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Digital History and Citing Sources: The ‘Wild West’ Mentality


February 2, 2015 by rjordan10

While all of the readings from this week were interesting and thought provoking, there was one that stood out to me, and that was chapter seven from the Cohen and Rozenzweig book, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web. The chapter, entitled “owning the past,” was particularly relevant, not just because of the Atlanta Beltline research projects we are working on, but also because a lot of historians are going through the same thing that we are dealing with in the project: copyright laws, and how the translate to content on the internet. For non-digital sources, copyright laws have been around for a fairly long time, and while they do change sometimes, they are fairly well established. But, for things on the internet, it is more of a ‘wild west’ mentality regarding a lot of the content out there, since while much of it does have copyright laws that apply to it, there is also a lot of content that has none, making it difficult for scholars, or anyone who might want to cite it for a project, etc. In Cohen and Rozenzweig’s book, they mention this (p.196), and how it can make things tricky for people, since nobody wants to get in trouble for copyright infringement. One of the things they mention is that if someone uses a photo (p.196), and doesn’t know how to cite it, it can lead to problems. However, today there are more and more sites that help people to cite things, like Zotero, which was covered in our last class. Since the book was published in 2006, I can only imagine that the next edition will have (at the very least) a small section on citation websites like them.



  1. kdaly3 says:

    While I agree that there will eventually be some consensus as to how to cite information on the web, we also don’t know what other evolutions may come about due to rapidly changing technology, so it could be likely that there can never be a truly set standard for citations on the web. We may be struggling with the “Wild West” mentality even into the future. However, that is just speculation on my part; I definitely agree that the digital resources we are struggling with today will be, if only partially, solved as to how to correctly handle citations and copyright.

  2. nsakas1 says:

    The amount of information, and the diversity of information the web provides does make referencing much of it a nightmare at times. However, as the old adage suggests, in some cases some is better than none. I am not advocating that researchers should not learn the proper techniques for citing any source they wish to use, but much content on the web is outright stolen without any regards for citation, much less incorrect citations. Perhaps in the future there will be better formats and styles for citing online content. In the mean time perhaps some form of citation is better than all out theft.

  3. Susan Prillaman says:

    Color me cranky, but I am at a loss to understand how citing digital content is that much different from any other. The major style guides include examples of website citations and, unless one’s underlying intent is to take someone else’s work as one’s own–an issue certainly not limited to digital content–it should be sufficient to give credit and provide enough information that a reader can find the original material. Receiving criticism that a citation isn’t in a perfectly scholarly form would be small-minded on the part of the critic and should be a minor concern to the author.

    The issue of copyright is, at least in my mind, a different issue, one of compensation rather than credit.

  4. Adina Langer says:

    Becky, I think you raise a question most relevant to the problem of “orphan works” that we discussed in class last week. Many sources on the Web are not too challenging to site, since style guides have been updated with standards for Web pages, blog posts, and digital repositories. However, images visible on the Web without proper citation or without known provenance can lead to some tricky detective work which won’t always result in success. Is it safe to use historical “evidence” found on the Web without knowing everything about where it came from?

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