Digitization and Losing the Art of Research

I’d like to deviate slightly from my usual theme, and comment on Research. Capital “R” research. On the January 22, 2016 article in The New York Times Book Review titled “Under No Certain Search Terms,” which is about the importance of archival research NOT mediated by the keyword search process which is part and parcel of using digitized archival materials today.

Janice P. Nimura argues that digitized archival material is helpful, but it eliminates the “serendipity” of simply browsing through archives and discovering unique, interesting, and important information that otherwise would not have been available to a researcher because it is not tagged with certain “keywords.” As Nimura succinctly puts it: The problem with keyword searches through archival materials is: “You find exactly what you’re looking for, and nothing you’re not.”

Unfortunately, as more and more archives get digitized – making possible unprecedented access to these archives, we are also missing out on the incidental discoveries, the serendipity of it all, that make research interesting. Worse, these skills are often not being imparted to the next generation of researchers.

When I was teaching freshman composition at the University of Cincinnati a few years ago, I assigned a series of exercises that took my students through the first few steps of doing real library research. One of the exercises required that students read through a newspaper published on the day they were born. Until the late 1990s, in order to read newspapers from 18 years earlier, students would most likely have used a microfilm reader, a cumbersome machine into which one fed a reel of microfilm and which projected an enlarged (and hence readable) image of the microfilm’s tiny (35mm) frame.


Microfilm reels. By Lhsunshine (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


“In the Wroclaw University library” By David Lisbona from Haifa, Israel (Reading Brilling’s book about Jews in Silesia) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons









This was one of those assignments that few students took seriously at the beginning, but which would result in many students to come back totally ecstatic about the incidental tidbits they encountered in the research process. Some things they found curious, others profound: The cost of a microwave in the 1980s, the style of clothes in the advertisements, the name of a family member or a friend appearing in reports on local sports events, national or world events that corresponded with their birth… Inevitably, a few students would complain about the difficulties and frustrations of using the microfilm machine. But enough students loved the experience each semester that this particular assignment became a staple in my English 101 classes.

Eventually, digitized versions (i.e. with searchable text) of old (and recent) newspapers became available. Microfilm readers then began to disappear along with, of course, millions of reels of film. I made a point to tell my students that the microfilm version of a newspaper, which photocopied EVERY single page of a newspaper – advertisements and all – was the closest thing to reading an actual paper, and that they must not use the digitized online version. When a student did – they had to submit a copy of the front page of their chosen newspaper, I’d make them re-do that assignment. It was a painstaking process, but the reward was so rich that I braced myself each semester to deal with the “hassles” of having to explain to students, over and over again, why it was important to use the microfilm.

Around 2008, shortly after assigning this project again, I received an email from a university librarian, politely asking whether I was aware that the library had digital versions of many newspapers, and that students could very easily print out any article they wanted through a simple online search. A few students told me that librarians had shown them a more “efficient” way of using old newspapers.

It was obvious to me that some librarians thought I was a Luddite, an antiquarian who was unwittingly tormenting her students. So I wrote a long (carefully worded) email to our librarian to explain why I insisted on the use of microfilm.

The following year, I met with a librarian prior to the assignment, in order to head off another misunderstanding. The librarian informed me that the university library was well on its way to completely eliminating its microfilm collection. What are they going to do with the reels of microfilm? I asked. Unfortunately, they will be trashed, she said. The microfilm readers cost a fortune to maintain and storage for the microfilm reels, along with the readers, took up valuable space in the library. So out they went. Libraries all over the country were doing the same thing.

But don’t worry, my librarian said, everything is available in digital form, which is even better, because you can do searches.

I couldn’t help but making one last-ditch effort to plead the case for microfilm – to someone with absolutely no say on the matter – for the preservation of at least one microfilm reader.

I continued with watered-down versions of the assignment for a couple more years. Keyword searches go through the mediation of search algorithms which separate the researcher from the primary material – and from the thrill of incidental discoveries and the serendipity inherent in archival research. If one must do keyword searches, there is little justification to make students go through the extra steps when a simple Google search accomplishes exactly the same thing, and far more efficiently.

Now that I have learned a bit of programming–especially after the course I took with Dr. Chuck Severance on Coursera on using SQL to query data, I have come to appreciate the power of computer programs penetrate, manage, and give shape to large amount of data. Perhaps one day, artificial intelligence will advance to such a degree that machines can explain the meaning of data as well. But will a machine experience the joy of discovery? Will it squeal in a fruitful accidental encounter – if it is ever capable of accidental encounters?

“Sometimes the telling detail — the yeast that makes the whole lump rise — isn’t in the headline you’re reading. It’s in the gossip column on the next page, or in the classifieds tucked in the back.”  – Janice P. Nimura in “Under No Certain Search Terms”

P.S. The research assignment discussed above was one of the gems from my mentors at the Freshman Writing Program at the University of Maryland, College Park. Thank you, Gene Hammond!