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AMFELLOWS  June 1999

AMFELLOWS June 1999

Subject:

"No Computer Can Hold the Past" Can It?

From:

"Monica R. Edinger" <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

American Memory Fellows <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 14 Jun 1999 09:08:55 +0000

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (65 lines)

I've just finished a week moderating this year's On-Line Orientation's
bulletin board on primary sources and posted the following parts of which
I thought might be of interest to former Fellows as well:

There was a great Op-Ed piece in Saturday's New York Times by Robert
Darnton, "No Computer Can Hold the Past." Darnton is a history professor
at Princeton and some of you may know his work. He is currently leading
an initiative to start publishing scholarly monographs on the Web. He is
no Luddite, but cautious about the best use of the Internet in
historical learning.

******

Some excerpts from Darton's piece:

"Unfortunately for historians, the vast majority of humans have
disappeared into the past, without leaving a trace of their existance.
What remains amounts to nothing more than a tiny fragment of human
experience, even though the components of that fragment could fill so
many archival boxes that you couldn't get through a statistically
significant sample of them if you read for centuries. How can you
assemble a few pieces into a meaningful picture of the past?"

"The task seems daunting, yet our students arrive in class with the
illusion that we've got history pretty well under control. It's in the
books, they think: hard facts bound between hard covers and now we're
making it all available on-line. How can we teach them that history is
an interpretive science,not a body of facts; that it involves argument
from evidence, not mere information; that it has no bottom line but is,
by its very nature, bottomless?"

"Of course, the Internet can open up bibligraphic pathways and can even
provide digitized versions of primary sources. But no digitized text can
duplicate the original -- its handwriting or typography, its layout, its
paper and all the paratextual clues to its meaning."

"Digitizers often dump texts onto the Internet without considering their
quality as sources, and students often fail to read those texts
critically."

"Instead of turning our backs on cyberspace, we need to take control of
it -- to set standards, develop quality controls and direct traffic. Our
students will learn to navigate the Internet successfully if we set up
warning signals and teach them to obey: 'Proceed with caution. Danger
lies ahead.'"

**********

I don't know about all of you, but this sort of stuff really gets me
thinking about what I'm doing in my classroom -- how my students and I
use primary sources to understand the past, how I'm managing to get them
to consider the American Memory collections critically, and more. Your
comments this past past week indicate that you all are thinking hard
about this too. So, while the official week is over I'll still be
checking in and would be delighted to continue chatting about all this
stuff with any of you who still wish to.

I've enjoyed this tremendously. Already, I've gained some new resources
for my own teaching and learning as well as new ideas to think about. I
can't wait to meet you all in July at the Institute.

All the best,

Monica

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