John Stuart Mill on Digitized On-Line Collections

Among other things, John Stuart Mill wrote about deliberation in a democratic society. It's the philosophy that a strong democracy is one whose members are actively involved in the functioning of that government. This, as opposed to a passive, distanced, and unreflective citizenry. Engagement and participation into the activity of the society offer benefits in at least two directions: in one way, they make for a stronger democratic society as a whole by demanding connections between the everyday life of the citizens and the everyday operations of the government; this is an advantage that benefits the community, an advantage for "the society." In another direction, deliberation has advantages for the individual. By virtue of that participation, by being involved and active, the individual grows in her or his own right. We become better people, more attentive to those around us, more aware of our own individual identity amidst others. The tendency towards deliberation requires work from the citizenry, it requires labor and effort from the individual. The promise of that deliberation - of taking your time to figure out a problem, to work through a situation, to become part of the process of resolution - is just that, a processual, not static, sense of democracy. It makes us better people and it builds a better society. So says Mill, though in much more profound and compelling language when he says it.

In general terms, this tendency to deliberate is reduced in certain forums, such as, let's say, a blog or the internet in general. Reading on-line versus reading a physical book are different experiences in part because the on-line experience affords the opportunity for skimming and skipping and clicking and multi-tasking that holding a book on your lap tends not to do. Of course, one can also skim and daydream and disengage when reading a book on the couch, but on-line reading does so to a greater degree and, some argue, in meaningfully different ways - with the opportunity of more distractions and the basic functions of ease and versatility encouraging a reader to glance about. But look at this very post, most of you have already probably skipped on down to get to the end or to follow Dave's little icons on the side ("ooh, a ferris wheel!") or to see what that flashing ad at the top is all about. Digital technologies afford the opportunity to reduce our deliberation. They don't cause decreased deliberation, but they are part of a way of living that allows for it.

To tie together Mill's democratic theory and the internet, in a quick example, this is one reason why internet voting does not adequately build a strong citizenry: it requires little deliberation. Point, click, close. It affords us the chance to be done with it, as if the virtue of speed and efficiency is a guarantor of democratic governance. But sometimes paying attention is more important than going fast.

Oddly enough, perhaps, it was Michael Robinson, an historian of science who writes the eloquent blog, "Time to Eat the Dogs," who got me thinking about all of this. With his prodding, I was thinking about the topic of technology and research practices in the social sciences and humanities. In particular, what do we make of the role of new imaging technologies (digital cameras, photocopiers, scanners) with archival and special collections materials? The kinds of things historians use, like old periodicals, personal papers, correspondences, and the like. How do all of those technologies influence the ways we do research and thus the ways we come to understand the subjects we are researching?

Robinson broaches the now-common topic for historians of "well, look at how much material is available to me all digitized and on-line!" It's become a new water cooler conversation - "why, when I did my graduate work I had to go to Special Collections to read all those old magazines and now, these kids, they can just access them all on-line." Fortunately, you can be a pretty young researcher and still talk like this, since the age of digital archives is so recent. Because, why, back when I was doing my graduate work, way back earlier this decade, I remember all the old timers complaining to me about how easy it was, how, as Robinson notes in his post, they used to have to travel the world to find original copies. Nary a microfiche to be had!

Robinson sees an economic and access downside to the rise of digitized collections: "Poole's and the American Periodical Series [for example] have been digitized by private companies which sell subscriptions to their databases at a hefty price. The result is that that Research I universities like Yale have extraordinary access, whereas smaller universities like the University of Hartford make due with less." He also notes an upside: "Where I spent hours tracking down a handful of articles indexed by Pooles by title and subject, a "full text" search of the American Periodical Series online yields thousands of results, all of which are instantly readable, printable, and download-able from the comfort of my front porch."

The broader issue into which this topic fits is that of technology and research practices. I guess I could go bigger and say it's part of a discussion about technology in the workplace, or technology and knowledge , or technology and information. In fact, I'll do that, I'll consider it a discussion about technology and knowledge production. I do so because I see another, less tangible, more substantial downside to on-line researching and keyword searching, to taking digital images of old papers, to scanning and copying entry after entry in some old source: it takes away from the researcher's deliberation. It affords us the opportunity to replace diligence, scrutiny, and deep consideration with quantity and speed.

I've been hunkered down at an archive center at the Smithsonian this summer, so the issue is live and proximate for me. I have my digital camera with me this time (I didn't have one in my earlier project) and I have unlimited access to the copy machine and scanners. I find myself copying and copying and taking image after image to a far greater degree now. And I can do it fast! And with ease! And I have so many photocopies, Xeroxes, sitting here on my desk! And I'm going to work through them in greater detail soon, I know it. I only had limited time at the archive, they have brief hours of operation, 6 hours a day at most, but also 4 hours on some days, so I tried to copy as much as possible. I can figure it all out later, I know it.

Except I won't. At least not in the same way. I chose to take away my deliberation at the library. I decided to go for speed and efficiency. Grab and go.

It's been the same in the past few years with digitized periodicals, which I can access from my home university. After the initial rush of excitement about how easy it would all be and how the keyword searches would save so much time, I found that the digital collections mostly helped me because they allowed me to identify relevant materials that I would then go to Special Collections (a short walk from my office on campus) to retrieve and investigate in person.

Reading them on-line is difficult, not just because of the screen and my eyes bugging out, but because the pages are harder to glance at and the flow of the text and the placement of the stories, ads, and miscellany on those pages is hard to grasp. Seeing the order of things in old periodicals matters. Seeing the placement of the editorial comments amidst the contributor's content matters. Coming to understand the structure of the material as actually presented is easier and more effective if you sit down in one of those quiet library rooms and leaf through the pages by hand.

I'm now sitting back at home and working through all the copies I made last month. And I don't see them the same way. It's all good stuff, I don't mean this is all a waste. I have several copies of digital images of the same periodical, for example, so I can choose which one is best and I can do the same thing we all do with family pictures--be thankful I didn't have to wait to get them developed to find out they were blurry or misaligned or incomplete. I mean, rather, that the experience of researching is different. I mean that my own working through with the documents, my own scrutiny in the library, is different than it had been. I deliberate less. As a consequence, I haven't thought of the material in the same way. I wonder, with Mill, if this is a knock to the individual and the research community.

In part, I suspect I'm observing again the modern debate over wisdom, knowledge, and information. More facts, more comments, but no more understanding. Then again with T.S. Eliot, circa 1934, asking "Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?" The age of the internet has made the problem far more pronounced, as pundits laud the wonders of instant access to information, anytime, anywhere. I'm happy for that too. I've benefited. This isn't an either/or proposition. But what is the information for? And what do we do with it? What of deliberation, contemplation, thought?

We have a lot more information. But we don't know any more.


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I agree Ben, there is a psychological trap in having all of these materials so close at hand. At times my online archival research feels like I'm flipping through the vinyl section at the record store: looking for a name on the spine, pulling it, moving on. I amass huge collections of primary lit that touch on a topic, but spend less time thinking about it in the process. My biggest project insights these days happen when I'm away from my materials all together - making dinner, running, showering. It's something I now have to make time fore: the hard work of deliberation cannot compete with the candy-factor of the online search.