The Chronicle of Higher Education

From the issue dated September 5, 2003

How Digital Hobbyists Are Changing Scholarship

Historians embrace personal Web projects, but are wary of amateur postings


Over the past six years, Vernon Burton has spent a lot of his time -- "too much


5 Scholarly Digitization Projects

time," he says -- canvassing libraries, museums, and private collections throughout the Midwest for overlooked documents and artifacts.

The material he seeks includes artifacts from Cahokia, a 16th-century settlement in what is now Illinois, along with Midwestern maps, census records, and old theater playbills. Such items clearly fascinate Mr. Burton, a professor of history and sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. But they represent a newfound obsession that has little to do with the civil-rights movement, the topic on which he built his academic reputation.

He is not collecting data for a book or a journal article but pursuing what began as a hobby. It entails scanning documents and posting them on RiverWeb, a fast-growing Web project he started in 1996. The site uses primary sources to place the geology and topography of the Mississippi River and its chief flood plain in the context of the region's cultural history.

As the cost of high-quality scanning equipment dwindles and the Internet's reputation as an academic tool grows, more and more professors in history and other humanities disciplines are undertaking projects like RiverWeb, digitizing research that falls outside of their chief fields of study.

Many of these hobbyist digitizers find that the Internet offers them an unprecedented opportunity to treat personal interests and esoterica with academic rigor. Some say that personal scanning projects could mark the beginning a new trend in the study and teaching of history, an era in which historians shape their fields through small-scale digitization.

"I think there's going to be an intense reorganization of scholastic labor and attention in the next generation," says Gregory R. Crane, a professor of classics at Tufts University who heads the Perseus Project, an online archive of Latin and Greek texts and archaeological finds. "Historians won't be building their work around the assumption that paper-based projects are the be-all and end-all."

Mr. Burton argues that professors who digitize primary sources are fulfilling the chief goal of academe: democratizing information. When hobbyists make material available online, he says, they benefit a far broader audience -- both in academe and outside of it -- than they could reach through traditional modes of scholarship.

Online documents also reach students more effectively, says Roy A. Rosenzweig, head of George Mason University's Center for History and New Media, which has a doctoral program that trains future historians in digitization and other uses of technology. "We finally have a generation of students who have grown up with the Web as a research tool," he says. "There's an increasing number of people with that interest, and a significant number that come to us with backgrounds in technology."

But while personal digitization projects have the potential to demystify historical research for students and nonacademics, the technology also poses new challenges. Historians say that teaching students to differentiate between meaningful research and hogwash on the Web can be difficult -- especially because many digitizers outside of academe have created influential Web sites of their own. Some of those efforts are widely respected by history scholars, but others are considered ill-informed, inaccurate, or worse.

Many history and other humanities departments tread cautiously where personal-interest digitization projects are involved. Because personal Web sites are not subject to peer review, few established institutions consider them when determining whether young professors will receive tenure.

"The people who should be leading the field are the major research universities," says Mr. Burton. "But most of the institutions that encourage digitization projects are smaller schools doing it on their own."

Visual History

Mr. Burton says he first became fascinated with the Mississippi River while watching reports about floods that surged through the Midwest in 1995. "I started reading about the history of the river, and I was amazed by people's attempts to change it," he says. "I thought, 'Wouldn't it be neat if we learned our science in the context of the history of culture?'"

His initial concept for RiverWeb was ambitious: He envisioned the site as a virtual tour down the Mississippi, with stops at each of the river's flood plains. Each stop would offer scientific details and artifacts describing the regions' cultural histories. He soon found that tracking down material without institutional support was time-consuming and expensive. "It was a pretty discouraging process to try to go it alone while I had other projects sitting on the table," he says.

But then Mr. Burton focused the project on one flood plain -- the American Bottom plain, near East St. Louis, Ill. -- and started collecting photographs, census records, blues recordings, and other artifacts. By pitching the project as a teaching tool, he secured computer equipment and financial support from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications and, eventually, his university.

Now RiverWeb is something of a success story for historians interested in integrating technology into their work. Grants from the supercomputing center have provided Mr. Burton with up-to-date computer servers and have allowed him to pay a full-time graduate student to assist him with technical work. And with money from his university, he employs two part-time student aides who each make $6,000 a year.

Outside Hobbyists

With the reinforcements, Mr. Burton has expanded the site past his study of the American Bottom plain. It now includes an online consortium of museums collecting river-related memorabilia, and software that allows high-school students to investigate issues of land development and water quality.

The Web site has also become the basis for "Multimedia on the Mississippi: New Frontiers in Historical Research," an undergraduate course in which Mr. Burton offers lessons in regional history and historical methodology. Students in the course study primary-source documents digitized by Mr. Burton and construct their own Web sites about aspects of Midwestern history and sociology.

The breadth and budget of Mr. Burton's digitization project are, by all accounts, rarities. But the ranks of professors scanning materials of personal interest are growing. At Dartmouth College, students of Jewish culture can download Yiddish radio jingles and Zionist folk songs on the Dartmouth Jewish Sound Archive, a Web site drawing on the research of Alexander Hartov, an associate professor of engineering and surgery who reviewed the recordings and built the site with Lewis Glinert, a professor of Middle Eastern languages and literature.

At California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, Steven Marx, an English professor, has focused almost three years' work on Cal Poly Land, a collection of maps and photographs of the college's property that he now uses as the basis for an interdisciplinary course on the history of literature about, and inspired by, ecology.

Other institutions have turned to hobbyists outside of academe for help with digitizing efforts. The University of California at Berkeley, for example, turned over an extensive map-digitization project to David Rumsey, a private map collector whose scanning equipment was far better than the university's. Mr. Rumsey was so enamored of the university's maps that he offered to scan the initial batch at no charge. "Scanning the maps is a pain in the butt, and you have to be pretty good at it," says Bruce Williams, who directs Internet projects for Berkeley's East Asian Library. "David is excellent at it."

More-esoteric sites by hobbyists -- often without pedagogical pretensions -- are also flourishing among professors. For one such site, Richard F.H. Polt, an associate professor of philosophy at Xavier University in Ohio, scans dust jackets of novels by Harry Stephen Keeler, a pulp-mystery author whose career peaked in the 1930s and '40s. His colleagues think of the site as a "charming eccentricity," according to Mr. Polt, but the project has created a thriving, if small, online community. "The Web is a good place for people with unusual interests to meet each other," he says.

Scholarly personal-interest digitizers like Mr. Burton, Mr. Marx, and Mr. Hartov -- and amateurs who scan material, create Web databases, and compile links to online resources -- may be slowly changing humanities scholarship, according to Mr. Crane, the classicist at Tufts. By focusing their work on scanning primary-source documents, such scholars and enthusiasts are shifting the emphasis in their fields from analyzing documents to simply making them available, he says. "When you're digitizing, you think of yourself as adding value to publicly accessible material. The focus is on the material and not on the monograph."

Access and Availability

Mr. Burton says that such a shift would be a boon to students in history and other humanities. "As professors, we should have a real commitment to democratizing information," he says. "If we don't democratize, this information might become a tool of the elite."

He adds that by making documents broadly available, scholars ensure that their interpretive work -- and future scholarship undertaken by other professors -- can be easily checked and analyzed. "Putting things online is an incentive to good research," he says. "I think it helps us to know that our source materials could be put up on the Web by anybody, that they're not just sitting in an institutional archive where no one will see them."

But online repositories can be a poor substitute for contact with real documents, some archivists say. "There are some digitization projects out there that really work," says Mr. Rosenzweig, of George Mason. "But in a lot of cases, online scans don't affect people in the same way that actual exhibits or archives do. There's still a lot to be said for seeing the real thing."

Mr. Burton acknowledges that the scanned documents appearing in his online archive often come to life in person. Students in his "Multimedia on the Mississippi" course, for example, were fascinated by the wax seal on a record he brought into class -- a detail that did not show up on his Web-site scan of the page. But he adds that the loss of tactile pleasures is a small price to pay for nonacademics, who would be hard pressed to come across obscure records in their own research, and might not be able to travel to see them regardless.

Along with Matt Cheney, a graduate student who spends at least 20 hours a week developing RiverWeb, Mr. Burton is working on a new feature for the site that would allow amateur historians to construct local river guides of their own.

It's an important addition, Mr. Burton says, because much of the future of digitization lies with grass-roots hobbyists -- armchair genealogists, private collectors, and others who are not associated with academe. "Things like RiverWeb are important mostly to set some standards for best practices and show people who aren't specialists how their work can be academically useful," he says.

At some institutions, such a vision is a hard sell. "It would require a radical rethinking of history scholarship," says Mr. Crane. "There tends to be an ideological distrust in academia of work that just anybody can understand."

A Danger to Scholarship?

Mr. Crane hopes one day to be part of a scholarly environment in which digitization projects in the humanities are split seamlessly among professors, media corporations, and "working-class guys, not self-considered intellectuals." But some professors say that personal-interest projects can pose a danger to in-depth scholarship in the humanities because they allow professors and armchair historians to avoid peer review. And Mr. Burton acknowledges that an arrangement in which institutional titles lose meaning could degrade students' ability to separate the wheat from the chaff online.

That concern could be assuaged by colleges willing to incorporate hobbyists' projects and other digital technology into their pedagogy, he points out.

Some institutions, like George Mason University, are doing just that. Mr. Rosenzweig says that his college's doctoral program in history and technology makes the case that young professors must be willing to work online to stay relevant in their field, but they must also remain diligent in scrutinizing nonacademic sources.

"There are definitely graduate students who see digital history as the key thing they want to do," he says. "I think we need to give them training and awareness in this field."

Nonetheless, only a few major institutions have been willing to give weight to hobbyists' digitizing where it might count most: tenure review. Mr. Crane says that deans at Tufts make a point to take esoteric digitization projects into account when evaluating professors for tenure. Elsewhere, professors interested in expanding their idiosyncratic Web projects or using them in class often have to strain to pitch their products.

"'Digitization' as a term sounds too industrial and not interpretive enough," says Mr. Crane. "You're not going to get tenure and promotion if that's the extent of your research." Mr. Marx, of San Luis Obispo, says he got moderate institutional support for his Web site by tying it to a self-published book; Mr. Burton says he emphasizes the in-class uses of RiverWeb whenever he approaches university officials or other potential sponsors.

Mr. Burton says that the future he imagines might remain distant for students like Mr. Cheney. "Students like Matt say they want to work exclusively in new media, but I honestly can't recommend to a young person entering the field to go about doing things that way," he says. "At most institutions right now, there just isn't a professional reward for it."


Scholars are digitizing a wide range of historical and cultural materials. Here are several examples:

Cal Poly Land
Creator: Steven Marx, professor of English at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo
Focus: Mr. Marx explores the geology, history, and topography of Cal Poly's nearly 10,000 acres of holdings.

Dartmouth Jewish Sound Archive
Creators: Alexander Hartov, associate professor of engineering and surgery, and Lewis Glinert, a professor of Middle Eastern languages and literature, at Dartmouth College
Focus: The site collects Hebrew and Yiddish songs, speeches, and radio shows, many acquired from collectors who have contacted Mr. Hartov.

Harry Stephen Keeler Society (
Creator: Richard F.H. Polt, associate professor of philosophy at Xavier University, in Ohio
Focus: Mr. Polt has scanned dust jackets from his own collection of the author's pulp-mystery books, including British, Spanish, Portuguese, and Swedish editions.

The Museum of Unworkable Devices
Creator: Donald Simanek, emeritus professor of physics at Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania
Focus: Mr. Simanek, who debunks several generations of perpetual-motion schemes, features a gallery of particularly memorable contraptions.

The Valley of the Shadow
Creator: Edward L. Ayers, professor of history at the University of Virginia
Focus: The site--now also a CD-ROM--explores the Civil War travails of a Union town and a Confederate town in the same Appalachian valley.

SOURCE: Chronicle reporting
Section: Information Technology
Volume 50, Issue 2, Page A37

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Copyright © 2003 by The Chronicle of Higher Education