Social Networks and The Good Way to Do History

Biblioteque Nationale (1)
Biblioteque Nationale

There is a fascinating article by Harvard librarian Robert Darnton in this month’s New York Review of Books called “The Good Way to Do History.” It is a review of Arlette Farge’s book The Allure of the Archives. This book was originally written in 1989 before the rise of the internet and ebooks, and yet, as Darnton  points out, Farge’s work addresses issues that are quite relevant. Farge’s work talks about how information travelled in earlier centuries. I think that what we will find is that the patterns of communication are strikingly familiar. Darnton addresses what he says are some of the myths about our time with Farge’s work:

1. We live in the information age.
Darnton says that this is misleading and that every age was an age of information. I agree with this – the networks people created through letter writing and books were slow but just as significant and useful as the networks we have now. He points out that Farge once used the phrase “the logic of the crowd” to talk about how inflammatory information spreads revolt – much like Twitter in our age but through word of mouth. “The logic of the crowd” is like Howard Rheingold‘s concept “Smart Mobs.” As Darnton puts it:

“Farge shows how information traveled through the media of eighteenth-century Paris. Primarily oral but intermixed with printed material such as chapbooks and popular engravings, the flow of talk and images (also, I would add, songs) shaped a collective consciousness that often erupted in violence.”

I have a note here on the Republic of Letters that describes some of these early modern networks.

2. All information is available online.
Darnton says that this is false. He says that there are an estimated 129,864,880 books and Google has only digitized 20,000,000 of them. He discusses the miles of archives that exist: 252 miles of them in the Biblioteque Nationale alone. Although I get his point, the significance of Google is that I do not have to be a member of an elite academy to get access to the information. The internet can represent the democratization of information (and yes, there are problems to overcome with that idea). Farge documents in her book the arduous process she had to go through to get access to the archives.

3. The future is digital.
Darnton calls this myth true but trite and misleading. The death of the book is routinely predicted since the invention of just about every other media (movies, television, comic books, etc.). Darnton points out that “more books are produced each year than the year before – an increase of 6% in the United States in 2012.” He goes on to say that new media actually expand and enrich the experience of the old.

I think it is important that I read outside of my discipline. We need to stop thinking so much about specific disciplines and make the connections between them to solve problems. Sometimes it feels like we spend a lot of time reinventing the wheel by addressing issues that may have been solved, in part, by other scholars elsewhere. I really appreciate publications like the New York Review of Books because it gives me a chance to read about what is happening in other fields and make connections that I would not readily be able to make.

I actually bought the Kindle version of this book. I like to read physical books as much as anyone else but this is a short one and I could not resist the price or the irony.

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