Doing Media History

Thanks to Ana and Joshua for running the previous two HASTAC Scholars discussions, and welcome to the forum on doing media history! Since this discussion focuses more on issues of methodology, and thus has no clear "pros" or "cons", I'd like begin a little bit differently. Below are three initial posts using specific examples that begin to explore how the present and the past relate to each other. The questions are open-ended, so please feel to share how historical examples have informed your own work.

I'd like to start with some questions posed by Lisa Gitelman at the beginning of her most recent work, Always Already New:

"Different versions and styles of media history do make a difference. Is the history of media first and foremost the history of technological methods and devices? Or is the history of media better understood as the story of modern ideas of communication? Or is it about modes and habits of perception? Or about political choices and structures? Should we be looking for a sequence of separate ages with ruptures, revolutions, or paradigm shifts in between, or should we be seeing more of an evolution? A progress?"

How we each choose to answer these questions not only shapes the conclusions we come to, but says much about our own goals and assumptions. So: how do you conceptualize the history of media? What level of granularity, from sweeping narratives of the Four Information Ages to detailed work on one specific period, do you find most useful?


Over the summer, The Atlantic published an article by Nicholas Carr provocatively titled ?Is Google Making Us Stupid?? In it, Carr argues that

Net seems to be ... chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

This isn?t a forum about Google?s affect on our reading habits, so I won?t rehash the flood of responses Carr received. Suffice to say, the article sparked intense debate (check out The Edge and Britannica Blog archives for more.)

What fascinated me most as I followed the discussion was the often haphazard way media history was deployed on all sides. Carr begins by claiming Nietzsche?s "writing ball" may have (as Kittler famously argues) changed Nietzsche?s writing style "from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style." In some ways conceding that technologies deeply affect our interaction with texts, Clay Shirky fired back with a jab at Tolstoy, writing that "the reading public has increasingly decided that Tolstoy?s sacred work isn?t actually worth the time it takes to read it," a sentiment which was echoed by George Dyson: "Maybe books will end up back where they started, locked away in monasteries (or the depths of Google) and read by a select few." As the debate rolled on, the past was either memorialized as sacred ground or swept aside as irrelevant. Mostly, though, it was just ignored.

In the wake of this debate, it's worth taking a moment to ask ourselves: what can media history teach us? As we study the emergence of new communications technologies, with all their social and possibly cognitive implications, how can we deploy historical examples meaningfully? In short, how can we put the past and present in conversation with each other?


In one of my favorite essays on media history, "Embedded Memories," Will Straw writes that "a significant effect of the Internet" is the "reinvigoration of early forms of material culture":

"It is not simply that the Internet, as a new medium, refashions the past within the languages of the present, so that vestiges of the past may be kept alive. Like most new media, in fact, the Internet has strengthened the cultural weight of the past, increasing its intelligibility and accessibility. On the Internet, the past is produced as a field of ever greater coherence, through the gathering together of disparate artifacts into sets or collections, and through the commentary and annotation that cluster around such agglomerations, made possible in part by high-capacity storage mechanisms.

"The Internet becomes a comfortable place, less because we are adept at handling its futuristic openness than because it has rendered the already familiar all the more coherent and solid. Paradoxically, that coherence and solidity serve to naturalize versions of the past, whose artifacts, we believe, the Internet has merely discovered."

Straw uses the example of, a website that sells copies of popular perfumes from the 1960s, '70s and '80s, and he goes on to construct a compelling argument about the "inertial effect" of the video store on "re-shaping cultural time." (Video stores, he argues, expand the availability of films from the past, inviting new generations to experience early cinema; hence a film like Austin Powers: Goldmember, which draws heavily on the aesthetics of 1960s British spy films and blaxploitation, becomes intelligible to a younger audience.)

There are many other ways to think about the "inertial effect" of new media on popular culture. Last week, over two decades after "Never Gonna Give You Up" was first released, Rick Astley was nominated for ?Best Act? by the MTV Europe Music Awards, entirely through the force of Rickrolling. Similarly, the process of reading a Charles Dickens novel in serial format ? which seems to have been lost when Victorian novels began being published in one-volume editions ? is being revived electronically through services like, and has echoes in the twittering of Moby Dick. In the even more distant past, 17th-century Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher has gained a whole new following through the Athanasius Kircher Society website, posts on Boing Boing, and places like The Museum of Jurassic Technology.

The process by which a scholar like Kircher can become a Boing Boing superhero is fascinating to me. What kinds of cultural negotiations are involved in the making of post-modern Kircher, or a twittered Moby Dick? Is anything lost (or gained) in the exchange? How do technologies of storage and transmission affect the presence of the past?


Sorry this is a bit rambling. . .

Fascinating questions all around! The first thing I thought of in the discussion of serialized novels was how my all-time favoirte novel, The Brothers Karamazov, was serialized, yet not once in the many times I've re-read it have I thought about what it would have been like to read it in its serialized form. What it says on the Mousehold Words page is rather informative:

"The demands of serial publication inevitably affected the novel.
Popular minor characters became more prominent; popular novels
stretched out to incredible length; cliffhangers were introduced to
bring readers back for the next chapter, and artful recapitulation
reminded them of what they had read the week or month before."

Sounds a lot like a recipe for a Dan Brown novel to me! But I can't help but imagine if it's possible to reclaim seralized novels in the form they were intended. Limiting your own reading isn't enough because part of the expereince is discussion with others, the culture that springs up in anticipation of what's to come.

I'm recalling a course I took as an undergraduate that was devoted entirely to The Brothers Karamazov. To some degree this replicated what the experience would have been - we were tackling it a few chapters per week and discussing them in depth. But there was still always an awareness of how it all tied into the novel as a whole (I think it was assumed that each student was already familiar with it). What's interesting is that the course could have been an opportunity to explore its reception at the time it came out by following it in its serialized form with corresponding discussion of how each section was received. Call it a missed opportunity or simply a testament to the modern emphasis on the novel as a unity.

I suppose the real modern equivalent is the long form television show with a story arc - Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Alias, etc. Ask someone about their experience with one of these shows and you will get difference answers from those who watched them once they were on DVD as a unity and those who experienced them "live". While many of these shows are quite intriguing when viewed as a whole (again in the Dan Brown, gotta keep on watching until my eyes bleed kind of way) I find it much more enjoyable to watch them when they air and have interesting discussions about them during the week leading up to the next episode. As a medium, though, both types of viewing are being marketed to us - "live" if you're aware of it now, "boxed" for the late comers - and it's hard to know which is "directorial intent", if that matters.

The question I'm now asking is if it is every really possible to recapture the spirit and understanding that comes from the water cooler discussion of serialized media when it is first released?

There's also an interesting parallel to this question being asked in MMORPGs like World of Warcraft. These game worlds are constantly evolving through patches and expansion packs and as their essential nature is online gameplay there is no way to "go back" and experience what Warcraft was like 2 or 3 years ago when it was a very different game. Is there a need for some sort of historical preservation in these games to hold onto "snapshots" of media which is constantly changing?


Sometime in the 1st-century A.D., the Greek engineer Hero invented the aeolipile, a kind of steam-powered turbine. (Click here for a video of the aeolipile in action!)

Since its invention, Hero?s engine has had a strange trip through history. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Pneumatica ? the text in which the engine is described -- was translated, published and disseminated throughout the western world, where it influenced scholars such as Petrus Ramus, Conrad Gessner, and a whole slew of alchemists, engineers and artists working in hydraulics, including Leonardo da Vinci. (No doubt Hero?s work had a deep impact on the design of and interest in baroque automata and pleasure gardens..)

Skipping ahead a few centuries, there seems to be a resurgence of interest in the aeolipile in the twentieth century. In his seminal essay defending technological determinism, Robert Heilbroner describes Hero?s engine as an "expensive toy" ? a mere plaything that could never realize its full potential as a machine to ?produce power economically and effectively? because the age in which it was invented lacked the necessary "material competence" and "level of technical expertise" to produce the aeolipile on a mass scale. The aeolipile has also entered the popular imagination, popping up in Umberto Eco?s Foucault?s Pendulum, in sandalpunk literature, and even as the icon for McSweeney?s Internet Tendency.


In fact, whether in the Heilbroner?s essay or the imagined alternative history of sandalpunk, it seems the aeolipile has, in some sense, become the posterchild for technologies birthed "before their time" (as we?re fond of saying). What does it really mean, though, to describe Hero?s engine ? which has inspired so many artists and engineers ? as a failed technology? What does its appropriation into McSweeney?s thickly ironic world signal? How does our own technological present affect the ways we define, interpret or even appropriate the past?


Thanks for leading this discussion.  I'm particularly interested in the question of how to work with existing histories of technology.  In my own writing I find it useful to treat these texts as productive of a particular way (or system) for imaginating technological progress.  I'm looking at the development of handheld technologies (PDAs) as this development encounters particular nonprofit initiatives for greater citizen input into local governments.  I'm using texts like Piloting Palm (by Butter and Pogue, 2002), an 'insider' account of the history of Palm Computing, in order to situate the various discourses surrounding an organization's taking-up of these devices for citizen-based, participatory work.  This historical text doesn't really function like a 'history' (or a logical progression of facts and emerging themes), but more as a field of potential trajectories and interactions.  Accordingly, I choose the juxtapositions and points of encounter as a matter of 'analysis'.  And this ability to choose -- my authorial privilege -- interpellates my writing.  I guess this is how I imagine the 'past and present in conversation'.  How are others making use of histories of technology?


Hi, Whitney, Thanks so much for taking up this topic. I am very interested in the media history ideas you are putting up for conversation here because I have two (only two? that's inaccurate actually: I have many) competing ideas about the role and function of history. I begin with the assumption, of course, that history doesn't exist in itself. It is the historian who gathers up certain features of a multifarious landscape and labels those, assembles them, and creates a picture or a narrative of a "time." those features are all there, of course, but why this and not that is the job of the historian, not only to select but to argue why certain features "count." There is also imperial history, the kind in which leaders (kings or politicians or college presidents, etc.) like to gather out certain features to label as distinctive in order to claim a kind of credit on those who recognize that feature or implicitly or explicitly blame the barbarians who do not. And then there is a kind of polemical history (and I would put that Darnton "four great information ages" piece in this category) that probably overstates a claim precisely to sort out the kinds of perspectives needed to see what is or is not distinctive about the present. It's the opposite of micro-history. You come up with one result if you do a comparative study of the reception of TV to the reception of the Internet. You have a different one if you compare the organization of knowledge facilitated by the invention of writing systems with the development of the Internet. TV/Internet comparisons yield one important and interesting set of comparisons. Evolution of writing systems/development of WWW yields another interesting set of comparisons. I'm guessing (and here's where I'd love other comments since it really is an intution, not a conviction) that the Venn Diagram of what is yielded by each comparison has a relatively small area of overlap. The frame changes the nature of the conversation. That is significant not only for the conversation but, as we sit down to make history, deciding on the frame itself. To politicize this a little more, it totally annoys me that so many fields in the humanities subdivide by historical periods that reinforce the grand narratives of the disciplines and that make for the worst kinds of omissions about all that happens between, among, and against the assumptions of the periodization. Obviously I have a stake in this one. Dick Brodhead once teasingly claimed I had "invented the eighteenth century" because I'd had the audacity to write a whole, long book on a period in American literature that had previously been said not to exist! Now, there's an idea. Or maybe it's English and history departments that don't exist in the very same way, that is, if we take out canonization, maybe, foundationally, they need to be rethought and repopulated with new methods of organization, new ways of distinguishing features of the landscape, to return to my first point about the work of the historian. Thanks again for making me think this morning!


Hello all,

Thanks for the terrific discussion so far!  I?m glad that you mentioned the Will Straw essay, which captures many of these issues really well.  You didn?t mention, though, some of the gloomy imagery that Straw uses to describe the process of tradition-making within new media.  He calls it a system of ?blockages and weighty buildup,? and argues that ?new media come to be characterized by a sluggishness, a lumpy weight.?  Similar language appears throughout the essay.

As a literary scholar, such arguments fascinate me, because the history of literature has been, for much of its disciplinary existence, a rather triumphalist version of media history, one that has celebrated the tradition-making that Will Straw seems so ambivalent about.  It?s easy enough to think of 70s blaxploitation movies as a vaguely regrettable tradition, but who would seriously think of Charles Dickens or Moby Dick as a ?lumpy weight? or their canonization as a ?culture of delay??  Perhaps this difference in perspective is rooted in the way we think about media shift.  Is there something about putting Moby Dick on Twitter that makes us forget that its cultural significance was largely constructed by twentieth-century commentators and publishers?  That is, does looking at the technological remediation of the text encourage us to forget that ?Moby Dick? came into being only through the kind of delay that Will Straw is talking about? Hailed as an underappreciated classic ?American  Renaissance? of the 1850s, ?Moby Dick? as we know it is inseparable from its instantiation as a product of the traditionalized past.  But, there seems to be something about digital remediation?or maybe media shift in general??that erases the constructedness of the past prior to the most recent shift.  Does blogging Samuel Pepys?s diary lend a false naturalness to print editions?

Within literary studies, the history of canon-making is increasingly being folded into a history of the print medium.  I?m thinking here of books in English literary history, like William St. Clair?s The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (2004) and, more recently, Thomas F. Bonnell?s The Most Disreputable Trade (2008).  These scholars look at how competition between booksellers in the 18th century (read: corporate-media interests) and transformations in copyright law influenced the way literary ?classics? were marketed to the reading public.  Much like Will Straw?s paradigmatic ?video store,? literary publishing has long been, and remains, deeply invested in reproducing a ?tradition? that can then serve as a foundational context for new products. 

I?m curious to know what others think.  Does this set of concerns resonate?



Hi Cathy --

I was hoping someone would challenge my somewhat flippant use of the word history! :)

I agree that the frame changes the nature of the conversation. I'm wondering, though: can identifying small areas of overlap lead into (or become the impetus for) a discussion of similarities between the frames themselves? Does that make sense? So, in my own project, I'm finding that both 17th-century baroque poets (some groups, at least) and many digital media poets/artists are obsessed with the notions of randomness and generation. Of course, those obsessions came about differently (probably through Lullism for the former, and the affordances of digital media for the latter); but interrogating randomness and generation has, in turn, led artists of both periods to conceptualize language in similar ways. And if that's true, then the frames themselves (to return to our Venn diagram analogy) are starting to look similar.

Yet, I keep going back to the quesiton: what are we gaining from this? As you point out, the nature of these connections is inherently messy and tentative. At what point does it become meaningless?

Another way to think through these questions might be Erkki Huhtamo's notion of  topoi, which I believe was borrowed from Ernst Robert Curtius, and his claim that media archaeology should study "the cyclically recurring elements and motives underlying and guiding the development of media and culture." A lot to think about there.


A wonderful topic and what interesting ideas to think about, thank you! To respond to your question of how technological changes affect the presence, perhaps even within the form (or myth) of technological rupture we might find ideological attempts to return to earlier events? Of course I?m thinking within the American context and how revolutionary language is leveraged to force a divide and creates the new. It isn?t the storage or transmission as much as the form of newness itself that produces a ?context switch? that opens the possibility to connect with the past.

On perhaps a different topic, I?m currently reading a number of books on Bob Dylan, including Mike Marqusee?s Wicked Messenger, which has me thinking about Newport, R.I in July 1965. Marqusee describes the Festival as ?the fulcrum of the American sixties.? The technological revolution in popular music that occurred here was a sixteen-minute set of electric guitar powered Dylan songs. Dylan?s set wasn?t the first of the concert (in fact, his backing band, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, had already played) nor was it the first time the audience had heard these songs (both ?Maggie?s Farm? and ?Like a Rolling Stone? had already been released), but still this became the event by which a major change was produced within both popular culture and in the persona of Bob Dylan. It wasn?t the technology as much as the social conditions (events in Vietnam, genre/industry pressure, change in listener demographics, hell, maybe even the drugs) that turned this period into a pivot point.


I have an easy time being critical and a hard time being cynical---so I'm going to say we gain a lot from comparison, and a lot from contrast, a lot from comparisons within the frame, a lot from comparisons outside the frame . . . and a lot from really, really different frames. For one thing, since I'm doing all this cognition and digitality work now, changing the frames often allows us to see things that have been utterly invisble previously because of attention blindness (ie. that which allows us to focus prevents us from seeing anything else we're not focused on until we are startled into apprehension). Startle-reflex is good. That's why a study like your own, with 17t c baroque poets and contemporary digital media artists is so brilliant. The very act of crazy (in Lil Mama's sense of "wild-excellent" not in the sense of "insane") comparison is the only way we can see outside our sight-lines.


I don't know Erkki Huhtamo's work. Thanks for a reference! Great conversation. Thank you.


So much to think about here, and I'm curious to hear what others think!

I do think Straw's language is gloomy at times, but that might only be because he's pushing back against an early obsession with newness in so-called "new media studies." And I *do* think one could see the work of someone like Dickens as a kind of "lumpy weight" -- in fact, Dickens himself seems to be playing with this theme in Bleak House, a novel weighted down by the piles of rags and bottles in Krook's shop, by the heaps of paperwork brought into court for each session. The novel even opens (if I'm remembering correctly -- someone please correct me if I'm wrong) with an image of this muddy Megalosaurus waddling slowly up the street -- a kind of Jurassic Frankenstein created out of all the stuff of sluggish Victorian institutions. (Maybe this is a good metaphor for what Bleak House itself does, as a serially-published novel that produces large quantities of cheap, throwaway paper installments stuffed with advertising. It is its own contribution to the "lumpy weight" of culture, literally!)

But your point is well taken, and I like how you've folded Straw's thesis into the history of canon-making. It seems like the Twittering of Moby Dick is almost playing with this idea?


Is what Carr described a form of stupidity, or is it a form of intelligence?  In what assumptions and in what cultural bases for such assumptions are our notions of intelligence rooted? There's an adaptiveness on display that is incredible, for one.  Secondly, kvetching over some smarts being lost is as least as old as Plato's Phaedrus.  It's good to kvetch, don't get me wrong. But in the Phaedrus, Socrates tells a parable in which the king of all gods, Thamus, picks on one of the littler gods, Theuth, for being so enthusiastic about the invention of writing.  Thamus claims writing will improve human memory and that it will serve as a recipe for memory and wisdon.  But Theuth, ever the hoary old king of king, warns that writing, in its service as proxy for memory, will make humans in the absence of writing forgetful and entirely dependent upon writing for remembering.

What Theuth and Thamus are confronting is of little difference from what it is for a person to adapt to the regular use of Google or any easy-to-use search technology.  What Google does, or what it seems to do, is spread technology's function over the domain of memory to include the act of recall.  That is to say, we may write something down, but we still need to recall where to find it.  Of course we have made and used concordances and indices for a long time, narrowing the range of where to start recollecting, and so this process of narrowing where to begin recalling has been going on for generations.  But Google in effect made that process of recollection minimal: you just need to remember "" or click on that icon in your browser, etc.

This example is an example of how an example can at once illustrate a rather timeless conundrum as well as a sense of some change in the conundrum, all at once. And just look at how state-dependent memory is!  

Examples can serve in an oracular way, examples that evoke numerous and often contradictory accounts.  I think such an example should push us towards a greater understanding of how language operates in so many ways, and particularly how cultures in varying degrees of dependence on writing over orality, for example, can color things in ways that seem commensurable with those extents.

I'd go so far as to say that such polarization-ing is a product of utter dependenece on the word as a thing that is written and freezing things into words and vice-versa.  Maybe such an example shows that the word today is the flesh, that when we operate on the body we first or only operate on the word. This seems to be a powerful way in which the past can alternately be made sacred or sacrilege, this utter dependence on the switchiness of the written word, its rendering as some definite things to the exclusions of other things.

What we may be forgetting (and I think a certain forgetting about the place of this dialogue among his other dialogues) is perhaps a sort of higher message of Plato's Parmenides, that what a word means ultimately is something that partakes in its absolute purity and its absolute negation at the same time. Modern culture reads the Parmenides as Plato's most advanced, that it is his final dialogue.  But I am pretty durned sure it is his first dialogue, and it represents the clash of oral-based cognition and text-based cognition.  That Socrates is that very embodiment, as an illiterate man who has nonetheless memorized syllogistic reasoning. I think it's an account of Socrates attempting to memorize syllogistic reasoning through repetition, and that it's appropriately steeped in the issues that such a reckoning of the world creates. Yes, I think reckoning is the right word here. I show my own cultural biases and embodients in saying that in that way.

The flesh as it is written is absurd, necessarily, and yet very real. That this is true in all sorts of ways made possible by the ambiguities of the terms contained in that sentence. That's what the histories of media have taught me at least.  That our language technologies have made for, have reinventied, or have given birth to, not only operations on words but also on the things these words once represented. Now is it no longer representational but rather, by virtue of these operations, these things have become what these words now are, that these words, images, signs, etc. are the things.

Of course these notions push our conventions of sense itself to their very precipices and I don't know if you can teach that.  Can you teach someone to be a poet?  I don't know. I think it's hard, perhaps at least as difficult as explaining to logical positivists the operations of the Socratic method. Thos of us who teach will I guess continue to try regardless.


I study present-day media convergence, and one of the specters that constantly materializes on this terrain is the histories of media flux. That is, as soon as you start trying to trace the trajectory of convergence even over the past 10 years or so, the media forms we've taken for granted as relatively stable and self-enclosed (like "television") start to seem permeable throughout their development. There's been quite a bit of work on this operation in the field of media archaeology; one theoretical intervention I've found particularly fruitful in working through it is Butler and Grusin's "remediation," or "the representation of one medium in another" (45 in the eponymous book). In fact, all media operate by remediation, as they interpret it, since a medium is, by definition, "that which appropriates the techniques, forms, and social significance of other media and attempts to rival or refashion them" (65). Thus is born their catchprhase, "all mediation is remediation." So to me (as a scholar wrapped up in the present), media history involves excavating the complex and dynamic matrices of media interchange over time (including examples like those in this thread of older forms revived within newer ones), or, in archaeological terms, mapping the coordinates of media formations within the (Foucauldian) archive.


What a fascinating conversation. I don't have an academic background in history, so I feel rather ill-equipped to chime in. But that won't stop me!
This conversation started for me with Cathy Davidson's post "The Historian's Dilemma and the Question of Generations" ( with the introduction of Robert Darnton and the four great information ages. I'm not quite sure how I made it so far in my studies (information and library science), without coming across this perspective. This, in a program that is -- for lack of a better metaphor -- cannibalizing itself. We are training the supposed future of the profession (information scientists) to replace the waning profession (librarians). There have been keynote speakers at my school's commencement ceremonies who stand and predict the end of libraries as we know them, while an entire audience of emerging librarians sit on the cusp of a job market that they've just been told is tanking. From what I've read here, I think we need poets and historians to help us make sense of the librarian's tools and our field's future. Particularly PJHerron's post about the flesh made word, and how "This example is an example of how an example can at once illustrate a rather timeless conundrum as well as a sense of some change in the conundrum, all at once." Who else but a poet could say that?

It is strangely comforting to know that we have wrung our hands before, (many many times before, from the sounds of it) over things that we have clearly survived and come to love - writing, printing presses, and now the Internet. Thanks, everyone, for such a compelling discussion.


Thanks for facilitating the conversation, Whitney!
As someone who is researching sound technologies and attempting to, for a lack of better words, historicize and contextualize modes and habits of hearing in the 19th and 20th centuries, I'm particularly struck by your question, "Is the history of media . . . about modes and habits of perception?"

For a moment, let's consider that possibility, which, I've found, leads to one of many dilemmas. For one, how do scholars, including cultural and media historians, make sense of perception without reducing it to meaning-making? Or, how do we historicize how people experienced media in a given period or during a certain event?

I ask because whenever I come to a moment where I deploy history in order to explain a particular sonic phenomenon, I can only speak to modes and habits. What's lost, it seems, is media aesthetics. That said, in your work on 17th century baroque poets and contemporary digital media artists, I'm wondering how you balance, say, something like an attention to cultural formations and everyday practices with an attention to media as affective art forms?

I apologize if my wording here doesn't necessarily map onto how you approach poetry and art. What's clear to me, tho, is that you are working through media aesthetics & media histories in innovative and inspiring ways. So thanks for sharing your work! I look forward to reading more!


Thanks for the comment! Libraries are a huge part of this discussion (as Darnton's piece pointed out), since they've traditionally had the role of archiving our historical record.

Not being in library sciences (although I worked in a public library for 5 years and heard a lot of the same hand-wringing over the death of libraries), I'd love to hear more about your distinction between information scientists and librarians. On a related note, where I worked quite a few librarians resented having to "babysit" patrons playing games on the computer.

I'm also cheered by some of the collaborations between libraries and digital humanities groups, which seems to allow librarians to bring their expertise to the table without having to become data architects or computer scientists.

So what would, or should, the public or university library of the future look like? 


These are great questions. Since I'm dealing with print, I've found marginalia to be helpful in understanding how people used the little spinning wheels I'm looking at, and am lucky that one of the copies at Beinecke is really marked up. Commonplace books, letters, even just looking at what got preserved (how many copies survive of a particular work?) is useful. Ann Blair has a great essay on this, "Note Taking as an Art of Transmission." As for how to then read marginalia or notes with sensitivity -- without simply finding what you want to find, but contextualizing them appropriately -- there's the rub.

Sound, though -- that's obviously more difficult than print! I might be wrong, but I think Siegfried Zielinski deals a little with hearing in Deep Time of the Media. Your work sounds fascinating.. could you share a little more about your project? What particular technologies from the 19C are you looking at?


Cathy, I like the way you distinguish between criticism and cynicism.  Comparisons across media and across periods can (and maybe must?) work alongside studies that draws contrasts and distinctions within such categories.  There?s much to be gained by looking at media history in broadly dichotomous ways that draw ?great divides? between both media forms and historical periods.  (If that weren?t true, Walter Ong wouldn?t be so widely cited.)  Similarly, it seems like there can be much learned from the surprising similarities across form and time, like those Whitney describes, and I don?t think they approach meaninglessness, no matter how messy or tentative.  (I?d love to know more about your project, Whitney.  What poets, poems do you look at?)

 On the other hand, as I hinted at above, I?m quick to sympathize with scholars who have a more narrow, micro-level focus.  I?m currently working through Matt Kirschenbaum?s Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (2008).  It?s really an impressive study: he looks at electronic media within the historical frame of roughly the late 1970s to the early 1990s?that is, during the age of 51/4-inch floppy disks and before the rise of graphical-interface networking.  Kirschenbaum is extremely critical (and maybe cynical?) of what he calls ?medial ideology,? a set of assumptions about electronic text that emphasize user experiences of ephemerality and malleability, while ignoring many of the basic facts of digital inscription.  In a particularly inventive act of startling comparison, Kirschenbaum contrasts early 1990s postmodern celebrations of electronic-textual fluidity with contemporary materials on data-security produced by the Department of Defense.  My sense is that Kirschenbaum?s study couldn?t be possible without both a deep investment in bibliographical methodologies and a deep skepticism about print-vs.-digital comparisons.  Perhaps all intellectual work involves this kind of wrenching vacillation between open inquiry and skeptical self-focus, but these issues seem to come to the fore with media history.  Why that is, I?m not sure.


Although pjherron (sorry, I don't know your real name) noted it already, this fascinating concern with media technologies and their affects on thinking, writing, etc. has been around for a long time. For anyone interested in the orality-literacy shift, I suggest Walter Ong, M.T. Clanchy's From Memory to Written Record, and Mary Carruther's The Book of Memory. I'm obviously a little biased toward the Middle Ages, but I think it can be profitable to look at how these dramatic shifts have influenced thought, learning, and literary production in some surprising ways.

One thing I've always found interesting is also the shift from manuscript to printing press. At first, the printers did their absolute best to make books that looked just like manuscripts. They weren't using their new technology effectively. This situation strikes me as what we see in the continuing development of the web. At first, pages were static and attempted to mimic books or newspapers. Now, we have far more dynamic, visually interesting sites that employ technologies like AJAX, Drupal and other CMSs, etc. I'm sure a history of how developing web technology has changed the manner in which we read and write online would be fruitful (what would we do without RSS, for instance?).

But, to finally get to my actual, very minor point. Since you like marginalia, I imagine you'll enjoy this blog:

Again, it's medieval, and medieval marginalia tends to be significantly different (at least, the kind this blogger posts about) than what you seem to be discussing, but it's fun, nonetheless.

There are, of course, examples of more commentary-like marginalia and even manuscripts that overwhelm the "primary" text with commentary and commentary upon commentary. Here's a decent example:

In some cases, Bible manuscripts would have 3-4 lines of scripture in the center of the page, surrounded by exegesis, and, as I mentioned, explanations of those explanations. Have you encountered any such recursive commentary? It reminds me a little of the sorts of bathroom-wall graffiti "conversations" one sometimes sees.

You may already be aware of this, but there's a lot of medievalists who study marginalia in some aspect or another (I'm not one of them). I'd be interested to see what the history of marginalia tells us about the evolution of media and readers's responses to it, as well.

So, count this as my (rambling) vote for a deep history of this topic.


I'm kind of late on responding to your post, Kylie, but it's full of great stuff. I work in a digital humanites lab, HyperStudio, and we're currently working on a project that tries to do just that with serialized Victorian novels -- capture the "water cooler discussion" that happened around them when they were first released. I don't think this is possible. Rather than trying to "reconstruct" the experience of 19th-century readers, it seems more fruitful to talk about how translating the original serial installments (now 120+ years old) into digital facsimiles, then putting those facsimiles onto a platform that allows for annotation, online collaboration, etc., both echoes and in some ways undermines the experience that is trying to be "reconstructed." That would be an interesting class discussion.

I think trying to get students interested in (to stick with this example) Victorian novels by connecting it to something they know (serialized television, MMORPGs, etc.) is a worthy goal, and can help students connect to moments in the past. It seems, though, that a lot of this kind of work takes the parallels too far, or applies them rather bluntly ("emblems in early modern books are just like hypertext!"). I do wonder where that balance is.


Thank you Whitney - and to everyone who has commented - for this fascinating discussion.  You have given me a lot to think about!

I don't really work with media history, or in the discipline of history, but my literary/cultural studies project is based in a historical period -- turn-of-the-twentieth-century U.S. -- and that's where my thoughts roam as I read these comments.  Whitney, your question about how technologies of storage and transmission affect the presence of the past makes me think about all the time I've spent digging through old newspapers looking for coverage of various topics. For an early chapter, I spent hours searching through indexes on microfiche and copying articles out of one particular periodical.  This was painstaking.  The growth of the Proquest Historical Newspapers collection and the American Periodicals Series even over the past year or two has been an incredible boon to my research -- easily searchable by key words, nifty little downloadable .pdfs of articles, and I don't even have to leave my comfy writing chair.  The one thing I miss, however (and certainly not enough to leave the comfy writing chair for the depths of the library basement), is the context that gets lost in the transmission of the article.  Stripped of its surroundings, you can often get a sense of where the article was on the page by the white space left around it, but there is no simple way to recreate full or facing pages, or to see what other articles or potentially advertisements shared the same page.  This may seem a fruitless quest in any case, but I find it very revealing that -- in contemporary magazines, for instance -- you will often find an article extolling how women can age confidently and powerfully sandwiched in between ads for anti-aging cosmetics.  These ads influence the reception of the article, I would argue.  With turn-of-the-century newspapers, this particular example is less relevant as ads were typically printed on separate pages rather than dispersed throughout the articles, but I still wonder what kind of context I might be missing that the painstaking microfiche searches might have revealed?  I further wonder how such easy access to historical documents like these may change the conventions of and expectations for any kind of research done on a historical period?  But perhaps that is for a different conversation...


Thanks to Whitney for starting this great discussion!

I'd like to pick up on the issue of media and technology and think about the value of treating the history of media as "first and foremost the history of technological methods and devices." In my own work on early cinema, an area that has benefited from extensive work situating the technology--the basic apparatus for filming and the associated devices for processing and projection--in the social, cultural, economic, and political contexts of the turn of the twentieth century, I've been drawn toward reconsidering the technology itself. More specifically, I've been interested in situating cinema in a broader technological context, a context that accounts for more than associated communications media such as the printing press, radio, television, photography, the telephone, and the telegraph. One of the bodies of literature that I've found helpful in trying to conceptualize this technological context is a field that, surprisingly, seems to come up rarely (with some notable exceptions) in media studies (and, conversely, which tends to be somewhat uninterested in the history of media) -- the history of technology.

It seems to me that historians of technology--scholars such as Wiebe Bijker, Michel Callon, Thomas P. Hughes, John Law, Bruno Latour, Leo Marx, Carolyn Marvin, David Nye, and Rosalind Williams--have a lot to offer media scholars both in terms of providing historical contexts for understanding how media fit in broader technological developments, as well as models for considering the media objects themselves. In other words, when we start with the notion that media are technologies, we can look to historians of technology for ideas about how to begin investigating them. At times, their questions are very familiar to us, dealing with issues such as technological determinism, the ways that users deploy devices in a manner that was not intended by the inventors/producers, the ways that individual devices get linked up to form large systems, the ways that devices are used differently (or not) in different geographic, social, and cultural contexts, and so on. But even when these questions are familiar, the approaches and methods that historians of technology bring to these objects provide new ways of thinking that can be useful (e.g. hard vs. soft determinism as discussed by Marx and Merritt Roe Smith, or Bijker's "technological frame", or the distinctions between social construction and Latour/Callon/Law's actor-network theory approach).

I wonder if others have been using the history of technology to approach media history? Or what other, possibly unexpected disciplinary approaches others are using to inform their studies of media history?


Hi Erin, I think these questions about how media affect the ways we study the history of media are very interesting and important to those of us working on media history (and really get to the ideas in Lisa Gitelman's new book that Whitney quotes from in the opening). It seems to me that something is lost, as you suggest, when we look at our materials out of context, especially if we want to know how they would have been understood by a contemporary reader/viewer/user. The problem, of course, being that not only is it easier to download .pdfs, it is often the only way (as graduate students, at least) we have access to these materials, especially when they are physically located in archives away from our home institutions. While historians and art historians deal with these kinds of issues all of the time, they also, I think, tend to have better access to (or at least more opportunities for) major funding institutions that provide grants for visiting archives. This is understandble given that historians have always traveled (and thus needed funding to travel) to archives, whereas media scholars often are able (or at least perceived to be able--i.e. we just watch DVDs and YouTube) to access things in our comfy chairs at home. But it seems to me that as more media scholars look to history and to historical materials, and begin to ask the kinds of questions you're raising here about the importance of being able to get the most out of materials by working with them in person, we stand to gain from increased funding opportunities that will allow us to do so. Discussions like this (thanks again to Whitney!) are a great opportunity for us to think collectively about the value of and methods for beginning these kinds of media histories. This makes me think that one of the real values of things like the Proquest collection, despite whatever is lost in the lack of context, is to provide the opportunity for us to begin using historical materials and to develop our methods for approaching these materials, even before we have the means to try out our approaches more fully in the archive. 


What a fascinating discussion!
First, I think Michael?s mention of marginalia corresponds well with Erin?s discussion of article reception. I think it can be both problematic and interesting to isolate parts of a page, without getting a sense of the placement of certain kinds of texts in a particular order or configuration. Considering that the word ?margin? refers to what is tangential to the ?main? text, I think it?s interesting that there are web sites devoted to only marginalia?perhaps a compelling example of the way new media (just like old media!) can shape the way we read historical narratives.
To go back, I think Whitney raised an important question: ?what are we gaining from this? As you point out, the nature of these connections is inherently messy and tentative. At what point does it become meaningless?? Related to Cathy?s discussion of canonization, in terms of pedagogy, I think questions of canonization or non(un?) canonization become relevant and necessary to consider when teaching media history. What are specific and alternative ways of organizing history that are structured and accessible, but challenging at the same time? If the idea of the ?canon? reinforces particular dominant narratives, how can we stay away from those narratives but still organize according to important and relevant contexts?
In my own work, I have been considering the role of digital media in terms of telling particular raced or cultural histories. Considering the ?presentism? and race-neutrality associated with new media and the digital, I wonder how to reconcile these ideas with archives such as The Black Media Archive (, also a podcast), where the immediateness of new technology collides with a deep reach into the past. How can we use these digital archives as models for teaching media history?


Interesting discussion! I have a slightly tangental question related to the definition of "media" -- I am not a "media historian" so please forgive me if this is repetitive, but I have worked a bit with emblems (I liked your comment about how casual parallels are somewhat misleading, Whitney ["emblems in early modern books are just like hypertext!"]) and I am curious about how "media" might be defined in that context. There are emblems on doors, silverware, china, walls, ceilings, ships, tablecloths and pillows, jewelry, and so on. Do printed emblems on paper sources trump these emblems, even though they seem to have a great deal in common and depend on a (by now) rather specialized vocabulary for comprehension? Is "media" is akind to a medium or tool for delivering content?


ahhh not the dreaded "what is media" question! ;)

Do you have a definition you work by? My favorite right now is Siegfried Zielinski's: "media are spaces of action for constructed attempts to connect what is separated."But then I go for mushy definitions like that, which fit just about anything. Of course, Lisa Gitelman's got a great one, too: media are "socially realized structures of communication, where structures include both technological forms and their associated protocols, and where communication is a cultural practice, a ritualized collocation of different people on the same mental map, sharing or engaged with popular ontologies of representation." Emblems (across all different platform) seem to fit this definition. Maybe? You might disagree -- I haven't done a lot of work on emblems. 





I agree that this -- lack of context in digital archives -- is a huge problem for anyone doing any kind of historical research. Or any kind of research, really. I wonder if these types of databases might not be doing more damage than good by perpetuating the belief that text can be cut and paste into different contexts (from the original print newspaper, to a cleaned up PDF, to your Word document, &c.) without any essential change to its meaning. And of course, the kind of metadata being captured for each artifact is going to affect the kind of research that can be done, as well.

I feel like I've heard of a few digital humanities projects recently which are making a better effort to contextualize their archival materials, although I can't think of any off the top of my head. Of course, there's the danger that more context gives the illusion of having the original object, instead of underscoring the fact that any digital facsimile is remediating the document in a way that may affect the scholar's interaction with it. I always appreciate when someone acknowledges what kinds of archives they accessed, and take a moment to reflect on how it might have influenced their research.


I would agree with Zielinski's interpretation, but to throw the proverbial wrench into the works, now you have to ask as to what "communication" is defined as, and the protocols it can employ. Art is indeed a form of communication, but across relative contexts of the "mental map" that Zielinski speaks of. For instance, a "burner", which is a graffiti piece that covers a single elevated train car, is considered both art and a nuisance. Both are levels of communication, but one must consider the relative "mental mappings" for the moment of communication of all parties involved: the viewer, the annoyed, and the artist, all of which figure into the scope of consumer as well as communicator.

"Communication" is a lake seeking it's own level: it will do different things in different landscapes. Abandoning the metaphor, it is to say that media and communication can be wholly dependent on the message communicated, the medium within which it is communicated, and perhaps most importantly, the space in which it is done. To say to someone "I saw a burner on the Red Line today" means different interpretations, communications, and visualizations between those communicating. Thus perhaps changing this definition of media to something a bit different, and more contextual, based upon culture, physical space, and the hitherto knowledge of said emblems, colloqualisms, and relative experience between the two cultures, perhaps from different communicational backgrounds, but speaking within relative interpretations of a single media "event."

Edward Moses
Univ. of IL @ Urbana-Champaign
Graduate Student - Educational Policy Studies


Excellent discussion! (By the way, I am a philosopher of science and neuroscientist?so, please excuse any and all ignorance evinced by my comments below!)

Whitney asked: ?How does our own technological present affect the ways we define, interpret or even appropriate the past?? It is interesting, I think, to note a reflexivity in the project of examining the past, in particular the history of (media) technology. An analogy, to begin: philosophers of language have, for quite some time, noted that analyzing natural language in natural language is peculiarly circular. (We awkwardly talk about the definite article ?the??as in ?the ?the? of sentence S??) The analogue is this: The historical analysis of past (media) technologies has been, and continues to be, enhanced and augmented by new (media) technologies, which allow us?

- to examine the scribble under scribble in palimpsests (via multi-spectral imaging),
- to newly access records from the past,
- to ?revive? old media forms (such as silent Chaplin films)
- etc., etc.

What I find interesting about this reflexive, technologically-mediated examination of past-technologies pertains to the structure (of certain technologies) that philosopher Don Ihde characterizes as ?magnification/reduction.? The basic idea, as I understand it, is as follows: Ihde sketches a (quadripartite) typology of human-technology-world relations; one of these relations involves the target technology being ?embodied? by the user. (An example might be Heidegger?s hammer, which ?withdraws? upon use?or Daniel Dennett?s (1991) story of driving a car over an oil slick, during which the ?phenomenological focal point? is no place on the innervated human body, but rather it is the automobile?s road-contacting wheel itself.)

The magnification/reduction structure in phenomenological embodiment relations thus refers to the simultaneous amplifying and placing aside of what is experienced through them (paraphrased from Ihde 1990, 76). For example, ?the sight of the mountains of the moon, through all the transformational power of the telescope, removes the moon from its setting in the expanse of the heavens? (Ihde 1990, 76). While Ihde?s concern in other books (e.g., Instrumental Realism) is how such a structure alters perception in science?since nearly all of contemporary science involves studying theoretically postulated entities through complex scientific instrumentation?we may apply this notion to the historical study of (media) technologies itself.

Thus, one might ask: How is the examination of historical technologies altered by current technologies that serve as "perceptual connectives" (between present and past), since these technologies?according to Ihde?s thesis above?both add (something) and subtract (something) to the experience. Indeed, one often talks (metaphorically?) about examining historical episodes ?under the microscope? of historical scholarship; but microscopes are paradigmatic instances of the magnification/reduction phenomenon Ihde describes!

In conclusion, one can think of many ways that current (media) technologies have enhanced and augmented the historical examination of old (media) technologies. It might be worth examining precisely how these current technologies, in reflexively (sometimes recursively) examining their "technological ancestors," magnify/reduce these percepts of the historical past.


Wow, Whitney you've done a great job responding and keeping the conversation going. I'm interested in the comparative media studies program at MIT and what you think of it. Maybe I'll send you an email to discuss this further.

This conversation, in some ways, is for me re-living a class I took at the University of Washington - TC510 if anyone is interested. But to capture 10 weeks of discussion and reading in just a few sentences, we discussed different types of media (definitions), and how it formed(history), and how it can be effective in different settings. All the way back to the Sumerians and even discussing Kerouac and his scroll writing craziness.

Coming from a rhetorical background, I focused on the effectiveness of the medium and how different mediums can be effective in different situations. I'm not a complete "the medium is the message"-ist but it is an important aspect to consider. And who can forget McLuhan and his lovely light bulb?

I'm interested in the future of media by checking out the history (I second brian's list of scholars), especially as new media or digital media is all the rage right now. One of my advisers brought up the point that the "old media" has been around for sometime and is a very durable institution, and we would be forced to re-invent a lot of our institutions (libraries, desks) if we simply abandoned "old" media like books. How long did the scroll last? Or the stone tablet?

On a complete tangent has anyone read or heard of The Alphabet vs. The Goddess? The author's main argument (my interpretation) is that the rise of alphabet literacy can be linked with increased oppression against women throughout time and cultures. He proposes that this is because alphabet literacy favors left brain thinking at the expense of right brain thinking and the result is a species (females) that is off-kilter with itself. Hard to lodge an argument against writing and literacy in general, but this provocative thought takes us way back to the beginning of letters.

Shlain says "Of all the sacred cows allowed to roam unimpeded in our culture, few are as revered as literacy. Its benefits have been so incontestable that in the five millennia since the advent of the written word numerous poets and writers have extolled its virtues. Few paused to consider its costs. Sophocles once warned, "Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse." The invention of writing was vast; this book will investigate the curse." Source here:

Sorry to join in so late. I enjoyed reading the discussion and I look forward to future ones. -ramsey


I have a sneaking suspicion that the future of libraries and archives will become another forum as we continue our discourse...

But, for now, I would like to note how refreshing it has been to follow this ranging discussion. 
(I like the format shift for this forum, and think that it has helped set the stage for a number of issues that we will surely revisit as time goes on... Thank you, Whitney!)

I have recently been primarily concerned with the more pragmatic issues facing libraries, archives and institutional repositories.  In the public sphere, it seems that the library has largely taken the place of a community rec-center, serves as a regional computing center, performance venue and also is a Netflix competitor.  If not, they are losing funding.  In the academic realm, there is less and less money to devote to texts and more money for digital resources that are often viewed as acceptable surrogates.  I note a growing separation between administrators, "traditional" librarians, and the technical people.  Special projects are an exception to this rule, I think.  Though I hate to bring funding to an academic discussion -gasp- there is clearly a finite pool of money that is ever more closely guarded to meet ever increasing expectation levels. Conservation of original media and creation of digital surrogates both are major drains on a budget.
Often the transfer to digital media is done within the parameters of a project that may not take into consideration all of the needs of the end user.  Even in Proquest, ads are not scanned, nor letters to the editor, if I am not mistaken.  To argue that the journals delivered in this way are adequate substitute is troubling and there should be voices demanding, at the very least, more consistency in the digitization of media, and higher standards in imaging.  Unfortunately, the endless dialog about what standards should be are often not inclusive, with suggestions being made only after the fact.  It is, I believe, essential for the role of the scholar in metadata creation to be more well understood.  The breadth of expertise required for the delivery and use of media that is not born digital is often underestimated outside of groups like this.
I think the ante gets upped when one works with new media that is now obsolete.
The state of institutional holdings of audio, for example, in open-reel or DAT format is a bit disconcerting.  To even assess the holdings at Wayne State, which is representative, I had to cobble together machines from my own collection and mix in parts from the depths of the a/v department.  (Coveralls and damp cloths required.)  The metadata issue then becomes highly problematic.  Most collections of this type of material have rather sketchy bibliographic control, but if we could just get it out there via some good open access tool that allows for collaboration in metadata creation... hmmm.
Unfortunately, individuals that have all of the skill sets required to deal with these issues are rarely willing to work for the wages that a library can aspire to accommodate.  A copyright lawyer is often indispensable.  Clearly collaboration is key in this.

This post may just be an attempt to get us thinking collectively about open access and obsolescence as elements of this and future discussions.

-Ian Benjamin Chapp


Hi Ramsey, thanks!! I haven't read The Alphabet vs. The Goddess, but it sounds interesting!

What does it mean, though, to evaluate something like literacy as either "good" or "bad"? This goes back a little to Patrick Herron's excellent response to Carr's article (above), and back to the question of power: how much influence do we want to grant a technology like writing?

I've become suspicious of anyone who grants "The Alphabet" or "The Book" (or, for that matter, "The Google" ;) a kind of deterministic power over us, especially our cognition, in part because literacy, printed books, writing, all of it has changed over time and across different cultures/situations. Even within a single day my own reading practices and relationship to the written word vary drastically, depending on what I'm reading (magazine, website, novel?), where I'm reading it (subway, my office, over lunch?) and why I'm reading it (for research or for pleasure?). Then, even if we were able to identify two books, one from say the 16th century and one published this year, that were roughly within the same genre, and (we could speculate) might be read in roughly similar circumstances -- maybe a cookbook would work? -- laying them side by side would reveal huge differences in look, layout and feel (not to mention smell!). Add to this the notion that readers don't passively absorb content, and I'm not sure I still feel comfortable ascribing any one value to, or identifying any one effect of, "print" or "books" or "writing".

I haven't read The Alphabet vs. The Goddess, so it's perhaps unfair of me to critique it in this way, and I may be completely wrong; BUT I do wonder if turning women into victims of the alphabet doesn't ironically reinforce the idea of feminine passivity or nurturance. Am I mischaracterizing the argument? What do you think?

(Oh, and of course please feel free to email me with questions about CMS or MIT!)