The Past: A Necessary Part of the Future.

“Historians are not particularly hostile to new technology, but they are not ready to welcome fundamental changes to their cultural position or their modes of work. Having lived our professional careers in a culture of scarcity, historians find that a world of abundance can be unsettling.” – Rosensweig

In a recent article, CAUT President Wayne Peters notes that “At a time when we are flooded with streams of information coming at us in all forms and from all sources, it is extremely odd and contradictory that libra­rians would be deemed less than essential”. He is arguing for academics to understand and promote the work of librarians at universities, claiming that they are ‘under attack’ in an age when information has exploded out of the walls of the physical library. I agree with Peters: it doesn’t make much sense for library administration to assume that technology can replace the trained information professional. Technological advances such as the World Wide Web and the search engine may indeed have made more information more available to more people, but that doesn’t mean that there is no longer a need to collate, organize, and preserve this information. In reality the need for these skills should be more in demand than ever before. They should be so in demand, I would argue, that to leave librarians as the sole gate-keepers of information might not be enough. Academics from any profession that deems the past a necessary part of the future should be willing to work with librarians and archivists to understand the technological changes the world of information is undergoing and to assist in the preservation of this digital environment.

One example of this type of scholar is historians, who are well aware that their profession is a’changing. The future historians (those who study the year 2000, for example) will no longer face the scarcity of human records that the profession has been dealing with for decades. Information is plentiful. The world’s population has just surpassed 7 Billion people. With information such as census records, credit card bills, tax payments, and genealogical trees all readily available online, the historian will no longer have to construct the past from a few small records, but will have piles of information to sort through in order to ‘rebuild’ someone’s life. And, of course, it doesn’t stop there… as privacy concerns lessen, people of all ages post information about themselves, such as phone numbers, addresses, conversations with friends, and photographs all over social websites like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. In April of 2010, the Library of Congress announced that it was going to digitally archive all public tweets made since 2006. Just imagine what historians could have done with the collected daily thoughts of Napoleon or Elizabeth I. Now those will be available for the 80 million users of Twitter, plus those that don’t use the service, but are spoken about by people who do!

As the type and number of documents that historians have access to change, so must the tools that they use to pursue the past. It is these tools, I believe, developed by a new generation of historians who aren’t afraid to code, that can help librarians and archivists to deal with information overload.

The shift from scarcity to abundance that was well documented by Rosenzweig has created a number of exciting opportunities for historians. While it is true that the digitization of documents from all over the globe means that scholars will travel less (be it across the Atlantic or over to the archive) and spend more time researching, it has become evident that new ways of dealing with these texts are needed. New websites and databases are being created every day, all of which help to collect documents that might not have been readily available if librarians were the only ones performing the task. In order to keep things moving at this rapid pace, today’s history professors have to continually inspire the new generation. Born-Digitals, Digital Natives, or whatever term follows them into the future, this generation definitely has new classroom needs that stem from an unprecedented technological learning curve.

Information is already being collected in ways that will change how the next generation of students learn. For example, look at Google’s 3-D Ancient Rome Project, which allows users to travel virtually through Rome in 320 A.D. If people believe that this generation of students are visual learners, then this might catch their attention much faster than a book on the same topic.

Or just take a minute to check out what people are doing with words. ManyEyes, Voyeur and Wordle all provide free and easy ways to challenge your thinking about word use.[1] For example, I’ve created an image that shows word use in this blog post.

The largest words are the ones I’ve used the most frequently in this post. Conjunctions, articles and prepositions are left out for clarity. Although Wordles look pretty, just imagine what a quick copy/paste of a text you were unfamiliar with could tell you about its subject. There is also the option to organize the words alphabetically, change direction or colour of your image, and delete the words you don’t feel are necessary.

These are just two examples of teaching tools that could easily be worked into a high-school history syllabus. Although it is important to be aware of the next generation of students, today’s historians and librarians could take a quick lesson from the kindergarten class that would help both their teaching and their research: play nice.

The literature shows that librarians are not always (or often) perceived by the scholarly community as true academics. They have access to the material you need, know the quickest ways to find it, can order it for you if it’s not available at your institution, and, believe it or not, have research interests of their own! Most academic librarians in Ontario have research time as part of their contracts, and many would love to get involved in a digital history project. They would know the copyrights that might affect your study, know places to archive your material and may even know people who are doing work similar to your own. And this goes for the librarians out there as well! If you hear of a project going on at your institution that interests you, offer them your services. Chances are the project team would be more than happy to have a librarian on board.

There are plenty of places for this type of collaboration to take place. Numerous digital history projects exist that have involved librarians, and that librarians in turn use as resources for their patrons. Unconferences such as THATCamps offer weekend-long talks and workshops on the future of education and how to solve the problems that accompany information abundance. Great projects result from these weekends, such as DHCommons, a site currently in beta mode which will allow projects to be posted with relevant information so that those interested in helping out can contact the team directly. The more and more we work together to understand the situation we are in with the vast amount of information available to us, the more scarce it will seem.


[1] Stay tuned for an upcoming post about the Visualization workshop at THATCamp GTA.


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