Electronic Resources in the History of Psychology

Christopher D. Green
York University

Toronto, Canada

2003 by Christopher D. Green
To be published in Svensk Neuropsykologi.

I have spent some of my time over the past several years exploring ways in which the internet can benefit learning and research in the history of psychology. It began in the autumn of 1995 when I set up listservers and websites for Cheiron: The International Society for the History of Behavioral and Social Sciences, the History Division of the American Psychological Association, and the History & Philosophy Section of the Canadian Psychological Association. Now, almost a decade later, this is commonplace for scholarly societies, but then it seemed revolutionary because it brought the membership together for ongoing discussion between the annual conventions as we had never seen before, making the organizations stronger.

Over the Christmas holiday in 1997, frustrated with my periodic efforts to get campus printshops to correctly and affordably reproduce copies of readings for my history of psychology courses, I decided to post a few primary source documents on a website myself, so that my students could access them conveniently at no cost. This little project soon grew into the "Classics in the History of Psychology" (CHP) website (psychclassics.yorku.ca), once I realized the potential it had to bring difficult-to-find original works not only to my own students, but to people all over the world, especially those whose local libraries do not carry the materials to which I have ready access in Toronto. CHP now holds over 200 articles, chapters, and books, as well as links to over 200 more at other websites. It has received more than five million page hits from over 100 countries in the five years of its existence.

Sometime in 2000 I became aware of open-access electronic archives for scientific research, especially the one Stevan Harnad's set up for cognitive science called CogPrints (cogprints.ecs.soton.ac.uk). In February 2001 I attended a conference for the Open Archives Initiative conference in Washington DC, where I learned that CogPrints was implemented on a freely-available software package called Eprints (a play on the phrase "electronic preprint"). The Eprints program allows anyone (who is a bit of a "UNIX-head") to setup an electronic archive suited to one's own intellectual predilections. Since mine were concerned with the history and theory of psychology, I used Eprints to (convince my local computer gurus to) found the History and Theory of Psychology Eprint Archive (HTP Prints, htpprints.yorku.ca), which was launched in the summer of 2001.

HTP Prints turned out to be quite different from my earlier web ventures because I now had to convince others to supply the content for the site rather than doing it all myself (with the help of editorial assistants, of course, to whom I am eternally grateful!). To my surprise, many of my colleagues apparently regarded electronic publication -- especially when not done under the watchful, time-consuming, and expensive eye of a corporate publisher -- as a frightening prospect. Surely, I thought, the deal scholars had struck with publishers back in the mists of time in order to create academic journals was a mere bargain of convenience -- "they" had the printing machines and "we" needed access to them. Now that the internet had freed "us" from our dependence on "their" machines, "we" were no longer hamstrung by the (typically economically-driven) constraints "they" imposed. But a little like victims of Stockholm syndrome, many of my colleagues seemed to have acquired a kind of affection for their intellectual "captors," and so balked at the new opportunity, expressing all sorts of unexpected arcane concerns. Sometimes it seemed as though the very idea of having their work available to the whole wide world rather than to only an exclusive cadre of a few thousand with privileged access to academic journals sparked a kind of giddy fear, as though I had invited them to strip naked in public. For about a year the number of submissions to HTP Prints was smaller than I had hoped for -- about one every 10 days. The amount of use by readers of the site, however, steadily increased. Clearly there was demand, if only people would supply the desired product. By the beginning of 2003, however, it was becoming too obvious to too many that much larger audiences could be reached by posting one's research on the web than by publishing it in an academic journal alone. As a result, the number of submissions to HTP Prints rose sharply and, in response, the number of users began to explode, from fewer than 8000 page hits in January 2003 to more than 16,000 in May. I expect that the HTP Prints site will receive nearly 200,000 page hits in total this year alone.

We have only just begun, however. Next, I aim to use electronic technology to move beyond the boundaries of books and journal article as formats for the presentation of scholarly research. For instance, I have just produced a digital video documentary on the public controversy surrounding the hiring of the developmental psychologist James Mark Baldwin at Toronto in 1889 (http://www.yorku.ca/christo/papers/pubs.htm#video). More significantly, however, I am now working to embed this documentary within a website-like interface that includes not just mere references, but also full transcripts of primary source documents relevant to the topic, reprints of previously-published journal articles on related topics, and possibly photos and additional video shorts -- a kind of "scholarly complex" that goes far beyond the capacities of the article or the book. I hope soon to bring this kind of multimedia approach to a topic of somewhat wider appeal -- the founding of American Functionalism (e.g., Dewey, Angell, Cattell, Thorndike, etc.) in the 1890s.

I encourage everyone to attempt innovations like this on their own. The journal article was invented essentially to address problems inherent in the reproduction and circulation of letters, the main way in which scholars and scientists communicated with each other up to that time. Useful as it has been over the past couple of centuries, the journal article format is not some sort of ideal. It was dictated by the particular needs and constraints of a particular historical era. That era is now over. The need for breadth of dissemination and for richness of expression is now greater, and the technological constraints on achieving these goals are now fewer. The technology currently available to almost all scholars and scientists enables us to develop and transmit our work to our colleagues and to the public at large in ways that those who invented the scholarly journal could not have imagined. It is incumbent upon to take up this new challenge.