Thursday, April 20, 2006

Openness, computers, and the internet in historical scholarship

The article I wrote yesterday at my Bangkok Post weblog ("Who’s the boss? You or your computer?") addresses the impact of "openness" in computing and the internet on scholarship.

The article included a caricature of a typical university professor or scholar who is happily married to print publishing and doesn't want to risk any infidelities with widely available computer readable editions. I aimed to point out that the very nature of scholarship will inevitably change(and is currently changing in at least Europe)with the widespread availability of computing technologies and the internet:

"A professor at a university avoids putting his research on the internet. This makes it difficult for other professors to evaluate the quality of his work which makes his job more secure. If you could use a search engine, you could find mistakes, the names of other professors whose ideas he uses a lot, or even create a bibliography that shows where he got his information. All his research is hidden away in paper books deep in the university library."

Much to my chagrin during my trip to the United States last November, I saw much of U.C. Berkeley's content slipping out of my fingers because it is no longer on the shelves in paper but only available via licensed JSTOR pdf files only to students with ID cards. So much for sharing knowledge with the world. Is it the beginning of another dark ages? It seems that only professors and their students will have ready access to this information anymore and not third parties more likely to subject it to peer evaluation and critique like journalists or amateur historians, amateurs having played an important role in the writing of the Oxford Dictionary, for instance. The traditional notion of books in libraries freely available to at least the citizens of a locality has apparently disappeared. There's a huge gap developing. On the internet, readily available to all there are Encyclopedia Britannica quality overviews, but for those who want to drill down deep it will require cash, even for humanities research which is concerned with knowledge as an end in itself and not as a competitive business advantage (which probably should be paid for).

Actually, the masterwork of my favorite scholar Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, the work of the historian of Burma Professor Lieberman of the University of Michigan, doesn't even have a bibliography, but for a good reason. He cites so many works that a bibliography would require a separate volume, not feasible in this era where paper publishing is becoming less and less justified.

Since Lieberman's book Strange Parallels is so useful, often being a tentative exploration of hypotheses to stimulate further investigation, an internet bibliography to supplement the workis a good idea for a cooperative open content project(like Wikipedia) making a bibliography for Strange Parallels available online. (I don't know whether this legally possible though, given copyright law).

My caricature was aimed at much less ambitious works that are difficult to assess in their paper form because they lack some standard and necessary features like bibliographies and extensive indexes that are trivially easy to produce by computer. Recently, I have come across much shorter books that have severe bibliographical problems/handicaps. Like the absence of a bibliography meant it was difficult to get an overall picture of what sources the work relied on. In another book the whole argument seemed to be based on the work of a now deceased scholar who is not only given short shrift in the book, but isn't even mentioned in the bibliography, so you can't even check how much of the previous scholar's work is cited without manually skimming thorugh the whole work. Ugh! This is really inexcusable in this era of ubiquitous computing.