[Humanist] 22.643 looking back & finding a difference

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Mon Mar 23 11:31:27 CET 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 643.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Mon, 23 Mar 2009 10:21:24 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist]  22.641 looking back

Let me respond to James Rovira's restated question with an assertion I
hope someone challenges. He asks,

> The last major revolution in "text" technology, the shift from
> manuscript to print culture, has been well documented to have
> contributed to significant social and phenomenological changes, such
> as the spread of literacy, increased production of printed texts
> (presses in 1800 could print 250 sheets an hour; presses in 1848 could
> print 12,0000 sheets an hour, and often needed to), the
> democratization of learning, etc.
> In these terms, I see the internet as an extension or continuation of
> the changes begun by the advent of print technology, but not nearly as
> substantially different -socially and phenomenologically from the user
> end- as the change from manuscript to print culture.  Can anyone
> coherently describe social and phenomenological changes in the user
> experience of internet texts analogous to changes from print to
>  manuscript culture?

One real difference from the world of printed books that I have witnessed in
the last 30 years has to do with the simple matter of finding secondary
literature in the course of investigating a topic. In the late 1970s through
the mid 1980s I researched and wrote a dissertation which involved mostly,
but not exclusively, the fields of Milton studies, biblical studies and
classics -- or, in terms of locations in the library I worked in, chiefly
but not exclusively PR (13th floor), PA (12th floor) and BS (9th floor), my
study carrel being on the 13th. I also regularly made the circuit of other
campus libraries at Toronto, the most distant being 15 minutes' walk away,
and including the Engineering library. (Milton was a polymath who did not
confine himself to any one of our disciplines, so following in his footsteps
took a bit of mind- and leg-stretching work.) I had a system of accumulating
references to books in other libraries in order to minimize the amount of
walking between libraries, an important consideration given the climate, but
I essentially treated Robarts as a random-access repository and so was going
up and down stairs with considerable frequency every day, nearly, over the 8
years of the PhD. (Those were the days!) When I finished my dissertation, I
had, alas, a non-academic job, but fortunately for me still in Robarts
Library, where I continued my work furtively but constantly for another 12
years until I landed a proper academic job.

In other words, I have had intimate physical experience of intensively and
extensively interdisciplinary work for many years under the old dispensation.

That's the background against which I consider the impact (yes, the right
metaphor) of JSTOR et sim. -- the world that allows me to construct what
seems a profound difference from my physically peripatetic past. I now
observe myself at work, gathering materials or references to them almost
exclusively online, directly or indirectly. I see what happens when I go to
JSTOR and look across all the journals in the online collections for hits to
queries, sometimes unconstrained, sometimes not. I note where topics
surface, in what disciplinary areas where I would never thought to have
looked. I become a sometimes frantic manager of wildly forking paths,
sometimes just a bemused observer. It's true that I was in some respects in
the same position with Milton back in the 1980s, inclined to wander, though
paying then more dearly in the currency of my own time than I could possibly
afford to do now. But the difference is that now I discover where to look by
where those paths fork to rather than decide a priori where in which
libraries I will go.

Now because time is limited the net result is that I tend to go wide rather
than deep. My implicit commitment, then, is not to a truth obtained on some
deep level of a subject but to one that is fragmented and refracted across
the surfaces of many disciplines in the humanities and sciences.

Recently in a course on research methods the students told me that they
begin their research papers by going to JSTOR first. I imagine that they do
not go as widely and wildly as I do, but they deliberately put themselves
in situations in which there are no physical impediments to encounter
across disciplines. This seems a very different situation from the one I was
in all those years ago.



Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

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