The Google Books Seduction

All good students of good academic integrity take some measure of pride in nailing citation styles. It is a symbol of one’s adherence to the rules, the tradition, the mace and mortarboard of the academy.

But the meticulous process we came to love/hate in high school quickly erupted into chaos.

As standards have been rising over the years and the rules ever in flux to match the evolution of digital media resources, so too did a number of artificial intelligences enter the marketplace for citation fixes. Whereas once you had to hire a student to type, write, or cite your paper to cheat, now you could copy and paste into a webpage and print out a bibliography. Just as instructors were becoming savvy with software that easily hunted down student plagiarism, the Easybib phenomena threatened to forever outsource the labor of citation.

I think this hard work in tracking the stuff down and citing it properly and honestly is what separated scholars from the amateurs and imitators, the tether that Bland Whitley was talking about, connecting us to the work of citation. Yet we deal with these problems constantly.

Take, for example, the Croffut and Morris classic, Military and Civil History of Connecticut During the War of 1861-1865. For those doing Civil War research, this definitive resource was vital to providing proper historiographical context for many topics.  However, the book was printed in the late 1860s, and the copies throughout the State system are artifacts that cannot leave the site  and sort of discourage one from touching it.  And why would you, when its complete on Google Books? Keyword search and boom. I never left my room and didn’t even have to break any bindings.

The question is, if it wasn’t on Google Books, would we have gone the extra mile to have that awkward transaction with the rare book Librarians on campus?

Our research and citation practices, like all digital innovation, enhances the ease of the work but makes it increasingly cloistered, and cuts us off with the people who manage the resources and the resources themselves. There is something dignified about banker’s lamps and carved mahogany work stations on my imaginary campus. Makes you wonder about the design of the Library of Congress, making the center of drudgerous research like a temple. Yet somehow, in our modern exceptionalism where we have no time for activities that cannot be accomplished while we are paying bills and streaming Netflix, we have deemed the time in the library as impractical.


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Mass Amateurization and the Professional Historian

Amateurs. Lazy contributors. Fickle, fragmented philistines.  The crowd is putting the newspaper and the Encyclopedia Britannica out of business. Who is to say that the historian is not next? What can be done to guard against the amateurization or the dissolution of our precious job field?

Just as historians are constantly arguing over who we are d what we do, now Web 2.0, the grim specter of modernity rears its ugly, ironic head.

As pointed out in this week’s readings, the newspaper, revered by nostalgic folks like ourselves was merely a ‘provisional solution,’ one that we saw as permanent and institutional, was undone or is being undone by the internet. But information is not merely consumed differently, but the entire ethos of the news cycle is changed. No longer are we the consumers of media beholden to the dominant echo chambers of networks and dimorphic political ideologies….now we are the media. Empowering, isn’t it?

We have seen that news networks, local and national appeal to the viewer, the visitor, the user for news content. It seems that networks are less concerned about ratings and more concerned about participation, taking away work of the reporter, one could argue.  NBC Connecticut offers trips, gadgets, generators for those who ‘like’ them on Facebook. The day a Museum promises any such gift for a guiltless act, mark my words, will be sign of the end times.

Museums can benefit from Web 2.0. Surveys can be expensive, and people are reluctant to look at any piece of paper while they are physically in an institution. Hours later, or in the privacy of their own iPhone while on site, people are more apt to tweet, ‘like’, or status update. They will have less guilt for not filling out a form, and they will have an immediate release for their most pure thoughts and criticisms.  Visitors thrive on autonomy.

In the world of photography and viral video and memes, we praise the individual. To paraphrase Shirky, if a person produces one Rembrandt in their life, why not accession it into a collection, or hang it on a gallery wall? On the other hand, this tumultuous time period threatens to disrupt the division between museum and museum goer. On paper, there is something pure and democratic about this idea. On the other, in the short term, in the material world, THEY TOOK OUR JOBS!

Just like the scribes of old, our authority, our purpose, may be eroding from under our feet.

Still empowered?

Perhaps brick and mortar museums are doomed in lieu of the online museum.  Kate Theimer assures us, however that websites such as this are less popular—so we can hold our breath.

Institutions and encyclopedias may pass away, but the need for the material, for synthesis and inquiry remain. It may be inconceivable for our work to become cheaper; but I believe the impetus is on us to make our work more valuable, more rare–to create diamonds.

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The Cloud’s Infinite Supply of Crowd Content

Beware, the masses are cheapening the Museum experience.  They shall not be trusted.

From its inception, the Museum has been an equalizing experience, intended to share culture, history and art with the public.  The narratives and interpretations posited have not always been accurate, multivocal or balanced. With the rise of social history and the spread of technologies open to people outside the austere museum community, this question of crowdsourcing the museum arises.

On the one hand, some caution is warranted. Surrendering authority completely to the public is dangerous and negligent. Authority is exercised in the museum world to make heritage accessible and engaging, and to present a narrative devoid of prejudices and uncouth opinions.

Yet controversy is what makes museums relevant and in touch with the constituencies they seek to serve.  And there is something to be said for starting a dialogue with the crowd.  Rather than guessing what visitors want based on the literature or the results of an expensive survey, interactive, low tech alternatives in house and via tagging, metadata and folksonmoies. I think the idea of ‘Radical Trust’ is problematic. The museum’s voice has become more inclusive, but it should not be silent to the clamoring of the crowd. I think that crowd sourcing frees curators up from the tyranny of collections; something increasingly valuable for those working outside of a brick and mortar institutions.

Material culture in museums tend to be either highly biased toward the privileged class or highly commonplace; enter the gas station museum in 2070, after the transportation infrastructure moves on to trash powered flying Deloreans.  Using the crowd to provide materials harnesses a more optimized potential of content. Instead of waiting for collections to fall in our laps, why not capitalize on these amateurs, these workaday coders, taggers, and photographers? Certainly from collections we as curators cull from the crowd, we can still be endowed with the power of selecting, managing and interpreting from within.

Museums and their constituencies are symbiont–just as people learn from museums, institutions learn from their public. Creating experiences that allow for visitor autonomy and micro-collective experience are valued in the marketplace now.  It’s time to let the users write some lines of code.

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Metadata and Metamuseology

As the post title suggests, yes, it’s going to get very heady in here.  Just as we were concerned about the best way to digitize the stuff of history, people got all memetic and made tagging a social phenomenon, and gave birth to folksonomy in the museum world. If anything, tagging and metadata should solidify the importance of the online museum.

I just wish CHS’s e-museum would implement it!

Tagging is another democratic process opened up to the virtual museum visitor…isn’t that great?  New research avenues are opened up to scholars and museologists, and, wouldn’t you know, we have a new candidate for preservation!

Tagging is visceral, and is the least taxing on the surfer.  It’s like a Rorschach test on a global scale.  I see a chair in a collection and think Connecticut Valley, someone else thinks Cherry made product…the information gleaned from these data sets self-improves the vitality of the collection, while providing insights into the attitudes of the populace. Museums are always looking for feedback and struggle in the execution of front of house evaluations. People are allergic to comment cards, and are either venomously honest or vague and tame.  Tagging inadvertently reveals what objects and exhibits are popular, while coloring that interest with the unique language commonly or uncommonly inserted among the public.  I am particularly attached to the concept of cataloging these folksonomies.   It would be interesting to see what interpretations emerge about collection and objects over time. Of course, as this is a burgeoning practice, the robustness of this experiment remains to be seen.

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The Death of a Website, or, Are They All Rembrandts?

For as much stock we are putting in the internet as panacea, the medium is dangerously fraught with fragility and weakness. On the one hand, according to Cohen and Rosenzweig, the mad prophets of the information superhighway, the collecting process is cheap, large, all encompassing, more diverse and inclusive. This democratization of history is accepted as a whole, Hitler cats and all.  Conversely, and the authors are the first to admit, the collecting and marketing process can be financially and temporally taxing, not to mention risky.

One can create a wonderful Oral History archive, write a book, and the work will survive. Granted the longevity of your book will depend on the use of acid free storage, but it may not be read. Websites attract more contributors and visitors, but require a great skill set. Even if one’s collection is meticulously created like the oral historian, if your website does not sing, have bells and whistles or appeal to the psyche of the fickle consumer, it may FAIL?!?!

That’s right, even websites bite it from time to time. Even if you get past the critical construction phase, it takes a great deal of work to keep the website perpetual.  If an author dies, at least the book will survive and his contribution to the body of knowledge will remain.  What are bibliographies going to look like in the future, if websites and news media are not frozen in the context in which they were authored? I was impressed by the action taken by the Library of Congress on the NYT coverage of 9/11. To think that the great headlines we by which we understand focusing events in history as anything but permanent is disconcerting.

That being said, this week has illuminated a truth about the internet; that the infrastructure appears permanent and global, but the content is ephemeral and, dare I say, ahistorical.

With all this stuff to be enshrined forever in a digital utopia, the ethos of the archivist and librarian are eroding. Provenance of contribution is shadowy on the internet, and asking for metadata is a surefire disincentive for contributors, according to C & R.   Further, curatorial decisions of what to preserve and what is worth saving are being called into question.  A perennial theme in this course has been the infinite nature of digital space, as though the archive has no limits. Is this good or bad for history? Sorry kids, no answer here to that question, as the crystal ball is refusing to cooperate.  One thing is for sure–the approach to collections and preservation are forever altered, as is our value of the resources of history.

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The End of History?

It seems that there is a crisis in the academy today. Are scholars to find new ways of communicating? Are digital platforms conducive to good scholarship? Will people still read or connect to the ideas and interpretation forwarded by the author or authors?

From what has been written, the jury is out on this. William Thomas’ experience with writing created more problems than it solved, with format and hypertext issues.  At the end of the day, academics simply did not know what to do with this new form of scholarship.

Scholars like the digital innovations the web can offer, greater access, ease of collaboration. But when it comes down to it, the century-old trend of writing and communication remains the only way.  New intellectual products need not be viewed as endangering the academic tradition–rather it will have a transformative influence, germinating new areas of inquiry, possibly new fields, and hopefully a widening of the scholarly population itself.

New and old products should not be seen as mutually exclusive. Journals and Reviews can remain, while digitally-minded people create their own associations and consortia, focusing mechanisms that will harness the interest and capabilities of digital scholarship, and through the creation of new products, advance and market them to a new and newly educated audiences.

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Sharing Authority With all of Humanity

Jimmy Wales considered himself a student of the Enlightenment, and if you look at the Wikipedia entry on that subject, you would see that the philosophers of the 18th century sought to reform society and advance knowledge.

Has Wikipedia done just that? It’s difficult to say. Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanders believes that expertise is essential in keeping these open source digital locales reputable and reliable. Certainly Rousseau and John Locke would have agreed that tanners and tavern keepers should refrain from epistemological debates, or contributing articles about popular wig styles of the moment.

The open-source experiment that has induced unfettered democracy more clearly resembles the anarchist’s jungle that Hobbes was talking about. Slander, misinformation and mischief abound. Sure, there is the Wiki police state, but who is to stop wiki-terrorists like Stephen Colbert from demanding his acolytes to manipulate his digital entry?

I think it is interesting as historians, that once again we have an opportunity to advance scholarship. While Sanders derides Wikipedia as ultimately alma-matricidal, we can edit the content, and further guard against the unwarranted influence of well-intentioned folks who will publish entries that perpetuate myths about how the Civil War started. Again, as Wikipedia is the chief filter at the moment, folks like us can weave a little historiography into the mix.

Sanders also says that the wisdom of the crowd is poison, and I will agree. Just because millions of people believe in the Giant Spaghetti Monster or in the world’s flatness does not make it true. Groupthink is rarely concerned with the truth. However his ‘Citizendium’ is remarkably like Wikipedia. I compared two articles on Teddy Roosevelt. The first paragraphs were virtually the same on both, and both listed the same sources in bibliography. The difference? Citizendium uses less people to edit the source and takes three times as long.

In the moment, we are in the thesis of epistemic egalitarianism. We will move to a antithesis which will lead to a counter movement of the experts, then a complex synthesis, somewhere in the middle. Hopefully the academy will survive the war.

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Pirates of the Information Superhighway

Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenweig stress that the purpose of copyright law is to establish a balance, an equilibrium of use and ownership between the user and the author.  In the digital present, laws have preempted the explosion of access, siding with corporate interests in the 1990s. As Representative Bono would have said as Napsterites were clapped into the stocks, “I got you babe.”

Thus, we are all pirates. Everyday, we consume or create media that has been stolen, chopped up, decrypted and reformatted illegally.  We download data and steal bling money from our favorite celebrities.  More importantly, as historians, we are walking the tightrope of fair use, copyright infringement, and plagiarism.

At the end of the day, legislation is behind the reality of the web. The medium, the stuff of copyright has evolved. We can talk about Twain and Irving Berlin, but what about the fact that everything we ‘publish’ online that is not in a book in the traditional sense? How can we talk about the public domain when everything we create, even as we are creating it on the cloud, is on the public domain ad infinitum? For the moment, as historians, we are grappling with photos that can be purchased but are free elsewhere, and the other entrapping dilemmas in creating interactive and provocative content.

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My Bookmarks are Yummier Than Yours

Delicious.com is one of those unexpected externalities of the internet. Since forever, I have clicked a website I have often frequented, or one of the moment, that I want to hold on to.

The internet is a big place, and how can one remember where that great article about freemasonry was, or that essential how-to video that was a necessity every time one wanted to tie a double windsor knot?

The answer was your bookmarks tab on your browser and device of the moment. But we all change browsers, computers get abandoned, wiped or swiped, and those great sites are lost forever…or are they?

Of course! Put your favorites on the cloud itself! It’s the perfect solution. Delicious.com allows you to carry over your bookmarks across the planes of time, space and device. Which is much better than playing the internet charades game….”what’s that website with the video of that guy doin’ all those dances through eras of the 20th century?”

Of course, delicious is also a social network. One can share their tasty webpages of choice, revealing, based on the tags you assign, how many other people also tasted ‘your’ favorite.

In the moment, you feel less special because there are others who discovered these gems. Like the music group that you were there for in the tough times, its hard to swallow your pride and share the ownership of your bookmarks.

But then you look into other people’s bookmarks, and you discover other related favorites, some crazy stuff you never would have stumbled upon, and things that reinforce your own worldview. In other words, you find that some people have the exact same interests as you, while others have minor intersections which still intrigue curiosity into new subjects. This is the nature of the digital marketplace baby, its a sample of the entire menu.

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History in the Brave New Digital World

Attention Millennials! We are engaged in a pivotal moment in the history field!

With any historical monograph, times are lumped into trends that come and go, all starting and ending at a precise date. In the history of transportation we know that the canal era gave way to the locomotive, which was eclipsed by the car, etc. All of these aspects of the history are categorized into eras, for we historians are always imposing our narratives of order upon what is random and disorderly.

I can think of no better example than the digital paradigm we face today.

In the literature, there is a great debate over the place and proper use of technology in history. There are of course, the Luddites who proclaim that the internet is the ultimate simulacra, making all interaction and research false, and not genuine in the eyes of ‘real historians.’ Every new technology is feared, derided or declared anathema, as was the telegraph, and the idea of writing things down in the age of Socrates.

Just because the historian no longer needs to inhale dust to inspect a document does not mean that his work is of any lesser value. Rather, the work of historians is changing, and we are in the in between times of these eras. We have opportunities to collaborate with other professionals in and across disciplines, and the way we write is changing.

On the one hand, some argue that the digital marketplace and how we read is making us dumber…perhaps…on the other hand, perhaps as consumers (and producers) of new historical monographs, our tastes are becoming more sophisticated…which in turn is and should be reflected by the emergence of succinct, accessible material.

Like all historical times, today is not all one way or all the other. Some of us will read course materials on nooks and kindles, some will insist on paper…we must be prepared and shape the definite future, as old ways fade and new ones are inaugurated.

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