This morning I had the pleasure of riding an hour out of town with a crew from the archives, so we could all creep into a hot, low-ceilinged attic full of boxes we weren’t allowed to touch. The attic was a little-used archival collection for a national park, and though we didn’t have legal custody of the collection, we were following a tip that it might contain some documents we’d been looking for. I haven’t been at this archivist thing for long, but moments like this tell me that, just maybe, I’ve found my tribe. After a few minutes of cautious, hands-off searching, one of our team spotted an old clipboard that turned out to be a finding aid, or something like it, and we had our first ray of hope that we might find a few needles in the haystack after all. Squinting through the handle-hole on an old banker box to see if I could read anything inside, a thought settled over me: this is what “searching” looks like when none of the technical, legal or administrative miracles of the internet are on your side. Wasn’t all of this Googling supposed to be dulling our minds?
In an article for the Atlantic, Nicholas Carr quotes a study from University College of London: “There are signs that new forms of ‘reading’ are emerging as users ‘power browse’….for quick wins,” the researchers wrote, “it almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.” Carr’s concern is for the time-honored traditions of “deep reading” that might be falling by the wayside in our increasingly searchable world and the “hyperactive, data-stoked minds” we bring to it. I sympathize with him, but I wonder if he’s looking at the whole picture. Every methodology belongs to a certain state of technology, so we shouldn’t be surprised when something as disruptive as the internet forces us to read our sources at a less leisurely pace. In an article about Google’s book-scanning project of the late 2000’s, Dan Cohen concludes that Google is ultimately a boon to historians because it “challenges age-old assumptions about the way we have done history.” Which is to say that our assumptions belong to one kind of library, and a very different kind of library is on the horizon.
The Digital Public Library of America might be one glimpse at that. It’s a wildly ambitious project to bring together digital records from libraries and archives all over the country. A quick search for Fort Spokane brings up images, oral histories and stories from a number of sources. Getting the DPLA off the ground is a technical achievement, but also an administrative one: There is a functioning network of service hubs and content hubs that distribute the work of taking on all of these records, and I think that’s the real heart of the project’s success so far. Robert Darnton seems to be seeing the big picture when he writes that these projects represent “the confluence of two currents that have shaped American civilization: utopianism and pragmatism.” Utopian because it carries the promise of radically easier and more widespread access to the world’s knowledge, and pragmatic because it drew from a sober appraisal of the problems that had hobbled other massive digitization projects, Google Books not least among them. As one of the DPLA’s original designers, Darnton has a perspective that is valuable because he can see both forces at work–as well as the drop of good luck that also separates the DPLA from some of its contemporaries.
Meanwhile, though, it would be a tragically lost opportunity if we did nothing with the internet except catalog our stacks of paper. As Darnton, Carr, and certainly Cohen would agree, the important potentials are the ones we don’t see coming. In a 2012 article for the National Council on Public History, Michael Mizell-Nelson calls out the Army Corps of Engineers for blocking a federal marker to commemorate the levees that failed in New Orleans’ lower 9th ward during Hurricane Katrina. So instead, his organization worked with the University of New Orleans to commemorate those events through NewOrleansHistorical.org. New Orleans’ site joins a few others built on CurateScape, one of a few platforms for presenting local history in a mobile-friendly, location-based platform. The levees offer a powerful example of the system’s potential. But more than that, these sites offer a grassroots answer to all of the problems we consider when we ask how Googling might “reprogram” us, in Carr’s phrase, or how Darnton’s “pragmatic utopianism” plays out without the resources of the DPLA behind it. As Mark Tabeau writes of Cleveland Historical, geolocating stories works “to make the city the context for storytelling and oral history.” Unlike a Google search, browsing one of these local sites takes an inherently finite space of possibilities and uses it to “index” stories with places and themes that users already have some connection to. It’s small data in a personal connection, but it’s also a kind of interpretation that we simply couldn’t have produced in the world of “deep reading,” card-catalog searching, and attics full of boxes.
The trick, of course, is that we live in both of those worlds at once. Are those challenges creating new kinds of thought and new kinds of thinkers? Absolutely. But I don’t think “dumbing us down” is any part of it. When we pry open those dusty boxes today, we might be lifting the documents inside into new life that their creators never could have imagined.