Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Weekend Muse: The Electronic Trap

I almost hate it say it, but I've been "online" since the mid-1980s when, in a prior permutation of my life, I also wrote software for and worked in Court Services in Minnesota as a probation officer. The growth of the term "online" and the availability of information at the touch of a few keystrokes is nothing less than miraculous, from my perspective.

Every day I marvel at the new resources to be found through the Internet, and especially so in studying and re-creating the 18th century era. The "online" community is a marvel; the ability to share experiences, ideas, and informational sources is a boon to all.

But, like every tool wonderful though it might be, there can also be a negative result of its use, an "electronic trap", if you will. Perhaps you've noticed it yourself, or in yourself; I have.

The easy availability of online information and resources in the form of primary period documents, period paintings, and the work of others (secondary and tertiary) based on period sources leads to a temptation to refer to them, to defer to them, without the need for seeking out other "old technology" forms of books, microfilm, and so on. So much simpler to "Google" the question and take what information you can find after some (often times intense) online research.

But that is a trap.

Just as we should not base our interpretation and understanding on one work or volume we might find on our topic, so we should not base it on items we have "scoured" the Internet for, multifarious though they might be. I cannot and will not say the Internet has made us lazy in terms of serious investigation; I find online sources too valuable and helpful. But I will say that these online resources often become shortcuts, lull us into thinking we have the "full picture" when, in fact, we are only scratching the surface of understanding.

In investigating 18th century finance, currency, and trade, I have found a multitude of information online. Most of it very good. But not all. Nor, even when the information was good, did the resource lend itself to a complete understanding of what the information was actually "saying". To fully grasp the meaning of that data, I found I needed to do quite a bit of reading, books from the University library, microfilmed journals and ledgers from the History Center. Only by pursuing those paper written records did a clarity of meaning become evident.

At bottom, my point is simply that our search for and use of information needs to be well rounded. To provide ourselves with a good foundation, we need to use more than one tool or one resource. Even when primary documents are online, as many are today (though sadly not nearly enough), to fully utilize the treasures they provide us, we must do much more work in reading and studying those "hard copy" files.

Online study is a great tool, which can point to even more resources for investigation, areas we perhaps hadn't thought of or been aware of. But don't allow the ease of obtaining and availability of information divert from the follow on necessity of digging deeper into the physical written record for a fuller understanding.

The Clerk

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