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
By BROCK READ
Over the past six years, Vernon Burton has spent a lot of his time
-- "too much
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
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
"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
"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
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,"
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.
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
"'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
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
5 SCHOLARLY DIGITIZATION PROJECTS
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
Harry Stephen Keeler Society (http://xavier.xu.edu:8000/~polt/keeler.html)
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
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
Section: Information Technology
Volume 50, Issue 2, Page A37
© 2003 by The Chronicle of Higher Education