Project Name: The 18th-Century Common
Project Website: http://www.18thcenturycommon.org
Project Editors: Jessica Richard (Wake Forest) and Andrew Burkett (Union College)
Project Affiliation: Wake Forest University, Union College, and NEH
Reviewed by: Cassandra Nelson
Review Date: 13 March 2013
Tags or keywords: 18th-Century, commons, literature, history, culture, research, scholarship, public, nonacademic, non-specialized, accessible, resources
Review: Common lands were once “privately owned spaces traditionally subject to free and public use” and thus occupy “an important place in the historical imagination as a symbol of open access for shared benefit” (“About”). Following this train of thought, the 18th-Century Common was launched in 2012 with the goal of providing a public space where scholars in 18th-century studies can make their research accessible to an intellectually curious, nonacademic audience. The 18th-Century Common provides its readers with a variety of information about the long 18th-century in a variety of formats. The three most useful and popular feeds are the “Collections,” “Blog,” and “Gazette” pages, which supply readers with essays, digests, and links to other relevant material. The Common also includes a page on contributing to the website, information on the site’s editors and authors, a forum for user feedback, and a lengthy resources page. Furthermore, users can “follow” the 18th-Century Common on Facebook and Twitter (@18common). The following is a detailed description of how each page functions:
Collections: The “Collections” pages contains abridgments of longer peer-reviewed essays along with shorter, non-peer-reviewed essays that are written in non-specialized, jargon-free language geared toward a more general audience. The essays in “Collections” are grouped together according to their topics, of which there are currently only 3 listed: “Cognitive Science & 18th-Century Studies,” “The Age of Wonder,” and “Science and the Arts in the Long 18th-Century.”
Blog: The “Blog” is similar to the “Collections” in that it presents short, non-peer-reviewed essays written for a nonacademic audience. Unlike the “Collections,” though, these essays cover a wider variety of topics and cannot easily be placed into one of the existing collections or grouped together to form a new collection. Examples of the essays contained in the “Blog” include “The University of Woodford Square and the Age of Obama,” “‘African’ in Early Haiti, or How to Fight Stereotypes,” and “Taxes are Evil.”
Gazette: The “Gazette” functions primarily as an aggregator of other blogs, websites, articles, etc. devoted to 18th-century studies. It features links to web content that might be of interests to 18th-century enthusiasts, covering everything from Jane Austen to the rising popularity of lap dogs to debates on the death penalty (but mostly it provides links for Austen-related things). Instead presenting full-length essays on theses topics, the “Gazette” groups together links to other sites about that topic along with a short synopsis of the information found on those sites. In her review, Kirstyn Leuner describes the “Gazette” as “a playful series of long updates, a bit like an embellished Twitter feed.” It also feature news and announcements about the Common and can be found on the sidebar of the homepage.
Contribute: The 18th-Century Common seeks contributions from academics in a variety of forms and on a variety of topics, including “descriptions written for a lay audience of recently published scholarly work in eighteenth-century studies, descriptions of interesting holdings in a university archive, museum, or rare book collection, descriptions of critical controversies or research problems in the field, etc.” The submission guidelines are basically the same for blogs and digests, with the main focus being to grab the average Internet user’s attention and not exceed her relatively short attention span. Submissions should be relatively short (approx. 1200 words), include a relevant picture, focused toward a “smart, literate, intellectually curious, nonacademic” audience, and incorporate hyperlinks to relevant material, such as definitions, YouTube videos, primary texts, and sources. Since site is not peer-reviewed, all contributions, including digests of peer-reviewed articles, can, and really should be, non-peer-reviewed, which is really the only way they could meet the requirements for length and style anyhow.
Editors and Advisors: This page provides information on the people responsible for creating and maintaining the 18th-Century Common. The 18th-Century Common is managed by co-editors Jessica Richard and Andrew Burkett along with webmaster Damian Blankenship and an internal and an external advisory board. The internal advisory board in composed of six Wake Forest faculty members who worked with Richard and Burkett during the planning and launching of the site. The external advisory board includes five prominent scholars in 18th-century studies who come from a variety of academic institutions and who work or have worked with academic journals or other DH projects. This page also provides information on the authors who contribute to the site, most of whom are professors, graduate students, or members of the advisory boards.
Forum: The Common encourages its readers to actively engage with authors and editors, asking questions, leaving comments, and suggesting possible topics. Accordingly, the “Forum” provides a place to provide feedback, ask questions, and share their ideas, though it has yet to be utilized.
Resources: This page lists links to other DH projects, historical resources, online texts, bibliographies, blogs, and journals and reviews.
The 18th-Century Common is attempting to navigate a challenging middle ground between academic and popular. The site is concerned with guaranteeing the reputability and credibility of the information it gives its readers, but it also wants to make sure it doesn’t bore them to tears with dense theory and critical allusions that mean nothing to someone not already involved in academia. I am a big fan of the site and its goal of connecting academics with a mainstream audience and vice versa; there is a lot of potential here for the digital humanities as well as the humanities in general. The collaborative nature of the site seems particularly in the nature of DH, as does its goal of making academic research accessible to the public. In my opinion, the major problem in the humanities right now is that the public doesn’t know what they do and therefore can’t see a need or even want for them. This site seeks to separate that barrier between the academia and the general public, and I hope that it helps change the way academics think about publishing and about sharing their research with a wider audience. For all the potential this project possesses, though, I fear that it may be built on an unattainable fantasy. My main concern is that site will fail to attain the interest of the general public as well as the interest of academic contributors. Though the site is relatively new, there are no comments on the posts or in the forum to suggest that it has gained a wide readership, or even any readership. Likewise, I fear that the website will not gain the interests of the academics needed to contribute new and exciting work. Since the site only publishes non-peer-reviewed essays and essay synopses, I worry that scholars concerned with getting published in peer-reviewed journals will not want to invest their time and effort writing for a website designed for the general public.
The 18th-Century Common’s concept of making scholarly research on the 18th-century accessible to the public is not an entirely new one. There are a number of other sites, all of which can be found on the 18th-Century Common’s “Resources” page, devoted to making research in 18th-century studies open to the public. However, none of these sites are quite as encompassing, reputable, or accessible as the 18th-Century Common. Here is some information on the four most comparable sites:
EighteenthCentury.org: EighteenthCentury.org is a WordPress site that was launched in 2008 “with the goal of becoming an accessible, flexible, powerful collaborative tool for those interested in learning about, researching, and teaching the eighteenth century.” The main difference between EighteenthCentury.org and the 18th-Century Common is that the former tends to me more geared toward academics, particularly involved in teaching and researching, than the general public. Most of the posts on EighteenthCentury.org are about upcoming conferences on the 18th-century than anything else.
The Long Eighteenth: This is another WordPress site “for anyone interested in the long 18th century.” According to the site, it is the product of a desire among members of the C18-L listserv to establish a weblog community where they could discuss scholarship and criticism in 18th-century studies across multiple disciplines and languages. Like the 18th-Century Common, the Long Eighteenth provides links to other websites and resources along with discussions and essays on the long 18th-century and is open to the public. Unlike The 18th-Century Common, it uses more specialized language and seems to be more geared toward an audience that has already done extensive research on the 18th-century, such as academics, and also devotes a fair number of posts to providing information on academic conferences.
Georgian London: Georgian London is a private blog that is self-defined as “the largest body of study on eighteenth century London freely available online.” While it does provide information to the public about 18th-century London in non-specialized, accessible style, it differs from the 18th-Century Common in several ways. First of all, it’s maintained solely by historian Lucy Inglis, so it does not possess the same collaborative element that the 18th-Century Common creates by using contributions from numerous authors from various disciplines. Secondly, it focuses mostly on 18th-century London versus the 18th-century Britain and thus is not as comprehensive. Finally, while the author does state that comments are welcome, the site seems to focus mostly on her interests and studies and does not really encourage user feedback and interaction in the same way that the 18th-Century Common does.
The Early Modern Commons: This site is basically just an aggregator of blogs that discuss the early modern period (1500-1800) and is intended to help readers locate blogs and connect with other people that share their interests in this area. The main difference between the EMC and the 18th-Century Common is that the former only compiles links to other blogs together in a long list, whereas the latter provides information on the blogs and other resources it lists links for.
Similar Projects: EighteenthCentury.org
Expertise Required: Contributions require more extensive knowledge of the field, usually at the graduate level or beyond, but no expertise is required to enjoy and understand the site.
Other Reviews: Kirstyn Leuner’s review for HASTAC “Touring the (Launched) 18th-Century Common”
Your review is no doubt thorough and comprehensive. I think you did a great job describing each of the website’s functions. I had a few questions concerning the details of each page, which you may consider including the answers for when you revise. Concerning the Collections page; does the website make it clear which articles are peer-reviewed and which ones are not? Do they seem to highlight the non-peer-reviewed and jargon-free essays over the academic ones?
Concerning the Forum page: Are the website owners really encouraging people to participate when they haven’t made any posts themselves? Most forums include an “off-topic” or “introduce yourself” sub-forum which creates an informal atmosphere which all can contribute to. Do you think this would be a good addition to the website?
Resources page: At first, I thought you may want to shorten your summaries of the other websites, but I think that highlighting the differences between the websites is important.
A few suggestions on organization; just a few things to think about: You might want to move the summaries of other websites to the end of your review (after your analysis). I think an analysis of the current project is more important than an explanation of its differences with other projects. You may also consider moving parts of your analysis to the ends of your explanation of each page on the website rather than keeping it all until the end. I think either organization works, but as I was reading I kept looking for a value judgement from you, but had to wait until the end to get it.
I meant to ask in class: what do the authors of the website say about Facebook and/or Twitter integration? I noticed the Facebook “like” button was usually at the top of the left sidebar, and kind of large. Most websites have buttons at the bottom of their blog posts and they are usually fairly small and inconspicuous. Is this an attempt to expand the website’s audience?
Again, great job. Thank you for bringing this project to our attention!
I agree with Joseph. I would like to know more about who can post articles, and if the website distinguishes between peer-reviewed articles and… regular articles? It might also be helpful if you told us more about the site’s admins and how willing they are to accept outside help. I guess I just wanted to spend a longer time discussing that part of the site, but I understand you had a lot to cover.
My favorite part of the review was your inclusion of the rival websites. I think a big thing with these DH projects is there are five other projects like it, so the comparison between them and Eighteenth Century Common was very informative.
If you’re going to polish this review later, all I have to suggest is talking to the admins directly about if they want peer-reviewed articles or not, and if it makes a difference in a website that’s supposed to be for “nonacademic readers,” as they say.
Not much to add to Joseph and Rebecca’s comments. I wonder whether the audience issues you bring up aren’t something of a self-fulfilling cycle: sites seeking a broader audience lose academic audiences but can’t reach the broader audience without them. Might the problem be that academia can’t come to nonacademics as readily as nonacademics can enter the academy?