text {isle}

one small islet in the sea of digital text
January 23rd, 2013 by Heather Asbeck

Searching…or the Holy Grail of Information



{ Holy Grail Tapestry #2: The Arming and Departure of the Knights }
source:  wikimedia commons

After perusing a number of websites devoted to digitizing historical and literary information, such as maps, manuscripts, historical documents, and literary works (The Walt Whitman Archive, Civil War Washington, Mapping the Republic of Letters, the Salem Witch Trials Archive, Railroads and the Making of Modern America, Preserving Virtual Worlds 2, and – one of my new favorites – The Public Domain Review), I have started to contemplate the complex love/hate relationship we have with technology.  Some people are traditionalists, holding tight to physical books, print magazines, and emphasizing handwriting in schools.  (There’s quite a debate over cursive vs. keyboarding.)  Others abandon yesterday’s media in favor of the newest and sleekest tablet or e-reader, or boasting about the technologically advanced school that uses only digital media. (Both types are profiled in this Washington Post story about high tech vs. low tech education.)  Most of us would fall somewhere along this technological spectrum, neither using solely physical media nor solely digital.  Most of us type some documents and handwrite others, or switch from browsing websites and digital books on a laptop or e-reader to reading a book from the library or our own book shelf.

But whether we are book purists or embrace digital media, we have all be influenced by advances in technology, and the way we look for, find, and use information as been altered as a direct result of the digital age.  We know we can find information with a few swipes of a touchscreen.  How many of us have reached for a phone, tablet, or other device when presented with a question we do not have an answer to?  Our frequent response is to google it.  The term became so pervasive and synonymous with online searches for information, that the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) added an entry for the verb ‘google’ in 2006.


I have often had a question occur to me while in class and caught myself reaching for my phone before I realized what I was doing.  Since using a phone in class is usually prohibited and students are more likely to be presumed to be texting or playing a game of angry birds than searching for information, I drop my phone like a hot potato and make a mental note to find the answer later.  This scenario illustrates just how much I (and I’m sure I am not alone in this) have become accustomed to instant access to information.  A lot of time and effort has been put into building websites like those I linked to above and in previous posts.  People spend hours scanning documents, coding websites, and editing the information stored there for accuracy and navigability.  Scholars in the past have had to spend days, weeks, and months sifting through handwritten or typed primary source documents, while students today reap the benefits of digitally stored documents that have also been transcribed for easy searchability.  A key word or phrase in the search box on a digital archive website or in a search engine brings the results we want in only seconds or minutes.  We have become accustomed to instant access, and information has become cheap and easy.  We complain about sites that are poorly designed, have broken links, or contain grammar and spelling errors, calling into question their credibility.  We have become consumers not just of products, but of information.  This point was made particularly apparent to me after reading an article by Sophie (daughter of google’s Eric Schmidt) about her recent trip to North Korea, which is well worth reading.

As I looked at the archival websites linked above, even after recently reading about Sophie’s trip and the conditions in North Korea, I found myself judging them like a consumer comparing products prior to purchase…this one has x, but the other one has y…I don’t like the way z works… as if I could choose which site to like best based on how it compares to other archival sites, rather than the quality and quantity of information available, and whether or not the information would be helpful for my area of study.  I realized that I was viewing them with a consumerist attitude, and that I have come to take this access to information for granted – which prompted several questions:  Is this a result of the culture we live in, one that has fast food, sound bites, and high speed internet widely available?  Or is it due to the wide availability of all kinds of media – from the ubiquitous TV screens, prevalent Wi-Fi, wide availability of inexpensive books, and digital media that can be accessed from a computer the size of a deck of cards that we carry in our pocket?  Perhaps it is because we have widely available access to information through libraries and educational institutions, rather than censorship via a Black Knight who inhibits our quest by declaring that “none shall pass” or a bridgekeeper who must test us first….




 { Black Knight’s helmet }
source:  wikimedia commons


4 Responses to “Searching…or the Holy Grail of Information”
  1. Jessalyn says

    Though we make take that information for granted, maybe that is not just an indicator of our need for instant, quick, and immediate services. Access to that information is important to us, and if taken away there would be an immediate backlash, or so one would hope. Taking that for granted allows us to push the developers to better the sources we get from them, promoting both credibility and ease of use.

  2. Jessica DeSpain says

    Heather, your thoughts about both Dickinson and digital media pay particularly close attention to material culture and what we lose via digital surrogates as well as what we gain. I was glad that you considered the diverse spectrum of attitudes toward technology that a user might experience–Lisa Gitelman’s work (some of which I’ve had to take off of our syllabus) specifically addresses our multiple and divergent relationship to all forms of technology simultaneously. We don’t always use it in the way that is expected of us, nor do quickly forsake one form for another without a period (sometimes an extended one) of blended media.

  3. I really enjoyed Sophie’s North Korea trip. That article was fascinating. I do feel that information has been cheapened by the easy accessibility of it. I have a few friends who say they don’t need to attend a university, because all they need to know they can access from their phones. Needless to say, I don’t speak to them often.

  4. For a person to compare and contrast the different websites actually makes a lot of sense, provided they are viewing one after the other especially. I do not think that the reason people do this has as much to do with culture as it does with human nature. The reason behind this being that there perhaps hasn’t been any standardization of what format a website should be in. In writing we have standard formats of MLA or APA, so a story about a magical troll, living in a fantasy land where it only eats candy can look quite a bit like the history of the second world war. These two works would be judged by an individual based solely on their interest in the content. Web pages are in different fonts, different colors and with a more or less, user friendly interface from one to the next. To like one format more than another is only natural, until one format is standardized for all.

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