Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Early developments of History Online: Lynn H.Nelson and Donald J.Mabry, 1990-1991

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"As far as I understand, you are suffering from being in advance of your times; you may be fortunate that you haven't been crucified. You can rely on the fact, however, that you've been investing in the future of the profession, and that should become clearer and clearer every year."
Lynn H.Nelson to Donald J.Mabry about early digital history networks online developments in US and EU Universities, the 2nd of September 1991 (Full text of the email published below).

Lynn H. Nelson and Donald J. Mabry's participation to the birth of Digital History on the Web

Donal J. Mabry
My post written in September 2012 to remembering Lynn H. Nelson offered the occasion to meet one of the earlier correspondent of Lynn, Donald J. Mabry, now Emeritus Professor at the Mississippi State University. Don was the creator of the first history FTP (File Transfer Protocol) internet site in 1990 which became later, using the World Wide Web, the Historical Text Archive and is still active today (1990-2013) !


Don was often mentioned by Lynn in his correspondence, especially when Lynn was telling about the early days of their contacts through the History@FINHUTC mailing list and FTP network. Don Mabry wrote an essay in 1991 for Perspectives, the newsmagazine of the AHA (American Historical Association) about this mailing list created by historians for historians since August 1990: Electronic Mail and Historians, 1991, by Donald J. Mabry. Today, the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason has re-published Don Mabry's history of the Historical text Archive (HTA) where Lynn is mentioned as the mentor of the international network which supported Mabry's creation of a history oriented FTP site for exchanging bigger files like historiographical essays. I am now quoting Don Mabry's essay on the early history web:

Lynn H.Nelson
"I officially created an FTP site (RA) in February, 1991. I was able to get some help. I also tried to get others to do the same thing because I realized that one site could not store everything. Lynn Nelson (pictured) volunteered, and was up and running by August, 1991. We began to divide the load. And we were off and running. RA grew by leaps and bounds as I found new things to store there. Some were sent to me by others. Christopher Currie of the Victoria County History project of the University of London sent me an article on medieval carpentry [...] and Art Ferrill sent me several articles on ancient military history, for example. I had to subdivide into directories. By September 1, 1991, the file list on RA had grown considerably. The effort to create other sites began in 1991 but accelerated after Thomas Zielke's important paper on "History at Your Fingertips" and my own paper on anonymous FTP sites, both delivered at the Mid-America Conference in September, 1992 (Thomas was in Germany and I was in Mississippi. We chatted in the background while awaiting our turns), things progressed rapidly. One remembers Valentine Smith and his Soviet archives in Kansas City, Mike McCarthy and his Byrd site at Marshall University, George Welling [...] with Gheta at Groningen in Holland, and others that Lynn mentions below. I spent a lot of time trying to get people to create FTP and/or gopher sites (I discovered gopher sites in 1991 and the WWW in Jerusalem in early 1992."
In the same article, Don Mabry extensively quotes a Lynn H.Nelson's letter about the early history of the history web which completes my former post. Lynn involved international correspondents with Don's early FTP sites and history file exchange system between sites. A European Digital Historian's pioneer like George Welling -quoted by Mabry in this article- became part of the network in 1993. He added his own site GHETA (Groningen Historical Electronic Text Archive in the Netherlands). (Welling wrote the history of the AHC (Association for History and Computing) from a Dutch perspective (L'associazione per la storia ed il calcolo (AHC) su internet: una prospettiva olandese for a special issue dedicated to internet and history in the Italian Journal Memoria e Ricerca that I edited in 1998).

"We have now opended our FTP-site at the Arts Faculty of the University of Groningen. We call it GHETA (Groningen Historical Electronic Text Archive). It is especially meant for all sorts of historians" wrote Welling in 1993. GHETA was also about about the early days of digital history first electronic full-text libraries in Europe, when the web was starting to change our lives. Welling was the Dutch partner of Mabry and Nelson.

Don Mabry with whom I had an email exchange about Lynn and the early history web, commented my former post dedicated to Lynn H.Nelson. I am re-publishing here his comments as an introduction to a Lynn H. Nelson e-mail received in 1991 by Mabry.  I think this is an interesting complement to other Lynn's letters and writings for who is interested in the history of Digital History. (Published thanks to the courtesy of  Donald J. Mabry)

"Lynn and I came to know each other through History@FINHUTC after he had read my article in Perspectives; what a wonderful experience that was because Lynn was bright, ingenious, and amiable. I created the first FTP site for historians but Lynn did more by creating one of his own and then encouraging others to do the same; in other words, he had the vision of a network. My site  eventually became the Historical Text Archive (, his became several sites. We and others had fun being pioneers even when some of us encountered resistance from those who did not understand and fought us. Lynn was a very kind person. He made such a positive difference in so many lives. We only met once when I was visiting the University of Kansas where my younger son was a student but we carried on a lively friendship for years via electronic means. He encouraged me throughout my career, even when I became an associate dean and had to reduce my efforts to further electronic means of doing history. What a man he was!

Don Mabry, Editor, Historical Text Archive
Professor Emeritus of History, Mississippi State University

Creation of a history network of digital historians before the web: "Stuff and Chatter", an email from Lynn H. Nelson (Kansas University) to Donald J. Mabry (Mississippi State University), the 2nd of September 1991

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Date:    Mon, 02 Sep 91 12:10:35 CST
From: "Lynn H. Nelson"
Subject:  Stuff and Chatter.
To: djm1

Hello, Don;

The problem is, of course, to convince the computer illiterate that working on and with telecommunications is something more than a hobby. Since they are themselves afraid to admit their own ignorance of anything more than a word processing program, they cannot admit that more sophisticated use has anything real to do with scholarship or teaching.  My own strategy has been to give them things. My chairman had off-handedly given me permission to do whatever I wanted with technology. He became a convert the day after I told him that I had gotten a terminal connected in the room next to him and that he had been receiving the daily China News Digest for the past two days. I have had to court, or, perhaps better, seduce other faculty with the promise of personal tutorials behind locked doors. Now I have gotten their students on line and can offer to help the faculty to use the system as an aid in directing their students.

How well I am succeeding will be reflected in the assessment of the Salary Board. If I can get the Salary Board to make a positive statement about tele-communications, we can use that as an example perhaps to sway other departments. We really won't get very far unless those people who undertake to learn enough to direct telecommunications development for their departments are recognized and rewarded. As far as I understand, you are suffering from being in advance of your times; you may be fortunate that you haven't been crucified. You can rely on the fact, however, that you've been investing in the future of the profession, and that that should become clearer and clearer every year.

I would be happy to try to establish some principles of integration, provided you retain final say.

1. The main instrument of integration should be a single catalogue listing the texts in ra and malin. Each entry should be separated from those preceding and following by a double hard return. Each should provide a site denominater and access number, such as r42, followed by a note as to whether the file is compressed. It should list the transmission and uncompressed size of the file, the author and title of the piece. When possible, these data should be followed by a short description of the piece containing as many precise terms as possible.

An entry might look like this: m14 zip 10/24K lynn h. nelson lhnelson@ukanvm uses the sources of the "chronicle of san juan de la penya" (1372) to list aragonese and navarrese historical works 1103-1200, particularly pedro jimenez de rada, la carta pergamea, and minstrel songs and poems. concludes that native historiography was primarily oral.

Such entries are expandable, can be searched by PC word processor features, and could be adapted to a more sophisticated search program if the catalogue grew large enough. If successful enough, one might secure a grant for some graduate student aid in adding abstracts to those items lacking such descriptions.

It is unlikely that a union catalogue will ever get ahead of the RAM capacity of PCs, which is growing constantly. It could easily get beyond the 300K daily transmission limit, but, by listing in accession order, the catalogue could be compiled in 300K sections, and everyone would know that the last catalogue contained all the new material.

2. All text materials should be ZIPped, and both sites should keep unZIP programs and full explanations available.

Many of the minority of historians presently using telecommunications are unfamiliar with handling compressed files, but their ignorance is of no benefit to them and the use of compressed files would be a great advantage to the growth of an FTP network dedicated to the archiving of historical materials. It would allow more rapid transfer of data, the use of larger bundles, and -- most important -- would be an important consideration in conserving storage storage space.

3. It would seem most productive to build text collections in accorrdance with IBM standards. I should think that it would be possible to establish a medial site where MAC users could unZIP their data and from which they could download in their normal fashion. In any event, the great majority of users will have access to PCs for sometime in the future, and the trand for the next few years will by to produce porgrams to enhance compatability and increase the access of MACs to PC data.

4. Once our format is established, we should make it our business to encourage others to establish sites to join the network. Part of this encouragement will derive from example, but it would be a great help if we were to have a step-by-step guide from approaching your institutional computer folk to setting up directories and access. It would help us a great deal if we could have a couple  of more members as soon as possible, so we both might think of some enthusiastic people.

5. The last immediate question is what our relationship to Thomas Zielke and HISTORY should be. Such a venture as we propose needs a base of support, preferrably one in which library and computer personnel are well represented. HISTORY meets that need as well or better than other lists, and a FTP network might enhance its stature and membership. Since you will be at the head of this enterprise, however, you will need to work closely with Thomas, most particularly since Thomas might be able to arrange for a couple of European sites to join us. I should imagine that you would be able to define your relative spheres of jurisdiction quite easily.

This thing has already gone on far too long. I'll leave it here for you to consider during what leisure you have. I will turn my thoughts to how to urn my thought to those people from whom we will want to collect materials.

Enjoy the rest of the weekend!



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