Kindle as a Metaphore for the History Web

Amazon is featuring on its main page that the Kindle is shipping right away after months of being back ordered because of insufficient production to meet the demand. Also, they’ve published their letter to shareholders (PDF alert), which focuses almost exclusively on the Kindle. Reading the letter, it sounds like Jeff Bezos has some big plans for going completely electronic. More below the jump.

Last week, Julia Keller of the Chicago Tribune wondered about the future of books in our Internet age. In her estimation, tangible books have little to fear in the future. She reports that book sales since 2007 have increased 3.2 percent over 2006, and the book business has seen a growth rate of 2.5 percent per year since 2002. I think she’s right and that books have little to fear in our digital age. Indeed, Bezos writes in the letter to shareholders that Amazon isn’t trying to destroy the book, but to make them available in a new medium and offer features that cannot be replicated in physical books:

Instead of trying to duplicate physical bookstores, we’ve been inspired by them and worked to find things we could do in the new medium that could never be done in the old one. We don’t have electronic book signings, and similarly we can’t provide a comfortable spot to sip coffee and relax. However, we can offer literally millions of titles, help with purchase decisions through customer reviews, and provide discovery features like “customers who bought this item also bought.” The list of useful things that can be done only in the new medium is a long one.

I’m not so concerned about the merits of Kindle at present. Rather, what Bezos has done with the book – creating a useful tool with many new features that make it easier for readers to access information – can similarly be applied to digital history. For one, digitization is changing the way we can approach research. Few have owned a microfilm reader in their office or home, but scholars can now turn to Google to begin early inquiries of their work. I’m presently sitting in a coffee shop (ostensibly) working on a paper. With the free WiFi provided by the coffee shop, my laptop can tell me a wealth of information in an instant. I can examine Civil War documents at the Valley of the Shadow, read Martin Luther King Jr’s Why We Can’t Wait, organize, categorize, and tag bookmarks on del.ic.ious, or even locate and categorize photos for class on Flickr. A variety of other tools help historians confront the web in their quest for information: databases, search engines, XML, RSS feeds, or tools like the inestimable Zotero interact with a variety of information retrieval systems to provide a steady stream of information. In an ever-growing online environment, it is important for historians to make sense of historical material. (See Prof. Turkel’s thoughts on researching online in his post entitled “The Search Comes First.” While you’re at it, ask him about his new book!)

What does digitization mean for the craft of history? To an extent, digitization, whether it be digital books, archives, scholarship, or blogs, is the great democratizer of the web and adds a layer of transparency to our craft. For example, Douglas Feith’s new book, War and Decision, includes a companion website that provides links to 600 documents in his cited work. Readers are free to probe the sources Feith used to write his monograph, which is an example of what academic historians can do with online history. However, Feith’s website is a rudimentary form of what we can do with the history web. More importantly, the web offers tools historians can use to analyze material in new ways and present to our readers. Constructing timelines or word clouds for textual analysis provides visual representations of historical scholarship and can alter the questions we ask about the past. Tools like Google Earth allows us to “fly” over the terrain Alexander the Great encountered at the Siege of Halicarnassus. It is one thing to view the land on a flat map, and quite another to have an on-the-ground view of the hilly coastal landscape Alexander and his men dealt with. Imagine what William Cronon could have done with Google Earth . . .

Tying these ideas together is interactivity. Users of digital scholarship are not only presented with our historical arguments, but are free to explore sources and drawn their own connections. Incorporating hypertext into our narratives allows readers to freely explore related topics and indulge their curiosities – perhaps a close culmination of the skip trails envisioned by Vannevar Bush. Dynamic maps like those used by Andrew Torget allow us to visualize changes in the past; in Torget’s case it’s the spread of slavery into Texas. Such tools change the way historians analyze data and raise questions. Furthermore, the web is not just a vehicle for entertainment but increasingly is a tool for education. Often people turn to the Internet or Wikipedia (the family encyclopedia for the twenty-first century) and go no further. Historians need to take a role in defining the history web and ensuring adequate information exists for other scholars, students, and general readers. Are there problems? Absolutely. It’s unsure if Internet-based reading will take off among the general public. Yet, with more and more grade-school children going through school systems that depend on computers, electronic reading in the future may come as naturally as reading a dead-tree copy of the New York Times (I admit I haven’t made the complete shift to electronic newspapers yet). Additionally, online scholarship has the potential to reach a far greater number of readers than our academic books. There are also issues with tenure and promotion – simply, no standards exist exist. The OAH and AHA have yet to define peer review or professional standards for digital scholarship, which effectively tells historians to not consider the medium since it lacks a reward system. (I imagine these issues will be taken up in future blog posts by either Brent or myself – my list of blog topic ideas is getting quite long).

Kindle will not replace the book, and nor will digital history. Digital scholarship is not meant to replicate print culture. If that were the goal of digital scholarship, then there would be no purpose. That process was already attempted with e-books and failed. Digital historians are not challenging institutions just to challenge them, but we’re coming to this as scholars or burgeoning scholars and asking the profession to consider these tools and ideas. Like Kindle, we’re trying to find ways to do things in the new medium that cannot be replicated in the old.

Additional Food for Thought:

May 02, 2008 @jaheppler