40,000 memos issued during Johnson’s administration. If a historian
wants to write about the Clinton White House, she has four million emails
to deal with. It’s impossible for one person to read four million emails, along
with all of the other Clinton White House documentation, in her lifetime.
How does she then write the history?
The situation will be worse for the scholars of tomorrow. They won’t
be able to say they’ve done a systematic literature review. As they begin to
learn about a subject, the amount of information that will be created about
that subject will accumulate faster than the scholar can read and understand it. They’ll be trying to drink from a fire hose.
We need to imagine and create a new way of doing scholarly research.
What processes might we use?
My colleague at Western University, William J. (Bill) Turkel, has pioneered an approach that he calls simply “The Method.” It begins with the understanding that we can’t go to our sources because there are too many
of them. It follows that we need to create systems so that the information
comes to us. There are a variety of ways to do this. At a basic level, we can
use feed readers or feed aggregators that combine new information posted
to specific websites into a single report. Rather than continually going to
a website, the new information posted to that website is assembled in one
place, like a newsletter compiled just for us. But we can go further. At a more
sophisticated level, scholars like Bill have created crawlers, spiders and bots
that go out onto the Internet, find specific content, and download it or index
it. These tools can be set up and left to run while a researcher works on other
tasks. Or sleeps.
When that information comes to us, it needs to be sorted and indexed,
and of course index cards no longer suffice. There is too much information,
not enough time. Within this new culture of abundance, what we most lack
is attention. Software can now create an index, build a concordance, and relate and cluster documents appropriately. In this way, text-mining software
is reading all four million emails from the Clinton White House. Scholars
are using machine-learning algorithms to process and analyze millions of
books at a time.
Print, like water to fish
When it comes time to draw conclusions from their research, scholars now
have a multitude of options. In 1996, I had a simple choice to make when
it came to how I communicated the results of my research: I could choose
print. It was hard to imagine doing scholarship any other way. I compared a
scholar to a solitary fish in the middle of a vast Internet ocean. We’re like fish
in another way, too. The late David Foster Wallace told the story of two
young fish swimming along, and meeting an older fish swimming in the
opposite direction. The older fish nods at them and says, “Morning, boys.
How’s the water?” The two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually
one of them looks at the other and asks, “What the hell is water?”
Print to us is like water to fish: it’s hard to imagine any other way of
producing knowledge. The American Historical Association observed
last year that “History has been and remains a book-based discipline.” Of
course, there is much to be said for books. But limiting our expression of
knowledge to print makes less sense with each passing day. Almost all of us
now use computers to facilitate our research. Then we use word-processing
programs to express our knowledge. Then we share it, and our colleagues
read and annotate it, on a screen.
Furthermore, print carries inherent limits: books and articles support
some kinds of communication better than others. And sometimes it makes
more sense to use another medium to communicate scholarly knowledge.
The limits of text are obvious, for instance, for those using contemporary
oral history archives. In 1996, I conducted interviews, transcribed them,
and then quoted from the transcription in my articles and book. My use of
the interviews was several steps removed from the person who had spoken
the words. I was in good company. As historian Michael Frisch has noted,
the “Deep Dark Secret of oral history is that nobody spends much time
listening to or watching recorded and collected interview documents.”
If a scholar wants to present her findings on the Holocaust at the 2014
Congress, and the scholar has used a video archive such as the University
of Southern California Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive, she
could present her analysis alongside the actual, video-recorded testimony.
She could include her analysis, as well as the speaker’s emotion, facial
expression and tone of voice. Watching Holocaust survivors speak of their
experiences is very different from reading what they said – it might have
the feel of a scholarly guided tour of the archive. This isn’t book-based
history, but it is scholarship just the same.
Nor does history have to remain a book-based discipline in situations
where we are relating historical information connected to place. At its
stripped-down, most basic level, history is grounded in time and place. And
one of the best ways to relate information about place is with maps. Now
that we can make maps digital, we can show change over time, and provide
opportunities for users to explore specific information, and relationships
between different kinds of data, on their own.
The Hypercities project, developed at the University of California at
Los Angeles and the University of Southern California, uses Google maps
and overlaid information, such as historical maps, to present information
about the history of cities such as Berlin. Broadcast news clips, archived
photographs, digital 3D reconstructions, and video oral histories (potentially
those drawn from the Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive), can be
connected to a place. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz called for “thick description”– scholarship that includes both descriptions of human behaviour
and descriptions of the context of that behaviour so that it is meaningful to
an outsider. Todd Presner, one of the founders of Hypercities, calls this work
“Scholars of tomorrow won’t be able to say they’ve done
a systematic literature review. … The amount of information will
accumulate faster than they can read and understand it.”