Friday, October 9, 2009

The Adjustment to the Culture of Abundance

As you may have noted from one of my earlier posts, I recently finished reading A.S. Byatt's novel Possession. The book is set in Britain during the 1980s and centers on the escapades of Victorian Literature academics Maud Bailey and Roland Mitchell. As I was reading lengthy descriptions of their card catalogues and restricted-access reading rooms I kept thinking, wow, this is dated. For one thing how many historians do you know who carry around index cards as a method of subject searching? When Google is a click away it seems like so much time and paper and sheer effort wasted (the possibility for paper cuts is endless).

Over the last couple of weeks our Digital History classes have focused on the idea of abundance in the digital age and what this means to the future of History. I think of poor Maud and Roland slaving away with their pens and pocketbooks and wonder how different that story would be if situated in the present day. Perhaps the London Library where Roland found the mystery letters would have digitized the documents already and discovered them first. Failing that, a security camera could have picked up on his theft before he even left the building. And even if he did succeed in getting the letters off the premises, he would hardly have to make the slog to Yorkshire or the Breton coast to make his discoveries. A simple image search on Google would have revealed the famed fountain he finds in the North.

Has the romance completely gone from History? Can we imagine the possibility of undiscovered knowledge in this age of abundance? It is certainly true that the
internet is changing the practice of the discipline; not only is the tweed jacket a little outdated but how we understand our subjects must be re-evaluated. For one, I think that ownership is going to be a major issue. Traditionally, a historian writes a book and gets a copyright. But as Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig demonstrate in their chapter "Owning the Past" in Digital History, such laws become more complicated when faced with a world of hyperlinks, digital media and rapid rates of change. In order to safeguard intellectual property many journals are hidden behind what Rosenzweig describes as the "private web" and demand access fees from their readers. Such a system, they argue, has created a division between public and private that is reflected in the quality of the two. At the same time, however, he does not see the public web as a garbage heap with no use to historians. Individuals are digitizing massive amounts of documents without any personal gain other than to serve their own classrooms or interests. Genealogy has boomed on the internet (I myself witnessed this phenomenon when working at the Ontario Genealogical Society this past summer). But is it that simple for professionals? Wikipedia is filled with information but it lacks the depth of a historian's background and prose[1]. Should professionals make their work available to the public? Rosenzweig certainly thinks so: "perhaps we should even insist that the intellectual property we create (often with considerable public funding) should be freely available to all"[2].

The open source movement certainly has potential but it requires a shift in mindset. What is "ownership" if anyone can go online and access your work for free? Intellectual property takes on a new meaning when posted freely on the web. Doesn't it fly in the face of the concept that we need a middleman to negotiate the returns from our writing? In his article "Post-Medium Publishing," Paul Graham writes, "now that the medium is evaporating, publishers have nothing left to sell. Some seem to think they're going to sell content- that they were always in the content business, really. But they weren't, and it's unclear whether anyone could be." If the decision to make public our intellectual property rests in the hands of historians themselves, where then is the money made? Someone has to be paid and historians need to publish in order to get jobs in the present system. There is also the problem of authority, as anyone can put up a website and claim to be an expert. Scholarly journals still need to make money and Rosenzweig suggests a number of solutions to combat the problem including charging the authors and delayed access to journals.

While there are issues with all of them the self-archiving option does have potential. The grassroots approach is what historians need to take an active role in fostering. By making their work available to the public, they not only broaden their readership but become agents of change in the world of online education. Instead of allowing large corporations to dominate the field it is possible to reclaim ownership of material that really belongs to everyone- the public for funding it and the historian for broadening the world's knowledge of history (and, therefore, themselves).

Historians can also help to prevent the decay of online materials. As we talked about in a previous class, the roles of historian and archivist were once one and the same. In the digital age we should see the benefits of this model. Projects like the Internet Archive are attempting to save and catalogue all the material to be found on the web before it disappears but their task is ambitious. Ivor Tossell recently reported on the loss of Geocities in his article "On the Web, Forever has a Due Date"
and mentions that the Internet Archive is trying to salvage Geocities material before the sites are permanently erased from the internet. "Companies can promise a great many thing, and I'm willing to believe most of them," he writes. "But they can't promise to be there forever."

It is the not-for-profits and committed individuals who will need to pick up the information that companies leave behind as refuse. The practice of History has already changed; our research has been profoundly altered by the availability of primary and secondary source material online. But historians must see that they provide a public service, and in doing that, they must not only take from the web but give to it as well. In practicing and advocating for open access historians can make that connection between past and present all the more meaningful. And in seeing the benefits of the web we may be more aware of the need to preserve the online materials that the corporations like Yahoo! are failing to protect.

While the days of card catalogues are gone, the excitement and mystery of the chase has by no means evaporated. For instead of navigating gloomy stacks and hunting down that rare manuscript we are truly weaving a web: making connections to the public and to other scholars, to the primary sources we are working each day to save, to the past that we are seeking to interpret. How we think about ourselves is going to change, as it has changed throughout history with each wave of technical development. Nicholas Carr explains how we use new metaphors to talk about ourselves with the invention of technologies like the clock[3]. It is that shift in thinking that is slowly taking place.

At one point in Possession, Roland says to Maud, "Do you never have the sense that our metaphors eat up our world? I mean of course everything connects and connects- all the time- and I suppose one studies- I study- literature because all these connections seem both endlessly exciting and then in some sense dangerously powerful- as though we held a clue to the true nature of things?"[4]

The internet may seem like the answer to everything but it is only really the beginning of an endless search. We should not fear the loss of authority, for no one historian can have all the answers in light of so much discovery from age to age. The medium will change and so will the metaphors we use to make sense of our place in the world; the internet will be a key player in this shift. But rather than letting it "eat us up" it is possible for historians to take hold of it and use it as sustenance for a long future of endless archives and limitless opportunities.

[1] Roy Rosenzweig, "Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past," Journal of American History 93, no. 1 (Jun 2006): 117-146.
[2] Roy Rosenzweig, "The Road to Xanadu: Public and Private Pathways on the History Web,"
Journal of American History 88, no. 2 (Sep 2001): 548-579.
[3] Nicholas Carr, "Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet is Doing to our Brains,"
The Atlantic (July/Aug 2008).
[4] A.S.
Byatt, Possession (London: Vintage Books, 1990), 253.

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