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Uncommon Sense


By Joshua Piker · March 22, 2021

Digital History Publishing and You. Yes You.

WMQ 13 min read

By Joshua Piker, Editor of the William and Mary Quarterly

January’s issue of the WMQ has long since arrived at your home or office, is available on JSTOR and Muse, and is up and running on the OI Reader website.  As you’ve no doubt noticed, the issue itself is the answer to the eternal question, “What do rattlesnakes, French lawyers, Thomas Jefferson, and Harlequins have in common?” The issue features work by scholars with graduate training in art history, the law, literature, and American Studies, in addition—of course—to history.  And speaking of graduate training, three of the four article authors first submitted their manuscripts while they were graduate students.  As such, the issue reflects the vibrancy and creativity of the field of early American history.

January’s issue is also the latest to feature a significant digital history component that is hosted on the OI Reader.  Monica Hahn’s article, “Pantomime Indian: Performing the Encounter in Robert Sayer’s Harlequin Cherokee,” centers on a 1772 turn-up book depicting the 1762 Cherokee delegation to London.  Turn-up books were interactive volumes printed, cut, and stitched in such a way that readers could lift flaps to reveal hidden images and thereby advance the story.  As Hahn argues, however, the flaps and pages could be manipulated in ways unintended by the artist and publisher and that reality let eighteenth-century readers experience the Indigenous-European encounter in surprising ways.

The OI Reader offers you a digital version of the turn-up book.  You can turn the pages and lift the flaps, following the story that the volume was designed to tell.  But you can also explore the unintended possibilities that eighteenth-century readers had at their disposal when they held the book in their hands, turning pages and lifting flaps out of sequence.  The digital supplement is freely available to anyone.  If you have a smartphone, tablet, desktop, or laptop and access to the internet, go to oireader.wm.edu, sign in (getting an account is free!), click on the Open WMQ link, and enjoy.

As you do all of that, however, I ask that you consider how your own publication plans might include digital elements.  Most early Americanists, I know, were not trained as digital historians.  That’s changing as graduate programs confront the realities of the academic job market, the possibilities of non-academic positions, and the plethora of options for research, publication, and public outreach.  Still, most of us do not consider ourselves to be digital historians.  Given the intellectual and technical sophistication of that field, fair enough.  But even the most hidebound of us non-DH folks routinely move into the digital realm in our teaching, research, writing, and publishing. 

In the realm of publishing, the OI Reader makes it easy for you—yes, you—to move further still.  If you’re writing an article, think about what that might mean. 

Think, for example, about images in your work.  Do you want the reader of your article to be able to zoom in on them?  see them in color?  compare them without having to flip back and forth?  Do you want to highlight certain things in an image and link them to similar things in other images?  The OI reader allows you to do all of that within your article.

Or think about maps.  The questions that I asked about images in re: zooming in, color versions, and comparability all apply here, of course.  But think, too, about animated sequences of maps to show changes over time and space.  Or interactive maps that allow readers to call forth different pieces of information, related images, or documents.  The OI reader allows you to do all of that within your article.

Or think about how you might incorporate, compare, and put into motion—as it were—tables and graphs.  Or videos.  Or sound clips.  Or think about non-linear presentation of evidence and argument.  The OI reader allows you to do all of that within your article. 

The OI Reader can do all of that, and in fact the journal’s authors have already done most of that in one article or another.  And if you read the WMQ regularly, you know this, even if you haven’t seen the various digital elements itemized in one place. 

What you may well not be aware of, however, is that the authors of those articles didn’t deliver perfect, out-of-the-box, plug-and-play digital projects that we simply slapped onto the OI Reader site. 


No, what authors provide, time and again, are the things that you already have on your hard-drive: images and maps, tables and graphs, research and arguments.  Their projects didn’t require them to write the code.  Or deal with developers.  Or pay staff salaries.  Or hire freelancers. 

Of course, if they want to do any or all of that, then they absolutely can.  It’s always a treat to work with highly trained, fully staffed-up digital historians who also happen both to be experts in early American history and to be working on projects that are fully funded by other sources.  Or, rather, I imagine that it would be.  I haven’t actually met any, and I don’t really expect to.  We all need help with something—expertise, staff time, money, access to technology, and on and on.  DH is grounded in collaboration, and the DH publishing that we do with the OI Reader is undergirded by that reality. 

And so, for now and into the foreseeable future, the OI staff and Scott Hale and his Colour Outside team—the company of developers that we hire—design and build the articles’ digital elements in conversation with the article’s author(s) and myself.  And the costs are covered by the OI thanks to generous funding from the Lapidus Initiative. 

As all of that suggests, once your project is accepted for publication, most of us have the necessary raw materials—see above, “already … on your hard-drive”—to take advantage of the digital options that the OI Reader offers.

Of course, when you think of the OI Reader, you likely think of articles that make extensive use of digital techniques: Simon Newman’s wonderful born-digital exploration of Jamaica’s African-dominated social and physical world, or Rachel Wheeler and Sarah Eyerly’s exemplary investigation of the past and present resonances of Mohican hymns.  Many of us, though, will never publish such a piece.  That’s just not the sort of work that we’re doing.  So, we might admire the scholarship in these digital articles and appreciate the ways in which the digital elements allow the authors both to realize their vision and expand their audience.  But those articles aren’t truly models that all early Americanists will emulate. 

The supplement that we’ve published for Monica Hahn’s essay, though, is a better example of what we all can strive for.  Yes, the supplement is a bit showy, I guess.  (The color images look good, and the flipping-and-turning features—note that little page-turning-at-the-corner thing that the developers cooked up—are really eye-catching.)  But the article is just a standard WMQ article.  It was published in the standard print and digital (JSTOR, Muse, OI Reader) forms.  It came in over the transom—I didn’t recruit it—and went through the standard processes, first peer review and revision, and then fact-checking and copyediting. 

And then Hahn and I started talking about the possibility of using the OI Reader to do something with Sayer’s turn-up book ….  A few hundred emails later, and lots of hard work by the Colour Outside team, and voila. 

My hope is that, going forward, I’ll have those sorts of conversations with authors earlier in the process.  My hope, in fact, is that authors will start thinking about the OI Reader—and other digital platforms—when they’re designing their projects and considering how best to publish their findings.  These tools are out there, my friends, and there are very, very few early Americanists who wouldn’t benefit from the occasional and judicious deployment of them.  Doing so will enrichen our scholarship and enhance its reach and impact. 

So, if you’re an early Americanist thinking about perhaps sending a manuscript to the WMQ, consider how the OI Reader can be used to advance your project.

If there might be a way, or if you’re not sure, or if you just want to chat about possibilities and options, drop me an email (japiker@wm.edu).  I’m happy to email/talk/zoom with you about anything ranging from your most pie-in-the-sky idea to the nitty-gritty details of the submission and peer review processes for your particular project.

The OI reader is a powerful tool for doing the sort of work that early Americanists do.  Why not think about taking it for a spin?

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