Today, we struggle to remember what we once knew. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Albert North Whitehead, writing of the need to free
ourselves from the past, once said, A science that hesitates to forget its
founders is lost. Well, we do face the twin dangers of reinventing wheels
and using the same old wheels over and over. And the Internet raises new
questions about reinventing old wheels.
Long ago, when we graduate students had to find our own thesis topics, one wag
suggested that we just go back to 19th-century issues of the journal,
Verein Deutscher Ingeneiur. We could rewrite their fine articles in
English and no one would be the wiser. Long before we had an Internet, it was
clear that the sands of time constantly closed over other people's work.
And our joke turned sour in the years that followed. Since then, we've all
seen more and more older work replicated -- not by plagiarism, but by ignorance
of the past. The cost of that goes beyond people being cheated out of credit --
though many are. The greater cost is the waste of time spent replicating the
work of others.
So how has the Internet affected all this? Already, in
a 1994 episode of this program,
we mentioned how our computers were taking us precisely to the information we
sought -- without digressions. We wondered what we were losing without the
context of digressions.
Now James Evans at the University of Chicago analyzes paper citations, statistically.
He does indeed find them straying far less from the subject at hand and penetrating
less into the past. Evans sighs and says that the value of print library research
is its relatively clumsy indexing. By forcing greater digressions upon us, it has
the unintended result of integrating knowledge.
Of course there's more to it. The Internet can lead us on its own digressions.
They may be briefer, but they're equally useful if we have the wits to heed them.
And the Internet is now making many older sources more, not less, accessible -- if
we know how to find them. But other red flags arise.
One study raises Whitehead's warning when it shows older scholars citing older sources.
Is the past, at some point, no longer a fading heritage, but merely a comfortable old
So the effects of our new means for accessing history remain unclear. We seem to agree
on only one point: The Internet is now where we first turn for information. Most of us
go to paper libraries only when the Internet runs out.
That's why I get so many e-mails asking where to learn more about a topic when I've
already posted my print sources on the web. Like me, my listeners want answers on
their screens -- right now.
But at some point, we still need to haul our bodies off to read printed information.
How clumsy it seems to turn pages, skim-reading to find what we need to know, blundering
up side alleys. Yet I never cease to wonder at the new and fresh ideas that are exposed
just at the point that I feel lost in that sea of paper.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
J. A. Evans, Electronic Publications and the Narrowing of Science and Scholarship.
Science, Vol. 321, 18 July, 2008, pp. 395-399. See also, J. Couzin, Survey
Finds Citations Growing Narrower as Journals Move Online. Op. Cit. pg. 329.
D. H. Mill, Undergraduate Information Resource Choices. Coll. Res. Libr.,
Vol. 69, No. 4, July, 2008, pp. 342-355.
L. Kriebel and L. Lapham. Transition to Electronic Resources in Undergraduate Social
Science Research: A Study of Honors Theses Bibliographies, 1999-2005, Coll.
Res. Libr., Vol. 69, No. 3, May, 2008, pp. 268-283.
G. A. Barnett and E. L. Fink, Impact of the Internet and Scholar Age Distribution on
Academic Citation Age. JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN SOCIETY FOR INFORMATION SCIENCE AND
TECHNOLOGY, Feb. 15, 2008, pp. 526-534.
This conversation is complicated by the increasing presence of online materials which,
by virtue of being licensed to universities, are presently available to many academics,
but not the general public. The knowledgeable specialist, who knows how to search for it
can find much of the older periodical literature online. At this writing (in 2008) a
conventional Google search will miss much of this material.
My thanks to Damon Camille, UH Library, and to Sarah Fishman and Cathy Patterson,
UH History Dept., for their counsel. All images from 19th-C magazines