Is this Digitopia?

In the future, we’ll all be curators.

Sean Takats’ recent post looks again at how access to information changes out work. If readers will forgive some geezerish ramblings, I’ll recall what it was like back in the early 1990s, when I could reasonably have been called a digital media pioneer, and consider how new media resources change our practice.

I taught at Vassar College from 1990-1994. Michael Joyce, the author of the pioneering hypertext novel Afternoon, had a gig there, as well as the British historian Tony Wohl, who worked on George Landau’s In Memoriam Web, a hypertext organized around the Tennyson poem of the same name.

A “hypertext,” in case you don’t know, was a text with no boundaries and no fixed narrative direction. Readers could move through Afternoon and by clicking on different links, construct entirely different plots and outcomes. Any user of the In Memoriam Web (which was not actually on the web: it was on a disk) could add material at will: commentaries, criticisms, other pieces of prose or poetry. I found Joyce’s prose annoying and thought it was astounding that anyone would read Tennyson’s turgid and unpleasant In Memoriam in conventional prose, much less in a new and unconventional form. But the whole business of computers in those days combined giddy utopianism with a medicinal tendency to substitute “new” for fun or beautiful. Hypertexts bathed in the glow of the  “technological sublime.”

Hypertexts were going to end hierarchy and destroy the tyranny of the author; they would abolish ownership and democratize both scholarship and knowledge. Apple even had a program, called “Hypercard,” which allowed you to relatively easily create “hypertexts” in glorious black and white. 1

Hypertexts then arrived at your computer on a 3.5 inch floppy disk. The internet, in 1992, still kept humaninsts mostly at bay. It was slow–delivering a single black and white image gave you time to make another cup of coffee or possibly several. I spent a lot of time searching via “telnet” for interesting stuff, mostly thinking “wow, if this thing I was looking for was actually out there somewhere, it’d be really cool!” In 1993, the few humanities types surfing the web were thrilled by the release of NCSA Mosaic, reasonably termed the first “graphical web browser,” which allowed you to wait impatiently for small, low resolution images embedded in a plain gray web page of text with no margins. At the time, Yahoo was a gray page with about 98 links on it.

In 1994 I went to George Mason and became close friends with Roy Rosenzweig, who put me to work helping turn the textbook Who Built America into a CD-Rom version using, yes, Hypercard. CD Rom seemed like the way to go–the internet was brutally slow, hostile to anything but text, with an almost Puritan disdain for aesthetic pleasure.

Roy had just gotten the initial start up grant for CHNM. We took a local seminar on HTML, designed the first few CHNM web sites and set up our first web server, on a Mac IIsi in a broom closet. We did this partly because the University would at the time not allow faculty to upload files larger than 3 megabytes.

By then you could add color to a web page. In 1995 I devised an entire course, “Magic, Illusion and Detection,” around a game-like interface. A revised version, half heartedly updated in 2007, is still up at the internet archive has a version from 1997. It was very avante garde for its day, and a huge amount of work. Just finding the images took forever and involved trips to the Library of Congress and the Washington DC historical society. You can see the legacy of those early days if you enter the “movie theater.” The films playing, at tiny size, were probably in 1994 the world’s largest animated gifs!

It’s an obvious point but worth reiterating: many of the things being proposed as utopian possibilities in, say, the early 1990s, when I started teaching, have simply come true.

This week I prepared some new lectures in two different periods of American history. I was able to find images supporting every single point I wanted to make. And not just images: for a lecture on Harry Houdini I found his 1922 film The Man from Beyond; for a lecture on intelligence testing I found the full text of the report on IQ in the US Army in 1919. I gave a lecture on the Shakers: in 1994, images of Shaker communities were rare, and I actually brought a book to class and passed it around. Today there are thousands of images on the web and dozens of versions of the Shaker song Simple Gifts to chose from. At one time I went to the Library of Congress and after negotiating much bureaucracy managed to get  a videocassette of very early silent films to show in class. Nearly all of these have been subsequently posted to Youtube. None of this took much effort to find. The revolution is now: utopia is here.

That sounds ridiculous, maybe, and of course it’s not a perfect world. But the teaching part of my job is just completely, astonishingly different now. Assembling the materials of a good lecture–not just the intellectual materials, but particularly audio-visual materials like cartoons, movies, songs, posters, photos–was literally the hard work of a somewhat compulsive lifetime. Dedicated teachers constructed a library of books and file drawers full of transparencies and slides, a private archive that amounted to  a tangible physical  re-presentation of their thinking. See for example this page on Roland Marchand’s file cabinets. Few went as far as Marchand. But most of what Marchand collected is now available online elsewhere. 2

Not all the predictions of hypertext enthusiasts have come true, but a surprising percentage have. See, for example, this recent article in Slate about just how much of the world’s music is now online. Scholars now look less like discoverers or creators of knowledge and more like curators, choosing from existing collections and making meaning out of the choices, drawing on a deep background of contextual knowledge to assemble a plausible interpretation or theme. It’s obviously easier/more likely in some fields than others, and of course the relatively open access we now enjoy are always under threat of beng enclosed by copyright. But at the present, my job as teacher is feeling quite different than it did when I began, and in almost entirely positive ways. And just as it has effected teaching, so it will effect scholarship: scholarship will look increasingly “curatorial.”


  1. The In Memoriam Web was engrossed into  the Victorian Web: the site gives you an excellent example of really bad web design but also about how people were thinking about hypertext and in the 1990s
  2. Roy Rosenzweig had a similar huge collection, occupying boxes and boxes and cabinet after cabinet in his basement. When Roy passed away something had to be done with that material. Most of it was now available online. What to do with such an archive? His widow, Deborah Kaplan, describes the problem here.


  • Meredith wrote:

    Great stuff–lots to think about! While I agree that much has changed since I started teaching in 1998, and especially since I was a student myself, I also feel that much has remained constant. Maybe it’s because I’m a 20th-century historian, but I have never considered my role, either as a teacher or research, as finding new material, but rather as interpreting what’s available. Particularly in my Vietnam War class, I have always been very open with my students that I am essentially presenting an argument about the Vietnam War and that they would get something totally different from another professor teaching the same topic who assembles a different set of facts, images, and ideas. The same is true in my research–my book is essentially about framing the Vietnam War one way as opposed to another. Veterans of the war know exactly what I’m talking about. Some of them find it offensive, but all of them know it’s “old news,” even if the public at large doesn’t. I think we, as historians, need to focus our students’ attention on the acquisition of skills and project, to the public at large, that we have value not as finders of heretofore unknown file cabinets full of dusty documents, but as interpreters of the archive we all help to create.

  • Yes–this is what I mean by “curatorial.” There was always a curatorial aspect to what we did, but the whole “original research” piece was all about not curating but digging up. What you do with Vietnam is reframe a set of fairly well established facts–that’s not ALL, but it’s the key contribution. Research and teaching will probably come to look more like each other than they used to.

  • Being curatorial is often now simply assembling disparate parts into a whole, rather then understanding a whole within its context. Our paradigm is shifted towards re-assemblages a la Google image search results. (those just red – those just blue, those most popular, those similar, those from your county, those from the month of April, those from a Canaon, those under 1 mb, those by females …)

    Just as your posting on the demise of the page and the rise of the separated word link/search paradigm, our way of accessing and interacting with the world is devolving into simply knowing about bits and pieces. (Given your finger and your ear and your limbs, would I know the you that has relations and feelings for others within an actual biography?) As farfelu as it may seem, when we exclude context, [the whole and its relations to others,] we are left with re-assemblages, concatenations of meaning. Truth is always seen in the periphery, not focused upon as we do with the individual pieces of data. Because truth is within a context.

    Not to dismiss sequential logic, but the disappearance of our attending to meaning instead of our society’s movement towards always intending a meaning is downright scary.

    You can see how quickly we have come to arrive here, where would you extrapolate our ways of knowing the world it we continues to shift our ways of acting in the world to interacting only with isolated parts of it?

    Seeking balance.

  • I think I want to recapture “curatorial” as an aesthetic act: as something like connoisseurship. A focus on story telling and discernment. You are right that assemblage is easy. What scholars ought to offer is assemblage with a high level of discernment and context, and an ability to make surprising and meaningful pairings across genres and categories: that is, to meaning-making.

  • Hi Mike,

    It would be helpful if you’d unpack this more:
    \many of the things being pro­posed as utopian pos­si­bil­i­ties in, say, the early 1990s, when I started teach­ing, have sim­ply come true.\

    I got into a bit of an argument about it on twitter, where a colleague responded by saying that
    \The basic predictions of 90’s techno-utopianism were the opposite of what happened.\

    Certainly there’s more on the web –which is gamechanging — and I especially agree with your points on curation.

    A review of what those predictions were and where things stand now would be really useful, if you’ve got the time and interest to take it up.

  • Hi, Mike,

    I enjoyed this post, but I do want to bring a non-Americanist perspective to your thinking. Those of us who work outside the United States, or perhaps I’ll just limit myself to those who work in the former Soviet Union, are still quite deep in the work of “digging up.” I won’t say that Russia and the other former Soviet states will never move toward making things available on the web in a large way, but it is nowhere near the case currently.

    This comes as perhaps sour grapes from someone contemplating all the research required for the second book and has gone from not only lamenting that my poor American history colleagues must go “all the way to Richmond” to do their research to lamenting that they need only go to their keyboard. But, I think you perhaps need to limit your sense of what historians are doing to American historians (and perhaps Western European ones as well, but about them I’m uncertain).

  • You are surely right that there are vast differences in what’s been digitized, but it’s hard to doubt that the trend is towards more and more digitization. It’s just cheaper all around. Rosie likes to tell me that the resources in her field will never never be all digitized: I think she’s dead wrong.

    As long as I’m wallowing in nostalgia, I remember having many conversations with Roy in the late 1990s about how the contents of big libraries, like, say U mich., would never be digitized because OCR was slow and expensive.

    So you are right that this post is egregiously US centric. And also the era I study–from 1880 through 1930–is sort of the golden ideal for digitization: lots of print, typewwriters in common use, and pre-copyright. That being said, it sure looks like the arc is towards increased digitization. Ownership–the intellectual problem–will probably be a bigger barrier than technology

  • There is no doubt that the Russian problem is primarily about ownership. So long as oil is at $100 plus a barrel, the Russian government is awash in money. What mass digitization would require is a fundamental cultural shift in the way Russian archivists think about their jobs. A colleague of mine has always been fond of explaining the difference in archivists’ sense of their jobs thus: “American archivists think their job is to facilitate access to information. Russian archivists think their job is to prevent access to information.” Or as a Russian archivist once proudly proclaimed–after the fall of the Soviet Union–“We must protect the secrets of the Soviet Union.” Granted this is probably a bit of an overstatement on both sides, anyone who has struggled to get access to material in a Russian archive recognizes the grain of truth.

    I was recently at a seminar discussing the impending publication of Brezhnev’s diaries. (The only Soviet leader who wrote a diary.) Even there with unabridged publication imminent, my suggestion that they be made available digitally simply did not compute.

  • What exactly do you mean by digitize? If you mean putting images up of primary sources, then I can see, one day in the future, the majority of them being available online. But if you mean transcribed and searchable, I just can’t see it. George Washington’s papers alone will eventually fill 90 volumes. I’m currently working on an Alexandria store ledger from 1765. It’s barely legible, and transcribing it is like solving a puzzle. So, perhaps computers will eventually be able to figure that out, but how well? In GW’s ledger, he has about 5 different ways of writing “8.” If I am doing a study of how much people in Alexandria were paying for slaves, one incorrect number could damage my findings. Ideally for me, I need BOTH the original and, if available, a transcription to compare. Right now, that is expensive. One day, maybe? Perhaps I am just not far-sighted enough, but I’d rather be surprised than disappointed (I mean, where is my hover car?!?!).

  • Well the classic answer is “crowd sourcing:” scholars who use the material will post and share their versions. For example, I posted most of the videos I use to teach early film–I paid years ago to have them put on VHS,then digitized them, then posted them to Youtube.

    I have to ask–and Chris Hamner would agree–why in the world is anyone still putting out paper copies of Washington’s papers? Surely they have been available as digital documents–the files sent to the printer–since at least 1990? And if google books can scan 12 million books in five years surely those volumes can be digitized? I’d take them as page images, but It seems perfectly reasonable that OCR software will be able to handle handwriting, at some point. And then there will be no way to stop spam bots from commenting!

  • The paper versions have been a work in progress since 1968, so I imagine they are intent on finishing the collection. ( What is complete, however, is available online. They are transcribing everything, and then having it edited and annotated by professional editors/historians. You can find the images of some of these documents at the Library of Congress website. But they are now being transcribed (for example, I did some financial ledgers) and made searchable.

    I agree about the crowd sourcing for videos such as you have, but with my recent experiences I still can’t trust a stranger’s transcription of a primary source that is vital to my research. I’m sure I’ll get over that if I want my dissertation completed in less than 20 years?!

  • see below

  • I agree–the idea of strangers transcribing for me is kind of worrisome. But I think of it as a version of Steve’s very real anxiety, that the archivist is withholding documents

  • Katja Hering wrote:

    Aporetics, Hang in There in Digitopia!

    I don’t think that the increasing availability of digital materials online has triggered a movement in historical research that places less emphasis on “digging up,” and instead more on curating and contextualizing – I think both “digging up” and curating materials have been and continue to be essential parts of historical work (and Steve Barnes makes that point in regard to research on the former SU). Rather, the most significant change is in the type of materials that continue to be dug up and curated, and in the ways this is – or could be – done. And this requires new approaches to both classical source criticism and discourse analysis in the digital environment – questions not only about the context of the original sources, but also about the context of the creation of the digital surrogates or digital mediations – what are the driving forces, the power dynamics, the political economy of the current movements driving digitization – which materials are made available, by whom, for what purpose – in other words, what is included, what is excluded here in the smaller or larger selection of materials that are digitized and made available online? This also includes questions about the political, economic, and cultural dynamics of access, and about the ways these materials are made accessible and ranked through search engines, commercial and non commercial databases, digital archives, etc.

    Which brings me to my other point – the assumption in this (and other) posts that somehow digitizing is “cheap” and “easy” and that it is possible to digitize all materials currently in archives, or that are currently being consulted. Digitization tends to be neither cheap nor easy, and sustaining digital archives for both access and preservation is also neither cheap nor is it easy. Instead, it tends to be complex, labor intensive, and expensive. Quoting budgets or average costs wouldn’t really help here as long as you don’t specify what kind of projects you are talking about — digitization is not digitization, and it depends on what you are digitizing for what purpose. Do you just digitize for your own research, or for materials available in a public, online, archive, is it digitization for access, for preservation, or both? Archival quality digital surrogates require a lot more work – and, usually more money, than just access copies that you make with your digital camera for your own research. While in some cases digitization of some texts can be straightforward and inexpensive, the costs are usually staggering for audio-visual materials sitting in archives that can be played only by equipment that is no longer produced and supported – and of course you need that equipment to be able to digitize — ranging from really old formats like cylinders and wires, to many different types of reel-to-reel tapes, Betamax and Umatic video tapes, and many other formats – digitizing these formats requires special equipment and skilled labor in real time – there is no way to speed up the digitization of a two hour analog tape – and there are millions and millions of these recordings sitting in archives today – of course it would be great if it happened, but they just can’t all be digitized, nor can all digital materials (digitized and born digital) be preserved in the long run…

    In addition to the technical costs and the costs for adding metadata for access and preservation, the costs for digitization also include the costs for a re-appraisal of the materials for the purpose of digitization, you have to check legal issues, especially copyrights, but also consider and deal with various ethical problems that the digitization – and usually increased public access of these materials — might raise — potential violations of individual privacy, i.e. medical information that surfaces in collections, or issues with cultural privacy, as has been frequently the case with materials documenting Native American life and traditions, but also with other materials and collections. And that process takes time, labor, and resources.

    Another issue is that you can’t assume that digitization automatically means more access – while it can lead to much wider access, digitization can also lead to less access, or to different forms of restrictions– this is the case for many journals that have been digitized and that are now made available through commercial databases – the digital copies are no longer owned by libraries as were the hard copies, and libraries and users have to pay hefty fees to access and use these databases.

    So, the assumption that all materials and all archives can be digitized, and the underlying idea that there is or will be some kind of “total” digital archive in some kind of idealized digital commons available for everyone is not only unrealistic, it is also structured by a very un-post-structuralist positivism – amidst all the awe about what is out there and available online (and, of course, it is amazing, especially if you compare it to the days when you worked through cross references in card catalogs, or hooked up to the LC catalog through, there have to be questions about what is *not* there and not made accessible, about the silences in the collections and the digital archives, and the materials not indexed, or those ranked low, by search engines.

    Overall, given the costs of digitization, and the costs of maintaining digital collections, and the problems with access to these materials, or potential problems down the road, it continues to be important and prudent to ask the question whether digitization is worth it, even if it seems like a no brainer and the benefits appear obvious right now. Stuart D. Lee, who was then manager of the Humanities Computing Unit at Oxford University Libraries, wrote a good article about this ten years ago – while a lot of the information and the figures in the article are dated, his questions, and his encouragement to question whether digitization is worth it (at this time) on a case by case basis, continues to be relevant, even if one feels like the child pointing out the Emperor’s nakedness at the parade where everyone else is cheering the Emperor’s new clothes, as he wrote. And this is nothing but an appeal to all aporetics to hang in there, and keep doubting and questioning, even out there in digitopia…

    Stuart D. Lee, Digitization: Is It Worth It? Computers in Libraries 21 (May 2001), (last accessed May 5, 2011).

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