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Rick Perlstein’s Link Rot

I am a big fan of Rick Perlstein. I love his Nixonland, not least for the way it changed the way I think about midterm elections, and I look forward to reading The Invisible Bridge.

I feel sorry that Perlstein must waste even a moment dealing with the absurd charges of copyright infringement presented by Craig Shirley, an author who apparently has no understanding of either copyright law or the norms of scholarship. Shirley’s claims could be sillier only if he sued for “$2,0000,000,000 (two trillion dollars).”

That said, I share Shirley’s frustration with the decision by Perlstein and his publisher, Simon and Schuster, not to include the footnotes in the printed text of The Invisible Bridge . Instead, Perlstein has posted the notes only on his website.

Yes, it sounds like a good idea. As John K. Wilson writes, “Online citations are a perfectly legitimate means of sourcing—in fact, Perlstein’s approach is superior to conventional footnoting because it allows readers to click on many of his sources and read the original work themselves, which is hardly the tactic of a plagiarist.”

The problem is that such citations can vanish quickly. Consider, in particular, this claim at the start of the Notes section of Nixonland: “A continually updated hypertext version of these notes will be available at my Web site,, so that readers, wherever possible, can explore Nixonland‘s source materials on their own.” (p. 750) Now try to find that “continually updated hypertext version” at It isn’t there, at least not anywhere I could find it.

The printed edition of Nixonland includes the notes, so the disappearance of an electronic version of those notes isn’t a disaster for that book. But since the online notes are the only version of the references supporting The Invisible Bridge, their disappearance would greatly diminish the value of an important work.

I faced this challenge on a smaller level myself, when I learned that for production reasons, it would be impossible to incorporate footnotes to a new preface into the existing notes for The Great Society Subway. Fortunately, the wonderful librarians at George Mason University offered to host an electronic version of the notes for the preface to the paperback edition of my book. I am confident that the Mason Archival Repository Service will be serving data long after has expired.

I suggest, then, that Perlstein not rely on his own website, but instead archive copies of the footnotes with libraries that are committed to preserving digital scholarship.

Twenty-five states offer academic exceptions to FOIA laws

In a recent law journal article, Ryan Fairchild helpfully compares the freedom of information laws of all 50 states to see how they might govern requests for material from public universities. He finds that Alaska, Pennsylvania, and Georgia have the best laws in place.

[Ryan C. Fairchild. “Giving Away the Playbook: How North Carolina’s Public Records Law Can Be Used to Harass, Intimidate, and Spy.” North Carolina Law Review 91 (2013): 2117–2178. h/t Rebecca Tushnet]
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Happy goldfish bowl to you, Professor

Over the past three years, various activists have filed public records or freedom of information requests for the e-mail of professors at public universities. In March 2011, the Republican Party of Wisconsin requested some of the e-mails of Professor William Cronon of the University of Wisconsin. Shortly thereafter, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy asked for similar e-mails sent among faculty and staff at public universities in Michigan. Then the American Tradition Institute sought the e-mail correspondence of Michael Mann, formerly of the University of Virginia.

At the time, the tactic was new, and experts speculated on the potential effects on academic freedom. However, those ideas remained largely speculative. The University of Wisconsin withheld messages sent to and from Cronon if they were “records related to professional organizations” or “intellectual communications among scholars.” And a Virginia court held that Mann’s e-mails were exempt from disclosure based on Virginia’s exclusion of “Data, records or information of a proprietary nature produced or collected by or for faculty or staff of public institutions of higher education…in the conduct of or as a result of study or research on medical, scientific, technical or scholarly issues.

These decisions limited the impact of the requests. But two more recent cases in states with less nuanced public records laws show how little privacy faculty at public universities may expect.
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STEM Focus Crowds Out Humanities in College. Also, Suez Canal Opens

The colleges of the country are sinking in tone, lower & lower, in accordance with the opinion & manners of the people—I mean of what is considered even the best educated portion of the people. Practical ability, physical science, knowledge that may promote success in the great & absorbing ambition of all—making money—are now immensely prized & preferred to literature, philosophy, & art. Parents wish to see their sons successful men of business, not scholars & gentlemen, & to gratify this desire the colleges are reducing their standard of excellence & admitting the natural sciences to the foremost place among the studies prescribed.

Sidney George Fisher, 18 December 1869

A Philadelphia Perspective: The Diary of Sidney George Fisher, edited by Nicholas B. Wainwright (Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1967), 556.

My Quirky Workflow

Maybe it’s that time of summer, but historians seem to be thinking about the tools they use to conduct research. The AHA has set up a Pinterest board called A Digital Tool Box for Historians, my new colleague Stephen Robertson has posted an essay about moving to digital sources, and Nate Kogan has written about his use of Zotero, Word, Scrivener, and Papers 2, though he tweets that I showed him something of Filemaker Pro back in the day.

I figure I’ll throw my hat in with a description of my current process, ugly as it is. I offer this information both to offer and seek help, since I think I am doing some things right but could be doing other things more efficiently.
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Mason Has a Vision of Freedom

Back in February, I fretted that the draft vision document for George Mason University did not list freedom as one our core institutional characteristics, as one of our values, or as one of our commitments.

Happily, this has been corrected. The latest draft statement of Values proclaims:

We Honor Freedom of Thought and Expression. We protect the freedom of all members of our community to seek truth and express their views.

That’s better.