All About That Stuff, No Treble

Established Historians today are faced with a problem that might seem new to and disconcerting: the feeling that there is too much information. Author and historian Ann M Blair points out that this feeling actually accompanies any advances in information and communication technology. While it may be true that medieval scholars were also frustrated by the inundation of books, what can historians today do to ease their suffering?

It was much more fun to complain about the old ones than to have new ones.

Blair begins by introducing us to the idea that “the perception of overload is best explained, therefore, not simply as the result of an objective state, but rather as the result of a coincidence of causal factors, including existing tools, cultural or personal expectations, and changes in the quantity of quality of information to be absorbed and managed…” So perhaps one’s sense of anxiety might be assuaged by gaining a grasp on the tools available for the digital historian.

To start at the very beginning, Daniel J Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig introduce us to the tools available to the MySpace-era digital historian. The authors helpfully explain internet tips that didn’t mystify in 2005, let alone the readers of this blog today: “On the web, the seemingly clear window of the browser obscures many of these helpful clues. Type in an address (also known as a uniform resource locator, or URL, in the acronymic terminology of the Internet that will dot this chapter but we hope not spoil it), and the browser magically fishes a “web page” out of the wide sea of the Internet.” At the time this paragraph was published, today’s freshly graduated history students already knew how to put glittering gifs on their MySpace profile with no problems. Other helpful hints: “The teacher who wants to supplement a course syllabus with online student interactions could achieve this goal in several ways, from an email list to a web-based bulletin board to instant messaging to a blog to a wiki to commercial course management software,” and “Like the proverbial tree falling in the forest, the Google page came into existence only when a user wanted to view it, and it vanished once the viewer moved on. Google search results, thus, lack the reassuringly fixed quality of cards in an old-fashioned library catalog.” Because so many of us were bemoaning the loss of the card catalog, right?

Another consideration given by Cohen and Rosenzweig that has been largely forgotten about in the prevailing 9 years is data considerations. Telling students today to worry about “bits” in the quality of their images is no longer the concern they lead to when they say, “if you gathered just one “bit” of information—the smallest unit of computer memory or storage—about a tiny section of a painting, you would be able to represent that detail only as black or white, which would be highly distorting for a work by Monet. But with 24 bits , you would have millions of colors at your disposal and could thus better approximate, though never fully match, the rich rainbow hues of Monet’s Water Lilies.” Today, we upload photos of several megabytes to our Facebook profiles from our phones in a matter of seconds, and the quality of them is so far above 24 bits of information, we don’t give it a second thought. While I still agree that looking at a high quality photo of a famous painting will never be the same as seeing the brush strokes in person, I would argue that a high definition photo of Monet’s Water Lilies is better than a photo printed in a textbook.

It took me less than 3 minutes to search for, select, download and insert this photo into my blog.
It took me less than 3 minutes to search for, select, download and insert this photo into my blog.

Finally, I would like to say a few words on keeping your digital history project alive after you have moved on in your own life. Dr Cebula has brought us this week to Tim Sherratt’s article on White Australia. Despite its publish date of only December 1, 2011, and the fact that it was modified in 2012, the first two paragraphs bring us to this:


This is just one of several broken images in this article. When you let a project limp along like this, you work will cease to be taken seriously. Any factor that gives your work the feel of being dated or unpolished will increase the likelihood that future scholars will pass over your site in lieu of flashier, though surely less academic, sources than your own, keeping your from becoming a Great Historian. Don’t miss out on becoming a Great Historian.


3 thoughts on “All About That Stuff, No Treble

  1. Thank you for emphasizing the fact that digital projects become outdated and need to be continuously monitored and upgraded. This is something that distinguishes digital work from typical academic projects such as writing a book or journal article. With a traditional project, after you complete all of that research and work, you can walk away and leave it alone. With a digital project you almost have to be willing to commit to continuously working on and upgrading that project for the next 10-15 years, which I have to say sounds extremely daunting.


  2. I love your inclusion of video and pop references in your blogs, just thought you’d like to know.
    Upkeep is very important to keep a website valid and professional. Its a good comparison to a pet or a child. You put a lot of your time and effort into it, but if you are lacking time and effort it your (lack of)action can cause extreme harm to it.


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