Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Reading and Reseach in the Digital Age

I really enjoyed William Cronon’s Perspectives article on reading in the digital age. He makes an interesting comparison between ancient scrolls and the scrolling we do within digital media. Despite powerful search engines, finding what you need within an electronic text can be an arduous and time consuming task. My own example of this is scrolling through the online versions of the Public Papers of the presidents of the United States. The University of Michigan has all the volumes from Presidents Hoover to Obama (with the exception of FDR) on line. It can take some time to find and navigate to the item I want to find. On the other hand, if I get my fat tuckus out of my chair, away from desk, and to the library, I can usually find what I need in a matter of seconds through the old fashioned method of thumbing through the book. That is not to say that the University of Michigan site is not a valuable one, but that it proves Cronon’s point that scrolling through electronic text is much like scrolling through ancient scrolls. In his view we are going backwards in time and forsaking the benefits of the more accessible codex. A step forward, in other words, is, in some ways, a step backwards in time.

One thing Cronon did not mention in his article is the growing trend, especially among popular historians, of writing from google books and other internet sources. There is an odd resurgence of works from before 1920. While this can be a boon to historians who are able to access hard to locate popular magazines and other valuable primary sources, the problem arises when old historiography is carelessly cited and recycled because it is readily available. I will review an example of one of these books in the near future.

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