Ghosts Towns, Process, and Product on the World Wide Web

July 31, 2014 § 2 Comments

I had originally intended to write about the local humanities this morning, but I was distracted by an interesting little discussion on the internet. A local author, Troy Larson, took issues with a website produced for a class offered by Tom Isern, a historian at North Dakota State University. Tom had designed the class, as far as I can recall, to produce a catalogue of North Dakota “Ghost Towns”. Troy Larson is the local expert on North Dakota Ghost Towns and has published a couple of coffee table books on the subject and maintains a remarkable blog called Ghosts of North Dakota. By all means, go and buy his book and surf his blog. They’re both pretty cool things.

Update: Troy has responded to my post here, and, better still, included a link to his original thoughts on the issue here with screen shots.

The website prepared for Tom’s class had a list of ghost towns on it with a series of links to Troy’s blog. From what I gathered, these links were designed to get students started on Tom’s larger ghost town project. In general, Troy has dedicated his blog to photographs with very short historical sketches of the towns with a bit of census information and some notes about local postal service. Most of this information is available in one way or another on the internet. In many cases former and even current residents of these towns make comments on Troy’s blog. In short, Troy’s blog is one of the best points of departure for research on small places in North Dakota. 

The kerfuffle began when Tom’s class page pointed to Troy’s blog as a point of departure for student research on ghost towns. Apparently, the goal of Tom’s class was to produce a book or part of a book on abandoned places in North Dakota. From what I understand that goal has not been achieved yet so there is no final product. The internet, as this blog is ample evidence for, provides access to process, however, and Troy objected to the process that Tom’s class was using to start their research. And then this all hit Facebook and got pretty exciting for a couple of days. 

This is an interesting problem on two levels. First, it demonstrates two fundamentally different ways of viewing information made available on the web. Troy naturally feels protective of the work he has invested into an impressive resource that he generously made available on the web. I can’t really say for sure what Tom’s motives are, but I suspect they were similar to mine when I created an index to my History 101 class that consisted entirely of links to Wikipedia. If a resource is available on the web, I feel pretty comfortable deploying it for whatever schemes or goals I have in mind. (Tom is a sometime reader of this blog and is known to have a wry smile about many things in life, so maybe he’ll post a comment).  

In fact, much of my academic career has been dedicated to creating resources that I hope other people will do more with than I have. For example, I included a catalogue of over 200 churches in my dissertation, and it is available for free for download via Ohio State’s library catalogue. I fully (and optimistically) expected someone to use my catalogue to produce their own studies of Early Christian basilicas in Greece. In fact, I think the enduring value to my work is probably not the analysis (which will always represent strains of thinking grounded in a particular time and place), but the catalogue, which will hopefully represent a resource for the next generation of scholars. David Pettegrew and I have made available a photographic catalogue of houses at the site of Lakka Skoutara in the southeastern Corinthia and our data from our work at Pyla-Koutsopetria on Cyprus.

From what I understand, and please Troy correct me here, is that Troy objects to his project being used as a sources of data for another similar project. Since the internet provides a kind of transparency of process, he was able to see how another group was using his “data” and object prior to the appearance of a final product that may or may not compete with his work. 

Much of the debate on Facebook centered around matters of etiquette. Troy was particularly put out that Tom did not ask for permission to use his content as a point of departure for his class. I’ve had a few scholars ask for permission to use my dissertation catalogue, but this is hardly necessary.

Perhaps a better point of comparison is that I ask people who read and cite my working papers to ask permission by including in bold across every page: “Do Not Cite Without Author’s Permission.” This is largely because most working papers get updated regularly and a more current copy of a paper might exist or the paper gets published and a more stable citation exists for the same content. I suppose Troy could ask people who want to use his content or link to his page to ask permission, but I am not sure that this would do anything but limit the reach and audience of his work.  

The debate is still simmering on Facebook as I write this post and with any luck Troy and Tom will comment here to clarify their positions. What interests me the most is seeing how the relative transparency of the internet has created new social expectations. I think back to my largely pre-internet graduate school days where certain resources like A.H.M. Jones’ Later Roman Empire (1964) or well-acronymed Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium served as guides for many issues in the Late Antique world. Neither Jones nor Khazdan could know, of course, if we were using their work and its hard to avoid the idea that many recent books and encyclopedias on these topics used the exhaustive efforts of Jones and Khazdan as a guide. I wonder whether Troy would have felt different had Tom used a paper syllabus and assigned copies of Troy’s books as a guide for his class? Would Troy have ever even known?

I also wonder whether the relatively small and tight nit community of scholars interested in North Dakota also played a part in how this particular controversy took place? It seems like Troy was particularly offended that Tom didn’t ask or contact him before linking liberally to his blog. The courtesies, much like waving on a lonely rural road in North Dakota, are the kind of thing that happens regularly in small communities where people know one another and both Tom and Troy live in Fargo. I wonder whether Troy would have felt the same way if Tom was a professor at, say, the University of Texas or University of Queensland in Australia?

Finally, it is interesting that some of the rhetoric (and I’ll ask Troy to clarify this, if he thinks I’m mischaracterizing him in any way) is grounded in the difference in how academics and non-academics see resources made available on the web. As we academics explore small, privately produced collections  on the web (many of which are curated by antiquarians like Troy), we will have to think more carefully about how we use these resources both to respect the significant investment of time and energy that they involved and to transfer their value effectively to an academic context.

I’m reluctant to see either Troy or Tom in the wrong here, but this little controversy (by the standards of the internet) reminds us how far we are from understanding how this media works even after in the 25th year of the World Wide Web Era. 

§ 2 Responses to Ghosts Towns, Process, and Product on the World Wide Web

  • Diana Wright says:

    I have found the contents of the 366 entries in my blog in Wikipedia articles, other blogs, & syllabi on-line. I have seen articles with my conclusions presented as other authors’ conclusions years later. I have done a lot of work for my blog, and have credited my sources. Rarely am I credited, despite the Fair-Use notice. I assume this is the result of being fairly good at what I do, and doing it on the interwebs. I haven’t been able to think of a useful way of dealing with it. If academics are not conscientious about credits, who will be?

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