The policies of World History Archives

By Haines Brown, 17 October 2010

If you have any questions or observations, please do write me at:

This project had to be put aside in lieu of another, which can be seen at the Historical Materialism site.

Philosophical presuppositions

The purpose of the World History Archives site is to support those who would teach or learn about world history by making available to them over 12,000 documents.

The coherence of the site results from its implementing the social perspective of the modern working class. Suggestions that we can somehow jump out of our skin to adopt a metaphysical or imaginary lunar perspective on world history I find un-persuasive, and efforts in that direction seem either contradictory or ideological. Arguably, a social perspective is inevitable and, given that, the goal can only be to make this perspective as universal as possible rather than pretend we escape having any interests or do not exist in a specific social location.

I here attempt to approach this universal outlook in two ways: I adopt the perspective of the working class, arguably the only universal class, and I widen the scope of documents to include the whole world (for a universal capitalist perspective, see works associated with world systems theory). However, the site does not impose these constraints rigidly, and it offers documents on a variety of subjects that might be of interest, otherwise of use, or even amusement.

The term working class, can be defined broadly as anyone whose interests are not tied to the self-reproduction of capital. I include, for example, students, peasants, ethnic groups, and those who are socially marginalized, such as prisoners and slaves. The practical implication is that the focus here is on private life. For example, there is more concern for government (institutionalizing a social commonwealth) than for the state (representing the interests of capital).

By non-Eurocentric I mean a de-emphasis of Europe and the United States. This means that the West is neither privileged in terms of the number of documents nor the values employed in their selection. This is not always easy to do in practice, for Euro-American culture is nearly hegemonic.

Some characteristics of the site

Most of the documents represent contemporary history, which I argue at length is quite legitimate and not a contradiction in terms. Simply put, I suggest that what makes something historical is not its distance from the present, but its being viewed as a process in time, even if it occurs at the present.

However, that most documents are contemporary also simply reflects what documents happen to come my way. I would very much like to have more material from the distant past, and I welcome contributions.

In addition, the contemporary emphasis reflects my conviction that since the point of historic consciousness is to support our struggle for progress, an understanding of our contemporary world is generally more useful than knowledge of the past. I do not believe this amounts to presentism, for one can't really expect to understand an historical process without also understanding its past; I assume that what survives from the past constrains the present, determining the probability distribution of its possible outcomes. Contrary to a common view, I don't assume we learn much from the past itself, but from our struggle to give it meaning.

Another issue is the extent to which world history documents should be preferred if they represent a high level of generalization, dismissing local trivia as of interest only to local historians. However, I reject this dichotomy, for I believe that the historic fact has empirical specificity as well as a causal relation to a broader world; there is no contradiction between whole and part, which are wedded in the historical fact. All events to a degree mirror the larger process.

Because I assume that historical analysis should aim to expose the systemic forces at work on specifics rather then seek to generalize empirical or behavioral consistencies, I see no reason to avoid documents offering detailed information about a very specific time and place.

Documents are currently marked up by hand with the help of an emacs editor running under the Debian, a Linux operating system. I use a cascading style sheet following the XHTML 1.1 standard, which older browsers might at times find challenging. Since my approach has evolved over the years since this project was started in 1996, I must also apologize for any format shortcomings of earlier documents. If you find them a hindrance, please let me know so that I can update the markup. I place an e-mail link for your convenience at the head of this document.

By doing the work by hand I avoid the mess created by applications that generate HTML automatically, but it opens the way for an occasional typographic error in the markup. I would appreciate hearing from you about any you might discover.

The geographical categories used to organize documents should be understood as mere arbitrary conveniences. For example, there is no implication that the territory of a state, such as Indonesia or Nigeria necessarily represents any coherent or meaningful unity beyond the narrow and imperfect political order imposed by a state institution. There are many units that are clearly mythical and lack empirical content, such as Asia and Africa. There are units that are entirely ideological, notably the Middle East and Western Civilization. Terms such as these do not refer to peoples or cultures or any other useful coherence, but offer handy places for documents that presume their existence.

Furthermore, these horizontal geographic units are often of lesser importance in history than vertical social units. For example, class, ideology, religion, or ethnos may often be more important than national identity as historical forces.

Finally, these units are essentially static conceptions inappropriate for handling dynamic processes and therefore really ill-suited for historical analysis. While it is possible to employ dynamic units to represent historical processes in thought, such as contradiction, most historians have so far not been able to reach that point. It remains a task for the future and probably within the broader scope of world history, where change and diversity appear as primary qualities, rather than the static coherences more often encountered in short range history that arise from their utility in daily life.

Questions affecting the status of the documents

The documents available to me are primarily what I find broadcast by public lists, newsgroups, and journals published on web sites. The result can not be said to be balanced or neutral, for they reflect the interests of those who produce and distribute them.

I de-emphasize political and military history to the extent I can in favor of social and economic concerns, not to eliminate bias, but to strive for a more universal bias by including the overwhelming majority of people, which is the working class that generally lacks political power.

Weaknesses arise also the result of my own personal limitations. The World History Archives site is the un-renumerated part-time work of one person, and some of the flaws of the site result from that fact.

I'm aware that any culling or selection of documents is itself ideological. Rather than pretend otherwise, I can only hope that a working-class perspective is more universal and hence potentially truer to the historical reality than some other bias.

Some documents result from agreements with authors to publish their works. I stand ready to offer that service to the extent time allows and if the result does not run counter to the general character of the World History Archives site.

Occasionally I do a little editing of the documents, such as correcting obvious typos, redefine quotation styles, or the method used for emphasis. If in any doubt about the intention of the author, I leave things alone. I do not attempt to proofread the documents in a search for syntactical or typographical errors.

You should be aware of the origin of any documents you use, for that information is necessary to evaluate the document's authenticity and reliability. I always include in a header what information is available to me as to the source of a document, and I am unable to provide any additional information. In principle, authentication would require you to contact the author of a document, but that is usually impractical.

Authentication traditiionally is of great concern to the historian, but it has become more difficult today. Documentary authentication is not simply the result of technique, but ultimately arises from certain social and economic constraints. Critical editions of sources are extraordinarily expensive and are the product of a small group of experts. While these constraints lend a certain legitimacy to source editions, it also undoubtedly gives them an ideological aspect as well.

However, these constraints no longer apply to much of the documentation we employ today and so no longer serve to authenticate much of the documentation we use today. Digital copies are virtually perfect, and their production, storage and distribution is almost without cost or social constraint. It has become child's play, and as a result much depends on the good judgement of the end user.

In modern times, the raw material of historiographic production is not critical editions of sources, but the almost boundless documentation of global trivia. In the face of information overload, the focus has shifted from the authentication of documents to their discovery, distribution and organization. How do you extract the document you need from the hundreds of thousands of hits you receive from a search on Google? And how do you know the result is not a fabrication intended only to deceive? Much of the mainstream press now regularly puts out propaganda and hides the truth, and so the public faces a serious challenge in deciding whether a document is authentic and reliable.

Another aspect of document authenticity is that in the training of professional historians, they are encouraged to believe that the authenticity of sources supports the validity of conclusions based upon them. While undoubtedly flawed sources do tend to invalidate conclusions based on them, it does not follow that authentic sources legitimate conclusions. On the contrary, historians often come to pernicious, vacuous, or non-sensical conclusions based on indisputably authentic documents.

In short the World History Archives cannot represent itself as a collection of critical or authenticated sources, but only as a compendium of information and interpretations that will encourage users to develop their own critical outlook. I do not claim any expertise that might guarantee the quality or authenticity of the documents on the World History Archives, although I take appropriate measures when I have good reason to believe a document is a falsification or misrepresents itself. Their quality varies widely, and I assume you will use good judgment and perceive their biases and inconsistencies.

The issue of copyright

I freely use material under what is called fair use doctrine. I am aware that in the United States in recent years, this liberality so necessary for social development has become constricted in law. In practice, however, I find that individuals and publishers don't seem to mind, and they often benefit from the free publicity for their ideas or publications. However, if you have reason to regret my publication of your work, please do let me know so that I can correct the situation.

I do not provide links to other sites. This is simply a matter of policy and is no reflection on the quality of those other sites. Links would raise insurmountable administrative challenges and would sometimes compromise the fair use character of the site. However, I have no objection to links pointing to my site and its pages. While you need not ask my permission to do so, it is always nice to hear about it.

You should understand that my making documents available on line does not release their copyright. Except when a document includes an explicit permission to download or distribute it, you should assume every document is copyrighted and should not be copied or re-distributed.

A word of advice to students

Students often contact me for help with their class assignments or term papers. I try to do what I can by offering general advice or point to documents or books relevant to their needs. If a students needs documents on a particular subject, I will proceed to mark them up and publish them on line as time allows. Please, though, do not presume to ask me for factual information; I have no expertise nor am I an authority. Student should consult with their reference librarian. Furthermore, please do not ask me to send you documents, for I only publish them and do not distribute them.

Depending on the amount of the work involved and my other commitments, a mark-up job takes several days to several weeks. I may be able to get to it right away, or perhaps not for a month. You should understand this when you ask for help. If your assignment is due tomorrow, my ability to help you is obviously limited. Please, when you write, include your name, your school level and the reason you need the documents. This information is important if I am to provide a useful response.

For those students new to history and in search for a paper topic, diving into the documents on this site will stimulate your imagination. What is a document trying to prove? Is that thesis adequately validated? Can you offer arguments why its thesis is false? So if you are at a loss for a paper topic, just jump in where you think it will be interesting, do a little reading, and a topic will begin to emerge. Just remember that a paper topic always implies a question that you are trying to answer in the body of your paper.

Students should understand that the primary repository of information and documentation in our society will for some time remain the library. The material now coming on line at an accelerating pace is spotty and often unreliable, and should generally only supplement what is obtained from a library. Some teachers like to see citations of on-line documents, while others do not. Find out what your teacher prefers. Check with a style sheet for the proper citation of on-line documentation.

An important consideration for academic work is URL (on-line document address) stability. If you cite a document in your term paper's bibliography, you don't want it to fall into a black hole just before your teacher is about to grade it ;-). Much of the material on line disappears or moves after a while, often within days, and this represents a major shortcoming of citing on-line documentation.

I try to provide a stable repository for documents to help cope with this problem. With rare exception, the documents have the same URL since I began to put them on line a decade ago. Therefore it is perhaps safer to cite them in your papers than what is available in most other, particularly commercial, sites. Whether I will be able to transfer this resource into some other caring hands when I am no longer able to sustain it, I don't know.

Let me end by reemphasizing that I very much enjoy hearing from people who find World History Archives useful, interesting or upsetting. Reasoned objections or suggestions for improvement I take seriously, and your feedback, whether it be positive or negative, is encouraging.