Digital Scholarship: Ha-Ha Funny or Just Funny?

In a recent New York Review of Books piece, “The Library in the New Age”, Robert Darnton offers his thoughts on the research library in the digital age. Darnton argues persuasively against any real displacement of traditional media by digital resources, suggesting instead that these two should complement each other rather than converge. As a historian who relies almost exclusively on printed and handwritten materials that stand little chance of seeing a scanner anytime soon, I sympathize with Darnton’s position. And Darnton’s elucidation of his chief concern, that of textual stability, is well informed by his expertise in the history of print, especially of the underground kind. But Darnton’s otherwise cogent argument is undercut by his general distrust of digital media.

Darnton betrays his feelings in an anecdote referencing a 2002 article from The Onion, “Congress Threatens To Leave D.C. Unless New Capitol Is Built.” Satirizing sports franchises’ perennial threats to move to greener pastures, the article claims that Congress desired a new facility with improved sight lines, concession stands, and bathrooms. One architectural firm supposedly proposed a Capitol with a retractable dome, a sketch of which is displayed in the article’s accompanying graphic. But then, in a bizarre second life for The Onion article, a Beijing newspaper appropriated the story and reprinted it as hard fact. Now that I’ve thoroughly ruined a piece of brilliant satire, let’s take a look at how Darnton describes it.

As a spoof, a satirical newspaper, The Onion, put it out that an architect had created a new kind of building in Washington, D.C., one with a convertible dome. On sunny days, you push a button, the dome rolls back, and it looks like a football stadium. On rainy days it looks like the Capitol building.

Next Darnton turns his attention to the article’s reception:

The story traveled from Web site to Web site until it arrived in China, where it was printed in the Beijing Evening News. Then it was taken up by the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Reuters, CNN, Wired.com, and countless blogs as a story about the Chinese view of the United States: they think we live in convertible buildings, just as we drive around in convertible cars.

Darnton rather misses the point of the Onion article and fumbles his account of its appropriation. The Los Angeles Times (no online version freely available, but found on A3 of the 7 June 2002 edition), San Francisco Chronicle, and Wired for example, each treat the story as indicative of the amateurish nature of Chinese media, not as revelatory of Chinese perceptions of American lifestyles. My intent here is not to pick on Darnton, a scholar whose work I greatly admire. Instead, I offer this critique of Darnton’s article because I believe its mangled account exposes general and fundamental unfamiliarity with digital media that in turn inhibits serious digital scholarship, a critical concern for myself and my colleagues.

Darnton opens with a telling slip:

Let’s begin with the Internet and work backward in time. More than a million blogs have emerged during the last few years.

While Darnton is technically correct that “more than a million blogs have emerged in the past few years,” he grossly understates the situation. Technorati currently claims to track 112 million blogs, and countless others do not ping blog search services. Then when Darnton introduces The Onion anecdote, he offers the following disclaimer:

[Blogs] have given rise to a rich lore of anecdotes about the spread of misinformation, some of which sound like urban myths. But I believe the following story is true, though I can’t vouch for its accuracy, having picked it up from the Internet myself.

What exactly is in doubt about the story’s accuracy? The provenance original article? As an avid reader of The Onion and a resident of China in 2002, I for one can attest to the timing and authenticity of the original text. But my word and Darnton’s belief are surely irrelevant. We need only turn to archives of The Onion and to those of the various publications that covered the Capitol story’s appearance in Beijing. It should be noted that nearly all of the sources Darnton cites are available in print form (even The Onion), but it would seem that an online incarnation casts doubt even on traditional media.

Darnton offers a general disclaimer against the veracity of news media in general – “Having learned to write news, I now distrust newspapers as a source of information, and I am often surprised by historians who take them as primary sources for knowing what really happened” – but historians can and do employ such traditional media in their own scholarship without the sort of misgivings that Darnton reserves for online information. Until digital resources are understood to be more than just “picked up from the Internet,” scholars will face an uphill battle in establishing the legitimacy of research based on or disseminated via digital media.

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