Magazine article History Today

Internet History

Magazine article History Today

Internet History

Article excerpt

David Rundle surveys the latest multimedia innovations and questions their usefulness to historians

Technophilla, like progress, is a comfortable disease; it is also, as far as I can tell, only mildly contagious. For all the talk of multimedia as a revolution, making knowledge more accessible than ever, there remain many who are uninfected and unaffected. The new technology has been said to involve a `democratising process' but, if this is democracy, it is clearly not for everybody.

Nevertheless, only the flippant would dismiss those who surf the net as merely riding on the crest of a fashion. Both schools and academic research projects are showing that multimedia can be used to good effect. One does not need to be tangled up in the World-Wide Web to recognise that it might provide interesting prospects for the historian.

Multimedia, technophiles say, has three advantages. First, the sheer amount of information available: whole libraries can be called up on a computer screen. Second, the information can be searched with ease: instead of quixotic indexing, the computer can hunt for any word or combination of letters. Third -- and this is why the technology is called multimedia -- the information can be presented with sounds and images as well as text. This ability to entertain as well as inform explains why the new technology is a success in schools.

Multimedia, though, is not one technology but two: CD-Roms and the Internet. CD-Roms have not been the publishing phenomenon that some companies predicted but they do have advantages which suggest that they (or their successor -- DVD or Digital Video Disks are being developed) will not join the catalogue of `flopped innovations'. One is that they are `stand-alone' -- all you need to run one is the appropriate drive on a computer. And, in terms of performance, CD-Roms can provide a combination of sound, text and images faster and with higher resolution than websites. On the other hand, with disks the information is unchangeable -- they cannot, like sites on the Internet, be perpetually revised and updated.

CD-Roms have become particularly associated with the colourful presentation of reference material. Many of these are geared towards history, for example, the current Hutchinson History Library contains six books, including a dictionary of world history, a dictionary of ideas, as well as John Roberts's Shorter History of the World (an expanded version is promised to be out next year). Similarly, Dorling Kindersley (a market-leader in CD-Roms) produces a History of the World package geared to GCSE requirements. However, the best-selling CD-Roms are encyclopaedias like the ubiquitous Microsoft's Encarta and the current market-leader, Encyclopaedia Britannica, which not only provides the entire text of all the volumes on one disk, but in its full version, comes with a disk linking articles to thousands of relevant websites.

Though examples like Britannica demonstrate how CD-Roms and the Internet are intertwined, recent attention has concentrated on the Internet. This is because the net, or World-Wide Web, is an unprecedented form of publishing. Anybody, if they have a modem and the know-how, can create their own web-page, or at least can find and visit any website in the world, for no more than the cost of the phone call for dialling in, or the subscription fee for accessing a particular site. With the attraction of cheap communication, the Internet is not only home to salacious news Stories and glossy advertising -- there is a whole range of sites, institutional, individual and commercial, which could interest the historian.

Libraries are an obvious example of institutions with relevant websites. Some provide not just the catalogue on-line (as in the case, say, of the British Library or Oxford's Bodleian) but also carry exhibitions (the Bibliotheque Nationale de France is now showing manuscript illuminations from `The Age of Charles V'). Museums and major art galleries also have attractive and informative web-pages (in particular, the National Gallery). In contrast, British government agencies, like English Heritage and the Public Record Office provide home-pages with little more information than a publicity leaflet. Contrast those with local council websites: maybe it's civic pride that impels some to provide potted local histories (in particular, Cheshire and Oxfordshire County Councils). Besides these, there are a whole wealth of societies represented on the Web: from historical re-enactment groups, to national organisations like the American Richard III Society -- whose site, despite its game rearranging Henry Tudor's features (opposite), is fairly unbiased and highly informative. Specialist interests are also catered for by the range of discussion groups (from archaeology to eighteenth-century studies) which exist for members to `post' queries and announce recent discoveries.

But the institutions that usually provide the most detailed websites are universities. Most have research projects available on-line; some conduct electronic seminars, while others, especially in America, post course-reading on the net. Furthermore, many research students and academics have carried out computerised projects conceived for, or transferred to, the Internet.

Many of these projects are heavily textual -- if you happen to be at a loss for bedtime reading on medieval history, say, you can call up anything from excerpts from Froissart's chronicles, the full text of Magna Carta, to Florentine tax records. An old-fashioned book might be handier, but in some cases, sites provide information not easily available (or affordable) in print. Genealogists, for example, can find on the Internet not just an institutional information service, but also an individual's database of royal genealogies spanning Europe.

Then there are commercial sites: Internet bookshops can provide a wide range of stock at cheap prices (some also include reader comments on the books); other sites advertise magazines and journals, often displaying sample articles on screen. Some academic journals run an Internet subscription service: instead of having a copy arrive through the post, the subscriber has a password and can read the journal on computer. The advantages for publishers in terms of printing costs, and libraries in terms of space, are obvious; what is less clear is whether readers will come to prefer viewing a journal on screen than owning their individual (eventually dog-eared) copy.

Though there are patently a range of websites relevant to historians on the Internet, finding them can be difficult. Trawling through the Web's excess of information for a suitable site can be like a paper(less) chase through the arcane, the inappropriate and the just plain bizarre. The established `search-engine' sites can assist, but they can also provide a list of irrelevant entries. For example, I had no idea, when I recently typed in `wolsey', that so many business parks had been named after the corpulent cardinal (incidentally, the most useful site I found for him is maintained by Wolsey's Oxford foundation, Christ Church). A more focused way to search is via `gateways', which provide links to other sites on a particular topic -- History Today's own home-page does this, incorporating both editorial and readers' suggestions.

When you finally reach a suitable site, you may well find a valuable factual resource attractively presented. But can you trust the information it provides? After all, a website flickering on the screen can be altered and so its form at any moment is transient. Indeed, for tomorrow's historians, the ephemeral nature of Internet evidence will cause migraines enough. For present-day researchers, the headache is that something as impermanent as a website is hardly somewhere you would expect to find meticulous scholarship. That is supposed to appear in copiously footnoted, hardback books printed by a reputable publisher. But those conventions are as much proof of `objectivity' as an aeroplane seat-belt is a safeguard against crash-landings. The Internet, in contrast, is like a perilous freefall. It liberates us from the conventions of objectivity but the freedom also means that there is absolutely no guarantee that, say, a translation is accurate or dates correct. Viewers can either trust blindly what is on the screen or else can check the information for themselves. If such a critical approach is taken, they must become researchers, following the dictum my undergraduates are tired of hearing: we are historians, we can trust no one.

There is a final contrast between printed books and the Internet. In both cases, the range of coverage can be uneven; on the Web, as in the bookshop, there can be a series of sites discussing one topic, while others are ignored. But I wonder whether the two sorts of publishing are uneven in the same way. Could it be that, just as the shift from manuscript to print subtly altered literary fashion, so the move to computer is creating a different canon of taste? If it is, however, the World-Wide Web has a get-out clause rarely available in the world of print: if you feel a topic should be better served, make your own website.

The addresses of all the websites alluded to in this article can be found on the History Today website:

David Rundle is Lecturer in Early Modern History at Mansfield College, Oxford. He is currently editing the Hutchinson Encyclopedia of the Renaissance to be published in 1999.

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