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”?