It’s with great excitement that I announce the launch of the Islamic History Commons (IHC), a scholarly community site dedicated to the study of Islamic history. IHC makes use of the Commons in a Box (CBOX) software that also powers scholarly community sites such as the CUNY Academic Commons (which hosts the blog you’re reading now) and the MLA Commons. For those not familiar, CBOX is free software that allows anyone to easily set up a multisite WordPress BuddyPress install. Or in other words, CBOX is a one-stop solution for creating a digital community that allows for users to create profiles, groups and websites as well as take advantage of the software’s robust social functionalities.
Personally speaking, I can’t imagine my time at the Graduate Center without it. For one, its group functionality allows me to painlessly stay updated and communicate with the many organizations, groups and classes in which I take part. Additionally, its provision of digital space for course communication has been a much welcome alternative to the other options out there. Though there are many free resources which allow for classes to set up digital spaces elsewhere, there is great value in housing a scholarly community’s activity all in one place.
But what I really want to talk about today is not CBOX, but rather, what’s new and exciting about the way we’re setting up this digital community. Awhile back, Matthew K. Gold, President Chase Robinson, and I began discussing ways that we might facilitate communication among the small, widely scattered field of Islamic History. Though early on we agreed that CBOX would be the tool we’d use, we needed to come up with points of interest and activity to draw people to the site. Two ideas resulted from these conversations.
The first idea came partly through chance. President Robinson, an active scholar of Islamic History, began talking with the folks that run Middle East Medievalists (MEM), an international scholarly organization. MEM, it seemed, was long overdue for a digital makeover. In addition, its annual bulletin Al-`Usur al-Wusta, had yet to transition to the digital age. In discussion with Antoine Borrut, secretary of MEM, and Matthew Gordon, president of MEM, we decided to build out a new digital home on IHC for the organization and begin thinking up possibilities for digital editions of Al-`Usur al-Wusta. Essentially, it was a win win situation. MEM would not only get a new website, but would be integrated into a digital space with robust social functionalities that would enable members to communicate with one another. In return, IHC would automatically gain a network of users based on MEM’s membership. Of course, setting this up was not one’s average CBOX install. And thus we called upon our brilliant and tireless developer, Christian Wach, to do the very complicated job of integrating MEM’s membership database through the means of CiviCRM, open source software that helps organizations deal with membership permissions.
The second exciting feature of IHC is the subsite Working Papers, which is also heavily indebted to Christian Wach’s efforts. Early on, we knew we wanted a way to enable the sharing of research in progress among IHC members. Inspired by Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s experiment with online peer review of her manuscript Planned Obsolescence, we decided to set up CommentPress, software that enables paragraph level commenting of long form texts. One thing led to another, and we were soon in talks with Maxim Romanov, a Postdoctoral Associate in the Classics Department and Perseus Project at Tufts, who agreed to spearhead community outreach. After a few experiments, we decided to draw on some of our ideas from Social Paper, software that we’re currently developing for sharing graduate student writing. Instead of using a single install of CommentPress to host an entire community’s submission of papers, we decided to use individual installations of CommentPress for each individual paper in order to create a network of papers. By engineering the site thusly, we were able to grant individual social activity to each individual paper, enabling users to be notified by email about any activity happening on their own papers, or papers that they follow. By providing a space to discuss works in progress, we hope to emphasize the importance of peer engagement in research and strengthen the community as a whole.
Of course, setting up a digital space is just the beginning of building out a digital community. I’m looking forward to the next challenge — filling this new space with meaningful activity.