Archive for the ‘digital scholarship’ Tag

FYI: Libraries Are Changing

Recently, I went to the Hartford Public Library.  I was there with my wife picking up a book that I needed for a group project in my Public History Seminar.  When I walked into the main lobby, it was buzzing with people.  I was impressed.  I thought that it was amazing that so many people were utilizing the library on a Wednesday afternoon.  Once I walked passed the lobby into the stacks, it was dead.

Being a frequent stack surfer, I was able to use the Dewey to quickly locate the necessary book and shuffle back through the lobby, where I noticed most people using computers for various research needs and social networking sites.  Here is the choice that I have to make.  Am I an elitist who looks down on people for not using the wealth of knowledge in the stacks of the library?  Or, am I a person that is going to recognize that just like every other facet of our worlds (academic or otherwise) the library is changing.

Let’s be real.  People who are still clinging to analogue mediums and not embracing the digital will fall to the wayside.  Take for instance Michael Jon Jensen’s Keynote Speech at the Biannual Meeting of the Illinois Association of College and Research Libraries on March 30, 2006.  In his speech, Jensen lays out how scholarship has evolved with the development of new media and technologies and the groups (i.e. libraries, publication houses) that don’t adapt to the changes they could be left in the dust or worse, totally lost.  Lost in a sense where users will not be able to locate your material quickly and efficiently via the web.

Of course, you can talk as much as you want about creating more efficient ways of accessing archives and reference materials, but the trick is creating and characterizing digital files.  From experience, this is typically not an easy task. If the images are not born digital, then the source (article, manuscript, poster, political cartoon, object, landscape, etc) either has to be scanned or photographed using a digital camera depending on the source.  This is the easiest part.  Next, you have to apply metadata in various forms so that others can search, identify, view, and interact with the source.

The fact is research is changing and if archivists, scholars, and researchers do not step up and set standards in the digital medium, their expertise and collections will be lost.  No one will know what materials are available to them.  Already, we see this happening.  Ask almost any college student and they will tell you that they first place they go for reference is the net.  As a high school teacher, I know that the first, and many times only, place I go to for primary sources is the internet.  Why? Its fast, free, and accessible.   How many people, especially Mr. and Mrs. Everyman, are able to get to a library or Historical Society during business hours?

Although there are some disadvantages to digital media, one of which being potential cost in equipment and man hours, I believe that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.  One of the biggest advantages being increased access to materials displayed online.

Honestly, this blog post could go on and on about advantages and disadvantages of digital media, but it really doesn’t have to.  Here is the bottom line.  Libraries and archives are going digital.  This is great because increased access to information best suits our democratic society.  From what I gather there was a time in the digital humanities debate accessing whether or not we should digitize, what can be digitized and by whom.  Now, archivists, scholars, librarians, are working to define their role in this rapidly changing climate.  Although the medium people utilize to access source materials is changing, there is one thing in the library that will stay true.  Librarians and archivists will still serve the community.  They may serve a more diverse audience than ever before, but they will still hold an important place in the scholarly process.

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Embracing the Wiki

Increasingly people utilize sites such as Wikipedia.  If experts don’t take this medium seriously, countless hours will have to be spent to confront a misinformed public.

Most people in America today use sites such as Wikipedia as their first and only source.  And why not?  It’s quick, efficient, accessible, free, and typically accurate.  Of course, there are some people, I was one of them, who believe that Wikipedia is not a good source because of the possibility of any person to create content or edit published material on the site.  Although these concerns are legitimate, I believe that the benefits of wiki software greatly out weigh the detriments.

The controversy surrounding Wikipedia is its openness.  As Cohen discusses, Wikipedia creates the “Wild Wild West” of publishing.  This medium also offers an innovative way to collect, organize, and distribute knowledge.  Cohen is right that Wiki is the wild west of information, but similar to the American West, there is opportunity.  The opportunity in this case is to spread responsible information to educate the public.

Larry Sanger is known to bash Wikipedia for its dabblerism.  He says that dabblerism leads to amateurish results.  He is probably right.  There certainly is a need for experts to engage sites such as Wikipedia or Sangers newer creation Citizendium to ensure that the good information is available on a consistent basis.  It is important to pay attention to Wikipedia because our students—and most other people—do.

Why is this important to experts?  The answer is simple.  A misinformed public can lead to disastrous events.  How many people still actually believe that Iraq was responsible for 9/11?  I know from working with students in grades 7-12 that many young people do. And, I would bet that many of their parents think the same thing.  Is this their fault?  Yes and no.  Is it Wikipedia’s fault?  Probably not.  Whose responsibility is it to correct this problem and others stemming from misinformation?  Experts and educators.

There is, however, a bright side.  The issues that people have with open source sites like Wikipedia are addressable.  Experts and educators are able to contribute to informational sites like Wikipedia, Thomas Jefferson Wiki, and the AHA’s  Archive Wiki. Of course, this does not mean that the everyday person cannot and should not contribute.  They definitely should.  People add perspective.  The beauty of Wiki software is that all people are able to participate in the evolving nature of social consciousness.

Another way for historians to combat the prevalence of misinformation is to teach our students how to determine the credibility of a source.  This includes checking multiple primary and secondary sources for relevant information.  Too often people go to one place to get all of their information and are not able to determine between good and bad information.

Unfortunately, without a little guidance the public may become misconstrued by the megaphone effect of bad information.  An example of bad information is the presentist perspective that is prevalent on Wikipedia.  People without proper training in interpreting the past tend to hold past events up to present standards and judge them accordingly.

Fortunately, the technology is new and is always open for improvement.  Sites such as Citizendium, Thomas Jefferson Wiki, and Wikimapia attempt to use the wiki format to provide better information to the public.  Historians need to actively engage these sites ensuring that the common information is the correct information.  Or, do they fear the Wiki?