In Digital History Hacks, William Turkel is offering up an intriguing series of posts about the ways historians need to start rethinking research, especially bibliographical research, in the digital age. As he points out in one of several recent posts on this subject,
The number of records for digital materials entered into WorldCat was less than about 20,000 per year from the mid-1980s through 1998. In 1999, it jumped to about 30,000. In 2000, it jumped again, this time to over 160,000. Every year since then, more than 100,000 records have been entered for digital materials each year. That is just the stuff that is showing up in WorldCat. Not counting Google’s relatively new project to make 30 million books full text searchable.
It’s time we rethink bibliography and historiography as processes, or better yet, as processing, as something that our bots can be continually working on in the background.
Turkel is absolutely right. The old saw about trying to keep up with scholarship in one’s field being like trying to get a drink from a fire hose doesn’t work any more. Now it’s like trying to get a drink from Lake Ontario as it is dumped on your head in one fell swoop. Pity the poor graduate student who has to try to master this flow of information!
Even in our department, which has a new media requirement as part of our PhD program, we don’t teach our students the kinds of skills they need (and will soon desperately need) if they are going to manage to construct useful bibliographies in their chosen subject areas. Using the Syllabus Finder, I searched various permutations of phrases (humanities computing, historical computing, historical data processing, etc.) to see if others were offering such training. Not surprisingly, I couldn’t find any examples.
There is simply too much online already and, as Turkel’s post points out, “too much” is a very relative concept. By this time next year, the amount of information available to us as historians will have increased yet again by a mind-numbing amount.
So, if we are going to prepare our students for this digital future, we must find ways to teach them to engage in the sort of higher level information processing that Turkel describes. And, we have to develop the tools, whether bots, spiders, or something else, that will help those who need it most.