Search Engine Scholarship: Leary’s “Googling the Victorians”

As illustrated by his charming “L.E.L.” example, Patrick Leary makes an argument that the widespread adoption of Internet Communication Technologies (ICT) has had a profound effect on the mundane labor of his academic subfield, meaning historians focused on the Victorian Age. While the idea of using cutting-edge (by early-millennial standards) tools like Google for the study of a period that seems even more distant if measured in iterations of time between iPad models appears paradoxical, his point about the revolutionary new horizons of fortuitous discovery of once-inaccessible information made possible by the Internet is one that is easily generalized to all areas of scholarly work. I can personally attest to the immeasurable value of web-based tools like Twitter for supporting my own research, whether through constant exposure to news and current events relevant to my projects, enriching exchanges with distant scholars of similar interest, or managing practical matters like knowing when proposal deadlines and conferences are approaching.

Leary also clarifies an important paradox of ICT-assisted scholarship. On one hand, much of the time we have spent in class discussing online archiving and other formal digital humanities initiatives has centered around pondering questions of how best to standardize formats, ensure file compatibility, organize labor and resources, etc. What Leary reminds us—the flip side of that coin—is that the work that produced the rich stores of content that have already benefited his research projects (as well as our own) was produced haphazardly, for unrelated or unexpected purposes, and that even these “corrupt” or uncorrected sources provide important information that would otherwise be inaccessible. Furthermore, I would argue that the randomness of these resources belies their lasting impact on the shape of an increasing percentage of scholastic enterprise.

As an example, when I was developing my Master’s thesis, which included a historiographical approach to contextualizing a series of films noir from the 40s and 50s, I struggle to imagine the outcome without resources like Google’s digital collection of Time and Life magazines. These texts were essential to establishing a sense of what major political and social events were covered popularly immediately surrounding the release of each film and often included coverage of the films themselves. Similarly, the scattered archives of digitized film reviews, both from major papers like The New York Times and smaller regional or local outlets, made it possible to explore whether these controversial films were received differently by critics in urban areas than their rural counterparts. The availability of these resources, for whatever reason (perhaps explained by Google’s unspoken “We did it because we can!” mantra and pre-paywall NYT decision-makers thinking “Content, we need content! Put the old stuff online!”), definitely shaped the course of that project—and being able to do the “legwork” while sitting on my couch in pajamas didn’t hurt either.

Leary’s enthusiasm, like mine, is tempered by important questions about how search engine protocols reshape the processes of reading and citation and whether the absence of those familiar faculties strips out essential context. He is also critical of what he describes as a growing inability to acknowledge or even identify the limitations of Internet research, a lack of critical interpretation of information found online, and a decline in general respect, particularly among students, for the still-necessary skills required to work with analog resources (somehow it always comes down to “Kids these days!”). Leary imagines the impending terminus of this shift as a phenomenon he calls “offline penumbra,” where the assumption that everything of value is or should be online effectively negates the existence of anything that isn’t.

Can you think of specific examples of how Googling has radically altered your research? Has it ever failed you in an expected or unexpected way? Has the impact of ICT and search engines in particular remained constant since this article was published in 2005? Are there any digital media tools that have evolved more recently that you think will have a similarly broad impact? Any thoughts on the “offline penumbra”?

3 Replies to “Search Engine Scholarship: Leary’s “Googling the Victorians””

  1. I enjoyed the idea of the “offline penumbra”. I think it’s a good point that internet-savvy researchers (especially students) are going to be less patient with microfilm and archives after finding that they can complete their research without doing the “hard” work. My own undergrad thesis made heavy use of digitized 19th century books on google, which provided me with sources I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to travel to see. However, at the time I was aware of the shift in paradigm. I even did a surface level of archival research so I wouldn’t feel like I was “cheating” so much! I wonder if the digitization revolution will actually create another Middle Ages until someone remembers how to read ancient Greek (so to speak) and rediscovers the many sources hiding just beneath our reach.

  2. I agree with Caitlin that we have reach a point in digital preservation where younger generations of researchers, myself included, are impatient with the lack of source availability online. I often find myself cursing GoogleBooks, for example, when the book I did not purchase is not fully available on the web.

    In addition to tools that allow students and professional historians to conduct primary source research from their own homes, I think it is important to recognize that many institutions, such as the National Archives and the Library of Congress, have the capacity for researchers to do a large amount of legwork before visiting. In the course of my own research seminar, I have found much frustration in the fact that one of the leading repositories of the primary source documents I am looking for does not have its finding aids or catalog available to search online.

    I think this article, along with most of our experiences with conducting historical research, shows that technology has moved us past a point where a researcher would show up at an archive with only an idea of what collection they wanted to see. Nowadays, many institutions have the capacity and to some extent, expect researchers to do some preliminary research on the collections they hold before visiting.

  3. I think that Bridget brings up a good point in her post’s last paragraph about showing up at an archive with only a small idea of what he/she intends to look at. I experienced this situation myself last week at the National Archives in College Park. I was able to figure out which collection I needed to look at through their website. It shortened both my time and the archivist’s time in attempting to find the needle-in-the-haystack trove of primary sources I needed to access.

    I felt that this allowed scholars like myself a certain degree of flexibility in choosing sources at archives and libraries. It eliminated lots of painful prior planning for sources that I would otherwise have had to conduct. With such an array of digitally archived sources that are so easily viewable, I find that I can approach my research with a more open mind about what I might find in these sources. As we mentioned in a class before spring break, this burgeoning digitization of sources should also let us know that we are relegated to making smaller dents or points in the overall scholarly debates because of this new wealth of online sources. In other words, there is simply too much vastness in source material for any one scholar to “tell it exactly like it happened.”

    Leary mentions something similar to this when he argues that burying oneself in stacks and stacks of library books might not be as useful as we might think. While going on google to access source material and information might also not be a perfect solution, Leary mentions that “no amount of time spent in the library stacks would have suggested to me that any of those sources would be an especially good place to look for instances of that particular phrase” (Leary, 5).

    As I read Leary’s piece, I wondered about how this digitization of nineteenth century source material will hold up in digital archives. I wondered about it longevity after learning a few weeks ago of the surprising vulnerability of digitized sources. For one thing, digitizing nineteenth century sources will not be as tremendous a task as digitizing sources from the later part of the twentieth century because there is far less of a scope of information. I hope, however, that some sustainable method of retaining these priceless nineteenth century sources will be available soon.

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