The Exhibitor vs. the Card Catalog Junkie: Scholars, Academics, and the Public
In these first few months as Chicago's Digital Historian, I've given myself the task of having a lotta coffee. I'm having coffee with the GIS peeps, the archivists, the tech-savvy archaeologists... everyone, in short, who can tell me where the future lies.
Here's an assertion. When they go online, scholars go in one of two directions. Most of them, thinking they've been invited to curate a library installation of delightful rare books, create a gorgeous online exhibit. If you don't know what I'm talking about, go here and feast your hungry eyes: http://speculum.lib.uchicago.edu/
Many fewer of them, but some very smart folks, imagine themselves to be hanging out around an enormous virtual card catalog, craning over their colleagues' shoulders. "Oh, I LOVE that book!" "And have you read his other works?" "That reminds me of this editorial I read the other day..." If you don't know what you're talking about, read this version of the chatter that sits on my desktop all day: http://delicious.com/tag/academia
The card catalog junkies, not the exhibitors, are the way of the future, of course. They're the ones who take full advantage of the internet's full social capabilities: hanging out with scholars beyond their department. Sharing notecards. Sharing references. Experimenting in new exchanges, rapid-fire ways of seeing patterns and sorting data. They include grad students enrolled in digital history courses, twittering professors, helpful librarians, and dissertation-writers who make their notecards public to anyone who wants to read them. Mostly they operate for their own, finite, friendly, social purposes. Sometimes because online organizing helps their own creative process.
But the exhibitors operate out of some impulses with great staying power. The exhibitors operate out of fear and respect for their discipline. Terrified of promoting second-rate material, they only share their students' work if it's already edited. They also operate out of love of beauty, a respect for manuscripts, and a desire to connect the consumption-driven contemporary public to the noble minds of the past. That, and they're funded. Massively funded. NEH grants and Macarthur money sits behind a lot of their projects; that, rather than direction from the librarians or the universities, has meant the flourishing of so many digital exhibits.
On the surface, the exhibitors seem to care more about the public. They made these gorgeous installations for the benefit of an admiring public, right? It's *their* neat websites that smooth out the rough edges, present a ready-to-go taxonomy of searchable terms ("nineteenth century" "slavery" "abolition" "Abraham Lincoln"). Many even begin with ideas about encouraging their students to share, learn, and promote new scholarship online. They book computer-laden classrooms and learning sessions where their grad students work on collaboratively translating Greek.
Ironically, however, the exhibitors are actively dodging some of the most public opportunities for reaching the public. Presenting the public with a didactic, one-way model of the professor-as-podium, they present material risks being either so arcane that no one wants to read it but their colleagues, or so general that no one wants to read it but high-school students cramming for exams. Engaging, relevant, or dialogue-oriented it is not.
The card-catalog junkies end up engaging a much more public form of history. This morning, for instance, sharing my morning paper with some fellow-twitter-users, I was pointed to an editorial by an Americanist at William and Mary by an activist, and then shot it back to my friends, where a couple of consultants picked it up. There we were, the western world, talking about whether the current financial crisis is more like 1873 or 1929.
A public historian couldn't be more pleased.