Published: Sept. 7, 2009

Physical documents are coming online through Google Books and digital libraries around the world. The goal behind many of these projects is the idea the shift to digital documentation will lead to a new era: this wide-spread access to important information will cause leaps and bounds in research.

But this isn’t the whole story.

Jordan Stein, Assistant Professor of English, shares that having a database of accessible resources doesn’t make those resources valuable.  “Digital archives make things available,” Stein agrees, “but to optimize them you still need to know what you're looking for, what they contain, how to search, etc.”

Stein, recipient of a Dean’s Funds for Excellence Award from ASSETT, delved further into these ideas while at the American Antiquarian Society’s 2009 Summer Seminar in the History of the Book. This seminar aimed to examine the complex relationship between book history and media history.

In addition to investigating the idea of access to digital archives, this seminar questioned the idea that books and libraries will become antiquated, replaced by digital documents.

Stein thinks not.

He shares that more important than knowing what to look for in a digital archive, is realizing what is missing. While not commonly considered, there is actually more to a book than the words it contains. Historians and typographers, among others, view how a book was published, it’s page size, and it’s binding as being just as, if not more important than the actual words on each  page.

Following that line of thought, one of the driving points of the seminar, Stein shares, was that “digital technologies don't, can't, shouldn't, replace books.”  But, Stein says, while digital archives are not the answers to all our problems, they can still be immensely helpful—especially to students.

“I’m really committed to making sure my students realize what kinds of resources are available to them when they do humanities research,” Stein impresses upon me. “I came away [from the conference] with a renewed sense that the kinds of interpretive skills we teach are still valuable—possibly more so than ever.” He realizes, though, that students will need to be taught the new ways of finding meaningful knowledge in a massive nest of possibilities.

While not teaching a class this fall, Stein has ideas to host a seminar on book history and media history, as well as creating a future course on advanced research methods for English majors.

As he teaches students how to become better problem solvers in an increasingly digital world, Stein reflects on the idea that digital technology can be an occasion for collaboration among humanities professors, students, researchers, and librarians. “What we’re working on," Stein says, "is only one part of the story of how digital archives can enrich the work we do.”

Written by: Kate Vander Wiede, Cu '09, ASSETT Staff