Keesing's World News Archive (www.keesings.com) was launched at the International Studies Association annual meeting in Chicago last week, bringing 76 years of objective, well-written historical reporting online. It uses Squiz's open source content management system, MySource Matrix (www.squiz.co.uk/mysource_matrix), to bring historical information into a Web 2.0 world. Keesing's is hardly a new company. Founded in 1931 in Amsterdam, it was strictly a print publisher for decades, which is not surprising for a company that predates both online and computers. What's impressive is the transformation made over the past 2 years in creating what Keesing's deems a "History 2.0" product.
The content for Keesing's World News Archive comes from the company's 76 years of news monitoring. Keesing's is not a comprehensive gathering of every news story on a topic; it doesn't scrape news from the Web, à la Google or Yahoo! News. Instead, its editors select the most historically significant political, social, and economic events, extract critical information from worldwide news sources, and write concise reports. These reports exist for the record, stripping bias away and correcting errors in the original press reports. If you insist upon print, you can still subscribe to Keesing's Record of World Events, the monthly news publication. Today, Keesing's produces 150 articles per month on average. All articles written in the past 76 years appear in the electronic Keesing's World News Archive, which currently contains about 95,000 articles online.
As a content provider, Keesing's enjoys a solid reputation. Its previous foray into putting content online occurred in 1999. That product used Folio to create a Keesing's info base. The interface, reviewed by Barbara Spruill in the February/March 2000 issue of EContent, offered keyword, Boolean, and advanced searching but was not user friendly for novice users. All that has changed with the launch of Keesing's World News Archive.
The home page puts Search the Archive at the top of the options on the left-hand side of the screen. Although it's not immediately obvious, entering multiple terms in the search box combines them with an implicit Boolean AND. There is no advanced search capability other than limiting by date. Search results can be sorted by date (ascending or descending) or by relevance. Thus far, a search on Keesing's seems rather traditional. But look closer. The system extracts key topics, people, nations, and tags to enable searchers to refine their searches and to see related entities quickly. You can view these either as a ranked list or as tag clouds. The only glitch is the "no selection" that appears first every single time, both in the list and in the tag cloud displays.
It's when you look at the full text of an article that Web 2.0 elements surface. At the bottom of the article, you will find a space where you can add your personal tags to the article and write notes. In the collaborative spirit of Web 2.0, you can share your tags and notes with other searchers. You can also search within the article, which is useful since search terms are not highlighted. You can create your own private portfolios. Keesing's press release on the new product says, "These connecting tags form the spine of the new site. They allow users to conduct precision searches, establish new associations between facts, and explore the connecting threads that run through … history."
Unlike more static information sources, Keesing's gives you the opportunity to complain about what you see on a page. If you choose to "Report a problem," which I did when I found typos on one page, you get an automated response promising a human follow-up. However, you don't get the Wikipedia-like option of actually editing a Keesing's article directly yourself. Despite the promise of immediate editorial attention, I'm still waiting for a contact from that promised human.
(Update: The error report I filed was, in fact, answered via email by a human and acted upon. The responder was apologetic and promised faster response time in the future.)
The power of user-generated tagging for historical events has exciting possibilities. Because Keesing's World News Archive is so new, tags are few and far between. It will be interesting to watch the evolution of the tagging function. Keesing's says it intends to add more of its own tags: One possibility is political parties. The best case scenario is that researchers will learn from each other while they absorb Keesing's historic content. The perceived linear nature of history, which is certainly the way it was taught to me in secondary school and at university, stands ready to be exploded by the collaborative nature of the Squiz technology applied to Keesing's archives.
Searching the archives is not the only option at the home page. A Breaking History option appears directly under Search the Archive. This provides timelines on predefined topics, such as bird flu. If you want to know what the Keesing's folks are up to, click on the blog option, which has the somewhat peculiar icon of a manual typewriter. Why a picture of manual typewriters should trigger thoughts of blogs, I'm not quite sure, but the quaintness of it is somewhat appealing.
According to publisher, Jonathan Hixon, "This venture marks our entry into the world of collaboration with developers, researchers, historians, and, hopefully, other publishers. We developed our software on an open source content management system developed in Australia, which is now being looked at by other publishers and could well lead to more compatible and consistent platforms for data. We have helped to develop an innovative new tagging feature [that] encourages collaboration among thinkers from all over the world to draw relationships between the events, people, and places we have covered."
Signing up for an account is a prominent option. Back in 2000, subscriptions started at $1,000. With Keesing's World News Archive, the price is substantially more appealing. There's a day rate of $7.95, a monthly rate of $49, and an annual rate of $219. You can pay by credit card. Bringing the price down like this encourages ordinary people, as well as information professionals, to search Keesing's archive, to add tags, and to contribute to an ongoing conversation about history.