DO Save the Time of the Reader/ Researcher

As a historian, I self-identify as a “super searcher.” I was trained to identify and track down whatever evidence I need, regardless of the time, effort, and tedium involved. As a researcher those skills stand me in good stead every day, but as a teacher, I want my students to spend at least as much time working with materials as they do identifying and locating them. They need to develop strategies for searching and acquire the content expertise to search intelligently, but they also need to start with “the good stuff” so that their curiosity will take over and spur them to dig deeper. For the project Brian Matthews cited in [Don’t] Save the Time of The Reader, my goal was to bring the teaching and learning of Soviet history into the networked age by using blogging and googledocs to contextualize sources available in at least three formats: print, the open web, and proprietary databases.

I’ve provided some background on the design of the course elsewhere, but the basics were as follows: Each student (38 total) had a blog that served as their digital portfolio for the semester and contributed to the content of the course. The individual blogs were syndicated to a motherblog with a magazine-style layout that included a slider and a featured post section. We curated the content from the individual posts into a “weekly edition,” highlighting the most engaging and sophisticated research in the slider or with a “red star.”

The class used a number of openly accessible collections, especially Seventeen Moments in Soviet History — a rich multi-media repository of translated primary sources for the Soviet period.  Other high quality internet sources for Soviet history include Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives —  a browseable archive of video, artifacts and film, that immerses viewers in the history of the Soviet Union’s vast system of forced labor camps; Making the History of 1989 — a digital history repository for studying the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe; and 1917: Did the War Cause a Revolution?  an interactive teaching module about the Russian Revolution based on primary sources (part of the Digital History Reader created by a team of faculty at Virginia Tech with funding from the NEH)

Students find topically coherent, multi-media repositories like Seventeen Moments appealing and user-friendly. The images and audio files are engaging, the translated primary documents are selected for their significance and interest, and the scaffolding of the web site makes it easy to dig more deeply into a particular topic or branch off on a different one.

Getting students to use (and like) the proprietary databases held by the library presents more of a challenge. Every vendor has a different search interface, the scope of the resource (i.e. The New York Times) is far broader than Soviet History, and the sophistication of the database can be daunting for the novice researcher. For this project I wanted students to take advantage of the ProQuest Historical Newspapers, and the Current Digest of the Soviet Press, (now called the Current Digest of the Russian Press) a translated monthly compilation of articles from Soviet newspapers dating back to 1949. I was pleased that once the class got the hang of finding, analyzing and citing materials from the openly accessible sites, they also found it easier and more interesting to work with the Current Digest. Providing a link directly to the search interface for these resources helped, as did using class time to work together on finding articles about particular topic.  In classic crowd-sourced style, our collective networked searching proved far more efficient and productive than our solitary forays would have been.  The student’s post became more sophisticated in terms of analysis and source base as the semester progressed.

In this context, the first step in saving time for student researchers involved helping them build proficiency with openly accessible repositories that are relatively easy to use and cite. Once the students’ interest in the subject, content expertise, and searching skills had developed, they were more willing to add the Current Digest or the Historical New York Times into the mix and invest the extra time and attention to detail these resources require.

“Saving time” like this allowed the class to use time more productively. Class-sourcing the content for an entire course required a significant investment of time and energy from all of us, but had numerous benefits, including:

1) Giving students a bigger role and larger stake in developing historical knowledge and presenting history to audiences outside the academy;  2) Bridging the conceptual and technological divide between the resources of the open web and the proprietary knowledge of commercial databases; and 3) making the walls of the classroom and the library more porous and transparent.

Expert researchers still need their super searcher skills, but we also need to acknowledge that the world is changing.  Tomorrow’s super searchers will be just as competent as we are, but they will arrive there by different means.

McLuhan, Value, and the Message

I’m sympathetic to Claire’s and Lauren’s assertions about technology itself being value neutral, and echo their claim that it’s how we use the technology (or the medium, since this is McLuhan’s week) that makes it positive or negative. And it is easy to criticize McLuhan for over-reaching and over-synthesizing by reducing the message to the medium and visa versa.

But I fear that stopping at such critiques might make us miss the important things that McLuhan got right, especially the insight about how new media not only condition how we do or experience something, but facilitate a kind of interaction and creativity that opens up more possibilities (and yes, “expands human intellect”).  Like Lauren, I am very interested in the implications of this transformation for my field, which I’m going to claim broadly here as “doing history.”  I could (should?) go on about this for a long time, but wanted to take up her invitation here to (briefly) think out loud about the change in “containers” as it affects historians.

For us, the shift from (printed) book to on-line databases and journal articles is both exciting and perilous.  Like any mode of knowledge production and dissemination, history definitely benefits from having endless (and ever expanding) amounts of information, data, texts, etc. on-line and instantly accessible beyond the physical walls of the library and the printed page of the book.  But shifting “the book” from a codex-paper-format to a digital medium involves much more than changing the container for a certain kind of information. On the one hand, the possibilities are eye-poppingly awesome: hyperlinking and multi-media could liberate most, if not all, of the web of documentation and example that supports the analysis and narrative of the book from paper repositories (archives and libraries) that few readers will ever visit or experience.  There have been a series of discussions in the field about the shape of born-digital history works to come, and Writing History In the Digital Age, just published by the University of Michigan Press, offers many intriguing possibilities.
On the other hand, however, the “e-books” promoted by commercial vendors for research libraries are merely digitized versions of print books with minimal functionality and maddening limitations on their use.  On a good day, these “ebooks” might work for key word or phrase searching, but I don’t know anyone who has successfully “read” one.  And this seems like a real problem, because a book is not just a container for information.  It isn’t a database or a catalogue. It’s a coherent, organized, structured presentation of knowledge and interpretation — A product of human intellect.  New media are transforming the book, and I think we owe it to ourselves to make sure that happens in a way that augments human intellect and makes books better.

I leave you with the parable of the cereal: