution "B." Thus, the real
expense of maintaining these interconnected computers is borne by institutions, not the
individual. E-mail accounts are almost always free to staff members and, often, to
students. To use the BITNET system, individuals need to supply only their own personal
computers, the modem, and the communications software necessary to telephone into the
HISTORY@FINHUTC.BITNET (henceforth called HISTORY) is one of the many discussion groups
or lists hosted on BITNET. Located at a Finnish university (FINHUTC) in the BITNET domain,
HISTORY depends on a computer program called a listserv (list server) that receives all
messages posted to it and then redistributes them to members of the list. These lists
focus on specific areas of interest to the members who choose to subscribe. When one
subscribes to a list, one automatically receives a copy of all messages posted to that
list and can reply to any or all of those messages or post a new one for all other list
members to read.
The topics discussed and the amount of member participation on HISTORY fluctuates. For
example, someone raised the question of the definition of the pivotal events in history,
certainly an issue of perennial concern to historians. Not surprisingly, the nature of the
ensuing discussion was affected by each contributor's nationality and field of expertise,
an important reminder that historical scholarship is not totally objective. While most
list members simply read the postings, a few directed the discussion to the more narrow
focus of the Vietnam War. Military historians and historians of 20th century United States
politics came to the fore, as they and other list members dissected each other's arguments
and cited authorities. This debate eventually led the group into a more general discussion
of the origins of war, which, in turn, evolved into a discussion of the relationship
between the origins of war and the advent of agriculture, the possible reasons for walled
cities (in which archaeologists participated), the differing views of prehistory held by
archaeologists and historians, and back to a discussion of the historical development of
weaponry and tactics. Not long before the war-related discussion took place, members
debated the meaning of "modern history" and how one can distinguish between
"modern" and "pre-modern." That discussion was led by medievalists,
early modern specialists, social historians, and political historians.
Participation in such discussions, either as a contributor or as a reader, is easy,
intellectually stimulating, and informative, regardless of one's particular specialty. The
very diversity of the group makes such discussions particularly enjoyable. List members
include the range from persons eminent in their respective fields to persons who belong
because they like historical studies. Specialists must explain their thoughts so that
non-specialists can understand. Period specialists can test their ideas against those of
specialists who study a different period. Generalists often ask the questions that open
new lines of thought. One can read only those messages in which is interested or start the
group on another topic by sending a message.
HISTORY is only one of the e-mail discussion groups of possible interest to historians.
L-CHA@UQAM.BITNET, the e-mail discussion group of the Canadian Historical Association
Conference on Computing, focuses on ways professional historians can better use computers,
software, and electronic databases to teach and do research. These discussions are of
interest to "traditional" historians, not just those who use quantitative
techniques. Like HISTORY, L-CHA is used to post conference programs, requests for
scholarly assistance, and job openings. C18-L@PSUVM.PSU.EDU , an Internet list, is the
discussion list for 18th Century Interdisciplinary Discussion. SHAKER@UKCC.UKY.EDU
discusses The United Society of Believers. HUMANIST@BROWNVM.BITNET is a technique-oriented
list for humanists trying to choose the most appropriate software, hardware, and
analytical tools although its members also discuss issues of general interest to
humanists. Latin American historians can join lists devoted to the region or to specific
nations. The number of lists of potential interest to professional historians is almost as
diverse as the historical profession itself, for lists exist not only on BITNET but on
other electronic mail networks as well. The local e-mail administrator, usually a person
in the campus computer support office, can provide the information necessary to poke
around in the various networks and lists.
E-mail lists perform another valuable service, that of locating the e-mail addresses of
persons with whom one wants to correspond. Although each posting sent to one's electronic
mail box contains the sender's name and address, one often forgets to make a record of it.
Many list members only read messages or contribute infrequently. Because there are
millions of persons using e-mail, there is no directory of users. A BITNET node
administrator can explain the means built into the system to provide some directory
assistance. Lists, however, maintain a directory of their membership and that list can be
retrieved electronically. One can then send a private message to a person on that list to
continue a discussion in private, pursue scholarly collaboration, or obtain information.
HISTORY members have used contacts made on the list for a number of professional
purposes. These include:
(1) Determining the operating hours of a distant library or archive one plans to visit.
(2) Obtaining a copy of a paper presented at a conference one could not attend or a
quick copy of a journal article not locally available.
(3) Learning specific information about a job announcement.
(4) Getting help in identifying bibliographic and archival materials.
(5) Identifying possible grants.
(6) Coordinating a grant when the principal investigators are on different campuses.
(7) Prompting a contributor to an edited volume to respond.
The value of belonging to an e-mail discussion list varies. List members can
include the full range of people one finds on a college or university setting. Some lists,
depending upon the activity of the members, are serious electronic seminars. Others
resemble a faculty cocktail party or a student bull session. To determine which is which,
one has to join the list and read the postings. If one is not interested in what the list
does, then one simply resigns from it.
The procedure for joining or leaving a BITNET list is simple. One sends a message to
the Listserv at the node on which the list is housed. For HISTORY, one sends the message
to Listserv@FINHUTC.BITNET. Leave the subject header blank. To join a list, put the
following in the body of the note:
SUB HISTORY [your name]
Close the note and send it. To leave a list, in the body of the note type:
SIGNOFF HISTORY [your name]
For a different list, substitute its name for HISTORY.
The ultimate value of the HISTORY list, and others like it, depends upon the
willingness of professional historians to participate. At present, HISTORY has only 140
members, yet there must be thousands of historians in the world who have personal
computers, can afford a modem, and would be provided with an e-mail account upon request.
Their participation would broaden and deepen the scope of the discussion. With a larger
membership, more departments would be willing to post job and programmatic announcements,
and more professional associations would be willing to post programs. HISTORY might become
the means by which professional historians throughout the world could communicate rapidly
with each other and create a true community of scholars, unbound by institutional or
HISTORY's existence also suggests the need for more e-mail discussion groups for
historians. Although its general nature is a strength, it is not an adequate forum for
historians with particular interests, for they have to handle mail of little or no
interest to them. New lists should be created to serve the specific interests within the
international community of historians and those with related interests. Why not have one
list for medievalists, another for specialists in French history, and still another for
women's history? HISTORY could still serve as a general list while these other lists focus
on more limited topics. Managing a list requires a few hours a week, but surely there are
persons willing to perform this professional service just as there are colleges and
universities willing to support such an endeavor because it would give the institution
In the meantime, HISTORY will continue to provide food for thought, contact with
historians throughout the world, and, at times, a lot of amusement as contributors square
off against each other as academics are so apt to do.