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Does the digital pillage scholarly memory palaces?

President of the AHA and American environmental historian William Cronon recently published an intriguing piece in the November issue of Perspectives on History. In “Recollecting My Library . . . and My Self,” Cronon ponders what is lost in the transition from material text to digital text. His own interests in senses of place and the nature of storytelling really shape this piece, and I found it a very compelling claim about the potential pitfalls of our embrace of the digital. I thought it would be worth sharing, to see what others make of this.

He points out a few dangers that the “digital revolution” poses to “building personal libraries.” As others have pointed out before him, the ease of retrieving information has fundamentally transformed the research process. Cronon also points out that the digital turn imperils a source’s context, comparing the ease of computer searching with a return to the Roman scroll. He discusses his own difficulties in locating a piece of information that he’s already collected in a digital storehouse vs. a material library. I think Cronon is signaling toward important problems here, and I wonder how other researchers (not just historians) are grappling with these same challenges in their use of the digital. Cronon somberly points out that digital evidence gathering is forcing a change in how historians conceive of themselves through their research processes:

“This lifelong process of creating a scholarly self by means of an intellectual and emotional journey whose way-stations are marked by passionately remembered texts — many of them so dear to us that we keep them close to us for our entire lives — is being transformed in the fragmented world of search and scroll that has become our dominant metaphor for knowledge itself.”

If this transformation (which reads to me, in this account, as something woefully lost) is inevitable, as Cronon claims, what are we to do about it? He points out that what is at stake in this transformation is not just a form of practice but a sense of identity. So how are digital researchers to maintain their “memory palaces,” as Cronon calls them? How are we to construct these palaces at all? If the materiality of the research process is being lost, is it also being replaced? Is there a materiality to the digitized research process? Is the memory palace still there, but in a different form? Can we still construct a scholarly sense of self when the trek to the archive is not a journey to a foreign country, but the act of opening a laptop? Can we maintain a sense of context through the iPad?

I’m eager to hear what others have to say about this transformation.

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