Wednesday 31 October 2012

We Found Ants in a Hopeless Place

Even in the short time I have been studying history, massive digitisation projects have completely revolutionised the way we research. From small university projects or huge efforts by national libraries, to massive companies like Google, it seems like everyone has a stake in making more original sources available to ever increasing numbers of people. Proponents of digitisation highlight the nuanced ways that great reams of data, and not just numbers but words as well, can be subjected to sophisticated qualitative and quantitative methods of analysis. Others see the capacity for the democratisation of knowledge - as professionals everywhere quietly quiver. Of course, there are the naysayers. Key-word searching of documents can find the specific but ignore the just-as-important general. Political and economic influences on what is chosen for digitisation can influence or skew research agendas. As a reflexive discipline(!), we are uploading with one hand and reloading to shoot it down with the other.

It's like the metaphor of the information superhighway. Tempting though it is, the fast lane often spells trouble. It's all there, it's all searchable, and I don't even need to leave my desk! But is this approach safe? What will you miss by speeding along as fast as you can? There's beautiful countryside on either side of you that's just as important as the final destination. Then there's the slow-lane, with a few lonely pootlers, refusing to go above 30 miles an hour. The highway is scary; it's too dangerous. I'll stick with what I know, use new technologies as little as possible, and get off at the next local-archive junction. Finally, and predictably, there is the middle lane. It will get you where you've got to go safely, give you time to take in more that is around you, and obviously be more interesting and efficient than sticking to the slow-lane.

Anyway. This last few weeks I have found myself on one of the biggest highways in the world: To call it colossal would be to do it an injustice. For someone who engages with American Studies from afar, like me, it is an especially useful tool. Functionable, varied, and comprehensive. Perhaps one of the joys of a depository like this is the ability to use a simple search term and bask in the esoteric sunshine of the random result. Lately I have been going through some research on 'civics'; a type of educational movement that (arguably) emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in both Britain and the US (and probably elsewhere too!), it took its aim as creating good citizens. Much of it is, to be blunt, pretty damn dry. Detailed descriptions of government machinery, national legislation, historical development, and civic responsibility. There are literally hundreds of civics books on that fit this mould. Then I stumbled upon Ant communities and how they are governed; a study in natural civics (1909).  Henry McCook, a clearly kooky entomologist, tries to find parallels in the ant world of the way humans live together: ant citizenship. Beautifully illustrated, it is also methodical and interesting. It's probably useless in the argument I am trying to build, but it's enjoyably useless all the same.

So sometimes when you're travelling down the highway, concentrating mostly on reaching your destination, it can be worth stopping off for a quick restorative drink and a feast on something more unknown. Just make sure to watch out for ants...

Disclaimer: I don't drive, so don't take anything I say about highways, information or otherwise, seriously.