A Cursive Look at Real and Virtual Research

My seventh grade teacher used to dole out cursive writing sheets as punishments.  Talking in class equalled two sheets of letter A.  Wrestling in class equalled four sheets of letters B and C.  Putting your pencil in your classmates eye…you get the picture.  By the end of the year, I had mastered the alphabet.  Twice.

Countless recesses of repeating carefully constructed letters and phrases in perfected penmanship not only ingrained in my writing the annoying alliteration just witnessed, it also created the ungodly callous on my right middle-finger.   More seriously though, I did learn to take pride in my cursive writing and gradually approached the act of writing as an art form.  Of course, this view came in hindsight.  At the time, I just wanted to employ my own understanding of “cursive” at the teacher who kept me in during recess.  A sacred time for any student.

Fast forward fourteen years, and I am in the Public History Room of Requirement, enjoying a writing experience.  Unique to this experience is that the enjoyment did not arise from the content of my writing, but in its aesthetic quality.  This may seem odd, and somewhat narcissistic, but as I told the people in the office, my cursive writing was looking particularly beautiful that day.  Either way, what does this have to do with Digital History?

This past week our history class attempted to trace the ambiguous boundaries between the virtual and real worlds that are competing for our attention as scholars.  The digital mapping of the world and the communication of this growing body of information through a variety of technologies that operate to create a virtual archive led us to consider the impact such an archive exercises on historical research and scholarship which has traditionally relied on “real” artifacts or documents found in physical archives.

Back to my aesthetically-pleasing cursive.  Reflecting on the craft of writing illuminated how different the physical process of placing words in a notebook is from the physical process of arranging text on a Word Document.  Perhaps comparing the two resources, (the hand-written journal and the type-scripted document) offer lessons for historians searching for meaning in real and virtual arenas.

What is gained? What is lost?

The Hand-Written Journal:

Time: The degree of finality when writing in a Journal (in contrast to more official documents) requires more time to consider the organization of words before placing them onto paper.

Space: Writing on paper requires real space as you accumulate more pages.  It also requires more space to store.

Effects of Time on Space:  Over time real books show signs of wear and tear. In Web Dragons the authors note, “Pages change color and texture with age, becoming yellow and brittle.  Books fall open to the well used parts, which bear the marks of heavier handing” (41).  So too, with time the space where books are stored must provide new space allowing for their preservation.

Artistry: Form aiding Function  A degree of consideration concerning the size, spacing, and shape of your letters, words and sentences is central to writing by hand.

Examples: The Book of Kells or the steles in Xi’an (used in Web Dragons, steles even as statues are examples of artistry with meaning that transcends the mere image) are “studied as much for their calligraphic beauty as for the philosophy, poetry and history that they record” (37).

Lessons for research:

Hand written documents offer insights outside of the text itself.  Shift in writing form might indicate different functions.  Nevertheless, archival documents that are hand written are limited in their readability, and their existence is limited by the passage of time.

The Typed Document:

Time:  The ability to delay finality (until you hit that dreaded ‘publish’ button) allows more time for revisions.

Space:  Although text requires space on a document, the digital revolution allows for the compression of seemingly infinite amounts of information in a seemingly infinite amount of space.

Effects of Time on Space:  Unlike written documents, information online is hardly limited by time or space.  A webpage might model age, but in effect is timeless.  You may locate the number of hits a page has, but the webpages themselves will not diminish in quality with increased use.

Artistry: Function trumping Form  The authors of Web Dragons describe web pages as “appallingly brash and ugly, the better ones are merely bland and utilitarian” (38-39).  While some web pages might display beautiful graphics, it is interesting to wonder if historians will seek to preserve webpages with the same rigor as they do the Book of Kells.  Who knows?  Maybe there will be a computer in a future museum displaying a FaceBook profile?

Lessons for research:

Online, virtual, archives provide readable, timeless text and images for research.  Yet, when the artistry of the text is reduced to a common font and size, there are probably some meanings lost to the scholars, particularly when you are not given the insights into the cutting, pasting and formatting going on during the process.

Conclusion:

In our current climate of information overload, a cost-benefit analysis can be fruitful in discussing digital archives.  What are we gaining and what are we losing by relying more heavily on this virtual research base?  Personally struggling to hammer out a concrete definition of “virtual” I found the authors of Web Dragons helpful in their statement that online content is virtual since “it exists in essence or effect though not in actual fact, form, or name” (41).  Shakespeare might ask, is a resource by any other name, still a resource?

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