Cheap publishing technologies and history

Hats off to columnist Robert Landauer for a piece on how cheap publishing technology is changing received history.

What it means for us is that it is much harder to build Soviet styles of consensus on Civil War controversies when surrounded by "talk-back" devices - technology that did not exist 40 years ago when Civil War inquiry became severely constrained by the American Heritage magazine's editorial decisions.

As recently as four years ago, the consensus-driven editor of a popular Civil War slick wrote, in rejecting a friend's article, that no one arguing a certain general's military competence would ever be published in his magazine. Nor was this a furtive message. The exponent of this policy felt not the slightest twinge of shame in the matter.

Of course, more than technology is needed to fill the holes and level the ground; skilled argument, judicious handling of evidence, exhaustive research are more important than fresh perspectives and new opinions. Ignorant waves of Civil War bookbuyers will continue to stream into the nonfiction field from the film and fiction side, polluting publishers' standards by offering easy bucks for bad books.

Nevertheless, this is certainly the dawn of a golden age for enthusiasts who have the will and the knowledge to correct errors and contribute to the sum of ACW knowledge. The Official Records are online. So are Lincoln's papers. When we in ACW history get to the equivalent of music file swapping on shared networks, Civil War research will have reached a point where our 20th Century standard works will look half quaint and half foolish.