June 12, 1999

No Computer Can Hold the Past


Does the Internet help college students learn? Enthusiasts proclaim that it has made a world of information available to any freshman with a computer. Skeptics warn that cyberspace is so full of junk that research in it will never amount to anything more than garbage collecting.

As a college teacher who has just started a program for publishing historical monographs on the Web, I concede that the skeptics have a case. But the problem with doing research on the Internet is not about garbage. It's that, by doing all their homework on the Internet, students may develop a misunderstanding of research itself and even of the subjects they are studying.

Historical research takes place in libraries and archives, but it is not a straightforward process of retrieving information. You may open a box of manuscripts and confront information in the form of letters or diaries or memos. But this raw material isn't raw at all. It's cooked. Every document embodies some rhetorical convention, argues for some hidden agenda, must be read between the lines and related to all the surrounding documents.

Moreover, most documents never make it into archives -- they didn't 100 years ago and they don't today, when government agencies shred, erase or discard most of the material they produce. And far from taking place primarily in governments, history happens to everyone.

Unfortunately for historians, the vast majority of humans have disappeared into the past, without leaving a trace of their existence. What remains amounts to nothing more than a tiny fragment of human experience, even though the components of that fragment could fill so many archival boxes that you couldn't get through a statistically significant sample of them if you read for centuries. How can you assemble a few pieces into a meaningful picture of the past?

The task seems daunting, yet our students arrive in class with the illusion that we've got history pretty well under control. It's in books, they think: hard facts bound between hard covers, and now we're making it all available on-line. How can we teach them that history is an interpretive science, not a body of facts; that it involves argument from evidence, not mere information; that it has no bottom line but is, by its very nature, bottomless?

To help students understand the nature of historical knowledge, we assign them research papers. Most of them will never open a box of manuscripts, but all of them can try to find a path of their own through printed sources scattered in a library. By studying texts and relating texts to one another, they can appreciate the tenuousness as well as the rigor involved in the attempt to make sense of the past. But instead of reading for meaning in books, many students search for information on the Internet.

Of course, the Internet can open up bibliographical pathways and can even provide digitized versions of primary sources. But no digitized text can duplicate the original -- its handwriting or typography, its layout, its paper and all the paratextual clues to its meaning.We read the front page of a newspaper as if it were a map of yesterday's events. We gauge the importance of each article by the size of its headline, its position (lead story on the right, off-lead on the left, lighter fare below the fold) and by whatever photographs or sidebars may accompany it. If we merely read the article in isolation on a screen, we would miss the context that shapes its meaning.

Digitizers often dump texts onto the Internet without considering their quality as sources, and students often fail to read those texts critically. Instead, they scan them with search engines, locate key words, jump in at any point and cobble passages together by computerized cutting and pasting.

"Where do you find history?" I imagine asking the students of the future.

"On the Web," they answer.

"How do you get at it?"

"By surfing."

"What method will you use to write your paper?"

"Access, download, hyperlink and printout."

Such thoughts touch off Luddite fantasies: smash all the computers and leave the Internet to drown in the ocean of its own junk. But that way madness lies, and my students have taught me that, if handled with care, the Internet can be an effective tool.

Last semester, I directed a student who was writing a research paper in Paris. After consulting me by E-mail, she followed the leads I gave her by logging on to French library catalogues. She located the relevant sources, read them, E-mailed drafts to me, rewrote extensively and got a well-earned A.

The Web can provide a way to publish research in fields where the monograph has become an endangered species, owing to the costs of publishing conventional books. The American Historical Association, with a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is sponsoring a program, Gutenberg-e, to publish dissertations -- not by dumping them unedited on the Internet but by reworking them into electronic books of the highest quality with skilled editors at Columbia University Press.

Instead of turning our backs on cyberspace, we need to take control of it -- to set standards, develop quality controls and direct traffic. Our students will learn to navigate the Internet successfully if we set up warning signals and teach them to obey: "Proceed with caution. Danger lies ahead."

Robert Darnton is a professor of history at Princeton.

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