World Digital Library?

In case you didn’t see Librarian of Congress James Billington’s op ed piece in the Washington Post on November 21, he announces a big initiative to create a World Digital Library in which the great works of print are digitized. Guess who’s helping to pay for it? Google did you say? Give the lucky lady a prize!

The column begins:

Digitized, instant communication is the great technological revolution of our time. It has streamlined business and delivered more information more quickly to more people than ever. And it has accelerated basic and applied research. Both the problems and the researchers who work on them are scattered around the world, but they come together in a common focus on the Internet…

Later he argues:

Libraries are inherently islands of freedom and antidotes to fanaticism. They are temples of pluralism where books that contradict one another stand peacefully side by side just as intellectual antagonists work peacefully next to each other in reading rooms. It is legitimate and in our nation’s interest that the new technology be used internationally, both by the private sector to promote economic enterprise and by the public sector to promote democratic institutions. But it is also necessary that America have a more inclusive foreign cultural policy — and not just to blunt charges that we are insensitive cultural imperialists. We have an opportunity and an obligation to form a private-public partnership to use this new technology to celebrate the cultural variety of the world.

Through a World Digital Library, the rich store of the world’s culture could be provided in a form more universally accessible than ever before. An American partnership in promoting such a project for UNESCO would show how we are helping other people recover distinctive elements of their cultures through a shared enterprise that may also help them discover more about the experience of our own and other free cultures.

Somehow creating a World Digital Library turned into an instrument of foreign policy. It’s an interesting leap but not one I’m sure I follow. Part of the problem for people like Billington is that big initiatives like this one need to be “policy relevant” if they are going to be sold successfully on Capitol Hill. It’s a shame that he can’t just make the argument on its merits. I suppose the good news is the the digital capabilities of the Big Library will be used now to begin bringing together similar initiatives on a global scale.

Off the desktop

What will happen to digital history when it moves off the desktop and into the handheld device? The day of the migration from desktop computer to handheld portable device is closing in on us fast, but will it transform what we do with digital history in the same ways that the migration from CD-Rom to the Internet changed what we do?

What makes me think this change is in the wind? For me the most important indicator is the amount of money corporate America is betting on the shift to the handheld device. Apple Computer has placed a huge bet on the new iPod with video capability and TiVo To Go hit the market shortly thereafter. And the telecoms are all planning on streaming lots and lots of video content to your phone (thereby using up lots and lots of the minutes on your service plan). The complaints I’ve heard are (a) the screen is too small to see much and there isn’t much content available. I suspect there won’t be a lot done about screen size, although the resolution is fantastic on the new iPod, but the content will start flowing pretty fast.

What does this mean for historians interested in the digital presentation of information.

Imagine this first scenario: A visitor to the Manassas Battlefield National Park stops in the park’s visitor center, plugs his or her iPod into a download station pops in the ear buds and sets off on a walking tour of Chinn Ridge, the Old Stone Bridge and other landmarks of the two Civil War battles there. Along the way, our visitor gets not only an audio tour, but is able to see historical images from the various stops on the tour, can access texts such as letters home from soldiers who fought there, or can download entire documents to read later at home.

Scenario number two: A visitor to the National Gallery of Art stands before Renoir’s Odalisque. In addition to listening to an audio tour, our visitor sees on the handheld screen smaller pieces of the larger work to focus on, can click over to a different work in the same orientalist style for comparison, can read something Renoir wrote about the work, can trace its provenance over time, and can download more information for later perusal.

Scenario number three: A student visits the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum for class. Standing in front of a 1930s photograph of a German woman wearing a sign that brands her as a race traitor because she slept with a Jewish man, our student can then access the Museum’s digital library of other such images, can read accounts of women humiliated in this way, can download documents for later research and can read postings in a discussion forum of other students who have stood in that same spot in the Museum.

These are just three scenarios that occur to me off the top of my head as I ponder what we might do when we take history off the desktop and out into the world. The possibilities are nothing less than exciting.

Digital Classrooms

My graduate students have weighed in on the topic of “digital classrooms” in their class blog. Their postings are very instructive because they offer the view of the next generation of historians on where digital media will (and won’t) take us in the teaching and learning of history. As I read their contributions to the blog I was struck by the sense of comfort that they had with digital media, but also with the continuing unease many felt for the shift away from the more traditional methods of history teaching.

I share some of that unease, raised as I was in the Joe Friday school of history (“Just the facts, sir”). Every week I worry that my students will emerge from my course without the facts they need to qualify as educated in the subjects I am teaching. But then I kick myself in the rear (no mean feat given my lack of flexibility these days) and remind myself that facts can be looked up–it is the ability to work with those facts that is most important.

Changing attitudes

This past weekend I attended the national conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies in Salt Lake City. In addition to the usual conference activities of presenting a paper, serving as the discussant on a panel, and doing a lot of schmoozing with colleagues, I attended my first meeting of the Education Committee of the Association. This was a duty I volunteered for because it seemed to me that the AAASS could be doing a good bit more to promote our field through the ways that our varied subjects are taught.

AAASS is an ecumenical scholarly society in that anyone in any discipline that is in any way associated with Slavic, Soviet, or East Bloc society can feel at home. Thus, we have historians, political scientists, anthropologists, economists, linguists and literary scholars all mingling together. During the Cold War, AAASS was where it was happening. Although I didn�t join the association until after the collapse of Communism in Europe and Eurasia, I sure heard enough stories about how much bigger the Association used to be. In any given year, more than 3,000 scholars and others would attend the annual meeting. Last weekend somewhere around 1,000 people showed up in Salt Lake City and I�m willing to bet that membership in the Association is down by a similar percentage.

So, given that our field is now going to be smaller than it was when understanding those East Bloc types was vital to our very existence, why not reinvigorate what we�re doing by focusing more on our students? One way to accomplish this would be to get the Association�s membership thinking more about the scholarship of teaching and learning. We�ll see what�s possible to achieve in the months to come.