You throw a stone into a deep pond. Splash. The sound is big, and it reverberates throughout the surrounding area. What comes out of the pond after that? All we can do is stare at the pond, holding our breath.

Haruki Murakami, 1Q84

What is the future of architectural history? The very question embodies an inherent contradiction, since historians are particularly skilled at studying the past; our aptitudes for predicting the future are far less honed. Nevertheless, important anniversaries invite introspection, reflection on our past, and speculation about our future. What pressures are coming to bear on our field that are most likely to cause significant change? Who will be our audiences in the decades to come? How will they find our work, and what will be the forms of our scholarship? In what follows, I examine three aspects of the architectural historian’s practice, casting stones into the pond of our field to see, as Murakami writes, what might come out of it after that.

Research: How Will We Conduct Our Work?

Until very recently, architectural historians generally conducted research in mostly the same manner as their colleagues across the humanities, which is to say, they did so largely working alone in libraries, museums, archives, and special collections. The single factor differentiating our work from that of scholars studying largely text-based or pictorially based subjects was our need for on-site investigation. Examining architectural, urban, and landscape spaces themselves has always been—and will no doubt continue to be—a crucial distinguishing aspect of our research culture, and there is little doubt that we will continue to perform solitary investigations with a range of primary and secondary sources.

However much our methods of inquiry may remain constant, the archive, the library, and even the museum have changed. What does “the archive” now mean? In our current era of increasingly massive amounts of digitized material (also sometimes referred to as “data”) made available online and frequently mediated through various forms that are both visible and opaque, the dimensions and definitions of “the archive” have quite literally shifted. Architectural archives were once (as some still remain) closed and carefully protected domains. Their doors opened for a limited number of scholars who had the means (financial, intellectual, social) to achieve various ends. In addition to mastering the skills required in advance of archival work (obtaining grants or fellowship funds to travel to the archives, perhaps mastering foreign languages, receiving necessary mentoring, and achieving the professional and social networks required to gain access to often heavily guarded collections in some locations), scholars who conducted such work had to be able to move to often distant collections and then to live for relatively long periods of time near the archives to study their contents. Much of this has changed: the structure of the U.S. academy has shifted along with global economies, making this kind of investment increasingly difficult for all but a few very fortunate students and scholars. Yet archives and special collections have been and are continuing to be digitized, made more publicly accessible. The ramifications of this are multiple.

First, possibilities now exist for shifting scales of analysis. We currently have access to very large amounts of evidence (data) that may require sophisticated digital tools and multiple hands to manage, read, analyze, and communicate findings. In turn, the availability and manageability of these large data sets make possible new modes of inquiry. In short, architectural historians can now ask and expect to answer previously unfathomable or unmanageable research questions because they can avail themselves of digital technologies that make possible the analysis of formerly overwhelming amounts of evidence. Scholars interested in this newer world of available “big data” sets (massive digitized archives and libraries, for example, or very large collections of digitized images) are thus inherently required to engage in collaboration with librarians, computer scientists and programmers, designers, and specialists in data curation (among others) who may all need to work together to produce new knowledge. The model of the lone architectural historian pursuing her work may not be replaced, but newer models of collaborative research practice that are based in the “distributive networks of expertise” that tend to characterize digital humanities projects may rest alongside more traditional models.1

Collaboration is already creating and will continue to create new models of research and authoring practices. Some of these are complex, but others remain relatively simple even as they give shape to new models. For some time now, scholars have been availing themselves of the possibilities presented by group authoring platforms that stretch geographical limits and facilitate individuals’ abilities to perform collaborative thinking and writing. The open annotation tools that permit scholars with shared expertise working in multiple locations to both simultaneously and asynchronically create detailed, analytical commentary in place on any kind of web-based digital object also encourage new forms of collaborative practices.2 If multiple experts in a single knowledge domain can examine and annotate the same digitized image, artifact, or text from multiple locations, we will surely see the emergence of a new kind of mediated archive and new kinds of knowledge production that can be shared across time and space with potentially very large audiences.

The collaborative demands of the digital give rise, then, to new communities of scholars whose practices necessarily take shape according to emerging problems that may place less value on the independent, singular scholarly product and greater value on the multiauthored and multilayered artifacts that result from complexly collaborative research.

Publishing: How Will We Communicate about Our Work?

Humanities publishing is changing again/still. Nearly ten years have passed since Hilary Ballon and Mariët Westermann authored their signal report Art History and Its Publications in the Electronic Age. In this 2006 study, they informed readers that “traditional solutions are failing, but we do not see a crisis. In our view digital technology is opening new opportunities and posing transitional problems that are soluble.”3 Responding to the increasing costs of publishing high-quality print monographs in art and architectural history, and to the lack of available options for publishing multimedia content, Ballon and Westermann recommended the launching of digital extensions to existing scholarly print journals, as well as the development of additional electronic platforms that could make museum and other publications “more productive sites for scholarly collaboration.” Much of this has come to pass in the intervening years. The 2010 launch of the JSAH Online provided scholars in our field with a pioneering site for the publication of extended, long-form scholarly articles that could include multimedia supplements to the print versions. Meanwhile, university presses and libraries continue to create new opportunities for innovative scholarly communication.

The pace of change has been quite dramatic over the past decade.4 Still, the unfortunate reality is that many university presses cannot afford to publish the kinds of print monographs most architectural historians either wish for or require. Unless authors provide significant subvention funds, presses are often unwilling or unable to publish print versions of their books, and this places scholarly communication in a precarious position, one in which determinations about publication are potentially subject more to market forces than to considerations of merit and scholarly excellence. The obvious solution, of course, is to turn to digital publication, where the cost of publishing numerous high-quality images within a scholarly text is significantly reduced. Even if the costs related to copyright permissions may remain high, digital publication at least reduces some printing/publishing costs, just as it also reduces the costs associated with distribution.

Thus, we have entered an era of exploration into what some have called postprint modes of publishing, one in which a variety of kinds of “publishers” participate and a wide variety of new and experimental products can emerge. As a result, publishing is likely to become a far more diverse set of operations, located or hosted in a range of settings that may be outside but aligned with the university press, the university library, or even with various academic centers and institutes—locations that, importantly, have the potential to ensure the long-term preservation of and access to content that is crucial to the world of scholarship.5

This is not to say that the high-quality print monograph and/or journal article will disappear, but rather that various electronic platforms already make possible new forms of publication that can serve as substitutes for or companions to print, depending on the requirements and aspirations of the author. Moreover, new content management and authoring platforms such as Scalar and Omeka afford multiauthored and multimedia texts that also permit various modes or “paths” of reading, such that multiple, nonlinear arguments can be contained within a single publication.6 And these platforms can also be used to both author and publish multimedia supplements to traditional, university press print volumes. Publications created in this way are both “expressive and performative in and of themselves,” using “design and multiple modes of expression to put forth an argument, often breaking down the reader/writer dichotomy in new ways.”7

As digital developments make possible new kinds of scholarly production, we are seeing the increasing publication of annotated/mediated archives, enriched scholarly editions, data visualizations (including sophisticated maps, models, and the like), and robust online exhibits produced as both scholarship and public outreach, creating new curatorial opportunities in the process. And as this happens, civic-minded scholars are already sharing their archives as well as their scholarship. As they amass large amounts of digitized data, images, and archival documents that they have mediated through their creation of associated metadata, annotation, or other forms, they are including them in their online publications, and they are finding ways to store and make accessible collected data that are either raw or partially processed (tagged, cataloged, or manipulated to make them more accessible and understandable). Thus, the line between object of study and publication may grow narrower as innovative forms of publication advance.8

In addition to these newer forms of scholarly communication, then, we are witnessing the emergence of new notions about what constitutes a publishable product. Is a publication the final, ultimate version of a text, brought forth for public viewing only after a stringent process of peer review and multiple rounds of author revisions? Or might we instead consider multiple forms of publication that exist at various stages in the life of a research project? Often referred to as “digital versioning,” this concept hinges on the notion of publication as an ongoing process, as a series of iterations that can be made publicly accessible or that can be limited to defined audiences of readers, permitting greater levels of open peer review, commentary, collaboration, and experimentation.9 The digital versions of a project might also take various forms over the life of the work, such that one interim phase may exist as multimedia content, and later phases include textual exposition.

At least one thing is certain to remain the same: the importance of peer review. Even if it is conducted in new ways, no matter how we publish our work or what we publish, peer review is essential to the maintenance of the highest standards of scholarship. New possibilities for various forms of peer review include “crowd review,” in which larger numbers of experts provide constructive critique—reviewers who may possess relevant expertise and who can therefore contribute important and novel suggestions for revisions that might never have occurred with fewer eyes reviewing the work.

As new forms of scholarly communication continue to evolve and become readily available, and as they continue to both challenge and shift the definition and meaning of the term publication, it is increasingly likely that we will seek and develop new forms of scholarly production that will likewise make our work available to new and potentially even larger audiences. The open access movement is rapidly gaining momentum, and many scholars are seeking ways to publish their work on the open web where anyone with Internet access can read it. This trend has the potential to change our field more than almost anything else we might do. Such publishing will expand the audience for our work exponentially.

Audience: Who Will Read Our Work?

In 1942 Turpin Bannister could speak for most architectural historians when he wrote that the presumed primary audience for their work consisted of students intending to become architects, and that the historians’ primary obligation to those students was to help them understand the answers to basic questions about well-known architectural monuments: who built them, where, when, why, and how?10 Just half a century later, the situation had changed markedly, so that Mark Jarzombek could write in 1999:

As architectural history (and by that term, I include “theory”) is being measured more and more by the scholarly protocols of the humanities, it becomes ever more remote from the concerns of architectural practice. The very success of post-modernist intellection forces history and theory away from the very thing that they were intended to reform, with the result that architecture, floating free from intellectual self-reflections, gravitates all the more easily toward the one-dimensional world of professional practice. This means that the present generation of scholars is now forced to deal with the problem of how to interrelate the differing and increasingly contradictory locations of architectural history.11

Jarzombek and Bannister shared the underlying assumption that architectural history’s natural place was in schools of architecture, where it played a key role in architectural education, and that architecture students studying to become professionals were the historians’ most natural presumed audience. Jarzombek wrote presciently about what he called the “territoriality” problem architectural history faced at the millennium’s turn—a problem he rightly predicted would become more acute: namely, that as it became an increasingly autonomous discipline, standing largely apart from architectural education, architectural history would have to define a new disciplinary location to “reclaim history’s homelessness in the disciplinary politics of modern thinking.” He also correctly forecast the price that would be paid by many academic architectural historians teaching in schools of professional practice, noting that they would be forced to either “betray the field dear to them in the name of one type of criticality, or defend the root anti-intellectualism of architecture.”12

Perhaps the very nature of our focus as academic architectural historians has inclined us toward a greater degree of disciplinary vulnerability than we might experience if we were historians teaching required Western civilization courses to scores of undergraduates every year in colleges and universities nationwide. Instead, ours is a specialized realm; our educational influence has been mostly confined to departments of art history and to professional schools offering environmental design degrees. Within the university, then, our sphere of influence can become still more narrowly circumscribed if either of those two natural student constituencies wanes, or if curricular shifts diminish the role of architectural history courses, as they certainly have in some architecture schools over recent decades. The steady demise of the required yearlong global survey course in even some of the most renowned professional degree-granting programs in the country demonstrates a profound shift in curricular values away from the humanistic branches of architectural education in favor of increasingly vocational modes of professional training. If we experience a certain collective anxiety about our discipline’s future within the academy, then, it is not without reason.

Moreover, architectural historians are as subject as their peers across the humanities to both the disciplinary shifts taking place throughout the academy and the dropping numbers of students enrolled in almost any major that does not apparently lead to instant employment in a highly remunerative career. The blows suffered by the profession of architecture during the economic recession that began in 2008 were not lost on many college-bound students and their parents. If enrollments remained steady in some prestigious private graduate programs, they are more likely to have dropped in the large, multiple-degree programs in public colleges and universities nationwide. Perhaps, then, we must increasingly seek our audiences beyond the walls of art history departments and schools that offer professional design degrees. Perhaps we have—at least to some extent—been doing so all along.

Instead of thinking about our primary audience as Turpin Bannister did—as the student in a professional design program—architectural, landscape, and urban historians might focus on the increasing opportunities to cultivate substantial audiences of interested students and scholars across the humanities, sciences, and beyond. Despite the frustrations we may have experienced over the past fifteen to twenty years as our colleagues across the humanities discussed the impact of the spatial turn on their scholarship—a turn that seemed to be largely without any reference to the decades of outstanding scholarship produced by scholars in any field that is actually and deeply rooted in analyses of space—we can and should take advantage of the still considerable interest that exists across our campuses in the spatial as a framework for historical analysis. We have much to offer because our work is of deep significance for questions both applied and abstract—there is simply no denying that cities and their constituent parts (buildings, landscapes) are among the grandest of the research challenges of our time. But to find and engage those audiences, we may have to think differently about who we are, reconfiguring ourselves less as members of a department or college and more as citizens/scholars of the university at large. Some universities and institutions are better structured than others to support this kind of activity, bound as they are to the traditional strictures of the disciplinarily defined department. To make the necessary connections, we will in some cases need to undertake imaginative efforts with willing colleagues in disciplines and departments relatively far from our own; this will require new forms of academic engagement and perhaps new forms of pedagogical labor, such as greater levels of cross-disciplinary team teaching, working to get our courses listed across colleges and departments, and establishing minor fields or certificate programs in our areas for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) majors.

For all our growth, for all the exciting ways in which architectural history has become a complex, varied, and intellectually rewarding field, many of our colleagues across the humanities retain somewhat outdated understandings of our endeavor. Even our colleagues in history—scholars with whom we should share many intellectual and methodological affinities—frequently regard our work as relatively unchanged from its shape in the nineteenth century. Many of our colleagues in the humanities and members of the general public still mistakenly imagine that we narrowly focus our studies on the forms and styles of buildings, or that we are exclusively preoccupied with writing biographies of particular designers and the histories of their careers. If we are having trouble reaching some of our most closely affiliated scholarly colleagues, we are surely facing some challenges in our efforts to engage the public in a more sophisticated, sustained, and robust set of dialogues. We have so much more to offer the humanities and the interested general public than we are currently understood to offer. If architectural historians are frequently among the first to discover new methods and approaches to historical inquiry that are of signal importance, we are often the last to be acknowledged for those discoveries. This is important not as a matter of credit where credit is due but as a matter of intellectual engagement. Changing the ways our colleagues understand our work will take some effort, but the results will be an architectural history for everyone and, ultimately, increased levels of public understanding about the significance and value of the built environment as it structures everyday life.

As I have urged elsewhere, it is also time for historians of the built environment to stake a renewed claim to public intellectual life and to develop a new (or in some cases renewed) conception of our work in the expanded field of the public humanities.13 The best way for us to achieve that is by taking advantage of the emerging forms of scholarly communication that permit our work to reach new and expanded audiences that extend far beyond the students of Turpin Bannister’s era. All we have to do is cast some stones into the water and hold our breath.

Notes

1.

Northwestern University’s Center for Scholarly Communication and Digital Curation has developed an excellent guide to digital humanities, available at http://sites.northwestern.edu/guidetodh (accessed 16 Dec. 2014). On this site, they call attention to the distributed model of scholarship I am citing here.

2.

For an example of a platform that permits this kind of open annotation, see the hypothes.is website at http://hypothes.is.

3.

Hilary Ballon and Mariët Westermann, executive summary of Art History and Its Publications in the Electronic Age (Houston: Rice University Press and CLIR, 2006), http://cnx.org/contents/33c57596-5e5b-4081-ae62-9ee978e188c3@1.6:2 (accessed 7 Sept. 2014).

4.

For a series of excellent, in-depth studies on the issues related to scholarly communication as they have emerged over the past decade, see the various reports produced for the Scholarly Communication Institute sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and hosted at the University of Virginia from 2003 through 2013. The reports can be found on the SCI website: http://uvasci.org. I was fortunate to be able to participate in several of those SCI events, and I gratefully acknowledge the work of the organizers, particularly Richard Lucier, Abby Smith Rumsey, Bethany Nowviskie, Diane Walker, and Karin Wittenborg, as well as the many scholars who participated in those conversations. In particular, I wish to acknowledge the influence of Brett Bobley, Dan Cohen, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Anne Helmreich, Tara McPherson, Pauline Saliga, and John Unsworth on my understanding of all matters related to the digital humanities.

5.

This is a key differentiating factor that scholars must bear in mind when considering new forms of publication. Publications on independently or commercially hosted blogs, websites, and social media are frequently unprotected when it comes to issues of long-term preservation and access. Although the preservation of much digital content remains a significant challenge, universities are better positioned than most institutions, and have greater incentive, to work toward long-term preservation of content, because such preservation is central to their mission and they possess staff expertise for this endeavor.

6.

For more on Scalar, see http://scalar.usc.edu; on Omeka, see http://omeka.org.

7.

“A Guide to Digital Humanities: Values & Methods,” DH@NU, http://sites.northwestern.edu/guidetodh/values-methods (accessed 16 Dec. 2014).

8.

I wish to acknowledge my University of Illinois colleagues Maria Bonn and Megan Senseney in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science for sharing with me their knowledge about these emerging forms of publication. I also wish to thank University of Illinois librarian John Wilkin for advancing my understanding of emerging models of scholarly publication.

9.

For a fuller explanation of digital versioning in publication, see Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s writings on this subject, particularly her book Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy (New York: New York University Press, 2011).

10.

Turpin Bannister, “The Contributions of Architectural History to the Development of the Modern Student Architect,” JSAH 2, no. 2 (Apr. 1942), 5–13.

11.

Mark Jarzombek, “The Disciplinary Dislocations of (Architectural) History,” JSAH 58, no. 3 (Sept. 1999), 489–90.

12.

Ibid., 491.

13.

The final two paragraphs are excerpted from my plenary address “Architectural Histories and Architectural Humanities,” delivered at the annual conference of the Society of Architectural Historians, Austin, Texas, 14 Apr. 2014. For the full text of the address, see http://www.sah.org/publications-and-research/sah-blog/sah-blog/2014/06/23/architectural-history-and-architectural-humanities (accessed 16 Dec. 2014).