Books are Networks
September 5, 2011
Posted in Digital Education
When academics especially humanists think of using the web we use as our model the printed page. We have online “journals” and are looking for ways to produce online “books”. This is of course natural in that these are things most familiar and that have made up most of our lives. We have learned how to analyze, produce and teach with these printed materials and are loathe to relinquish these things in which we have invested so much. Much of the the current stage of digitization has been about being able to reproduce printed materials for easier dissemination. Yes non-printed materials like photographs and to a lesser extent audio, video and film have also been reproduced but they are just the tail on printed materials digital dog. This digitization has allowed archives and libraries to reach a much wider audience and have made research so much easier that it would be foolish to bemoan this occurrence. However other attempts at the digital humanities from “Anthologize” to “Sophie” have also been attempts to reproduce print forms and analogues with varying degrees of success.
While I wish all of these projects success (after all when it comes to the digital humanities let a thousand flowers grow) I wonder if the “book” as model is too limiting and we should build new models around what the web does best. One such could be the network. As David Theo Goldberg point out at a workshop recently if one looks at the “Acknowledgments” for any book one can see that a book itself is a network that has involved many people including helpful librarians and archivists, colleagues who have suggested ideas, and others who have helped produce the book or simply tolerated the author while the book was being produced. The book itself links materials found in various archives and ideas drawn from scholars or books the author has encountered most of which are listed in the footnotes and bibliographies. In the best books these links have been subjected to the author’s own analysis and then frozen in time in the book format. This analysis has generally gestated over several years as the materials were collected and then sat in the book publishing process for from six months to several years. Some have benefited from this process and aged like fine wine; others have stagnated and seem stale when released. In the resulting publishing process most often the books concerning current events are those hurriedly pushed to press and those meticulously researched and analyzed do not concern current events. This also can be a blessing as well as a curse. Many books produced in the flush of current events can be timely and accurate while those produced later can be more reflective, considered and take into account consequences and manifestations of current events that do not occur immediately. Although the publishing industry is struggling to adapt to the digital domain the book is not dead and will inevitable be a part of the landscape for many years to come.
I would like to suggest another model however: the networked web site which links many of the same sources that a book would use, provides analysis, produces an immediacy that books necessarily lack and can change in an agile fashion to create a “non-frozen” end product that can be brought up to date as circumstances warrant. Let me take each of these things in turn. I am a historian by trade and the process of visiting archives never fails to give me the thrill of holding the same (or a copy of a) letter that an important historical personage held or the personal insight into a person or event. The digitization of materials only gives an attenuated version of this thrill if one at all but that digitization has made those materials available to a much wider audience. In fact this digitization has made so many materials available that it threatens to drown us. A scholar provides a selection of and a guide through such materials whether in the printed form of a book or in this new form of a website. This collection of material can itself be actual or virtual with the scholar either creating an archive of actual materials, notes on materials, or links and footnotes to such materials.
The web site as well as the book privileges the author’s analysis even as it may disguise its nature as one person’s opinion beneath the “authority” which the form conveys. The difference of course is that the publishing process usually provides a “vetting” of the writer’s analysis while the Web does not necessary have that restriction. In this “vetting” process at the very least the author’s production, collection and selection of data, his or her logical inferences and the form of assertion should be examined. The author should be able to answer the questions, “Why do you think this is true?” and “Why should we believe you?” The written piece should respond “These pieces of evidence lead me to believe that such and such is probably true and you should believe too.” This is no less true for the website. The difference is that instead of having a panel of “professionals” do the vetting, it in effect “crowd sources” the vetting. The crowd should not accept whatever is presented uncritically, a lesson too often demonstrated by its omission. The user of the web site must examine the author’s analysis, use of logic, assumptions and implications. Through analysis the scholar points out which materials are relevant and which are only marginally so. Data give analysis its support but analysis gives data its importance as well. The author’s use or misuse of logic, underlying assumptions and the implications drawn from the analysis must also be carefully scrutinized. Of course one should do this with books or articles as well, but too often reliance on the vetting system is the normal approach particularly for those who feel they know little about the subject. The web site lacking this system calls for user to do it themselves.
A web site with rich media can do things that a book or article can’t. Ever since Woodrow Wilson called Birth of a Nation “history written with lightning,” people have recognized the impact that multimedia can have on the presentation of “history.” In a world where we are constantly bombarded with images from movies and TV, where Youtube has become a part of everyday life, where the increasing digitization of text, video and audio has occurred, and where the Internet has become the fastest and widest disseminator of information; the gaining of knowledge through reading alone is not the preferred or most effective option. The abundance of historical media that begins with the 19th century development of photography and the 20th century developments of the motion picture, radio and television has created abundant resources. At the same time the formation of the web, social media and generations X, Y and beyond, have prepared an audience for multimedia history. Multimedia history creates an experience that is more real than reality; more in line with the way reality is perceived; and more easily absorbed than written history. Rather than spending pages of text describing something with rich media we can show or demonstrate it. By networking things in a specific database or by linking them to virtual databases we can draw a variety of sources into our analysis. We can use text, photographs, audio, video, feature films, graphic art, documentaries and such to name a few.
The web site is extremely flexible. The collection of media can be changed or augmented as new things become available, analyses are changed, or things become obsolete. Unlike books it is not frozen in time as long as maintenance is periodically done. Like books users can proceed at their own pace, go into depth on some parts which are of interest, skim or omit those which aren’t, and go back for repeated viewings. Unlike books users can also drill down through links that take one away from the web site to follow interests that they may develop through the web site and still return. The web site is therefore not only a product in itself but also a gateway to other places and media. It is the equivalent of reading a book in a well stocked library where many of the books, articles or media are right at hand.
Finally the web site should allow for the democratization of knowledge. Not only will it be disseminated and widely available but it will allow for other analyses as well. The author of course controls his analysis which is embedded in the site in both obvious and subtle ways. Many users will go to the site just for such guided analysis and to bring the work of the professional historian into the public domain is a worthy goal. Other analyses using the same or different media are of course also possible. By allowing for other analyses, filtered along qualitative and not ideological grounds, the web site can grow as users add new media or analyses to it. It becomes a living thing that occasions revisits to note changes and new parts.