I have strong opinions about footnotes. I do not care if you judge my nerdiness, but I love a footnote. I especially love a footnote in a monograph.
Endnotes are…fine, but too much work. When I come across an especially interesting detail or am reading an author prone to including banter or anecdotes, I want to instantly satisfy that curiosity on the bottom of the page rather than use a finger to keep my place and awkwardly flip to the back.
But not too long ago, I found myself racing to the back of a book in search of an endnote. I came across a tidbit too juicy to even be mildly miffed at the lack of footnotes. In Apartheid Guns and Money: A Tale of Profit, Hennie van Vuuren sheds light on the transnational movement of South African arms and capital during apartheid at a time when many of the conspiring nations had some form of boycott, divestment, or sanctions against South Africa. Through subsidiaries and questionable business arrangements through “neutral” banking partners, west-German owned Mercedes-Benz were not only supplying chassis to the South African government for armed personnel vehicles used in the martial control of Black townships, but also knowingly operated factories that employed South African police who were involved in extrajudicial police hit squads.
I flipped to the back of the book so fast the pages made an audible “flapping” that startled my dog, who until then slept contently on my lap. But instead of a satisfying endnote, I found side references to German investigative journalists that did not directly point me in the direction of this information.
So, I turned to the internet. Because I sought very granular information and had ideas of where to look, I traced down the work of the journalist who uncovered this information and a digitized (though heavily redacted) copy of documents detailing this affair. From my kitchen table, I traveled to South Africa, Switzerland, and Germany to find this information.
Between creative use of Google Books and text-searchable digitized documents, I engaged in the digital transnational and text-searchable turns in history. As Lara Putnam writes in “The Transnational and the Text-Searchable: Digitized Sources and the Shadows They Cast”, this “borderless term-searching radically changes the questions we are likely to ask and the stories we are able to tell.” The ability to digitally hop across borders, peek into digitized archives around the world, and digitally cross-reference information is transformative to the field of history and how research is conducted.
But, as Putnam notes, the acceptance of digital research amplifies ethical concerns for historians and the broader public alike. This certainly includes entrenchment of Global North academic “dominance” over work being done by people in and about the Global South because extracting information (without its proper context) is easier than ever.
Another example that more directly relates to my interest in the public sphere is the artificial “cheapness” of digital global peripheral reading.
Prior to mass digitization and text-searchability, researching transnationally and across borders was an EX-PEN-SIVE process.
It cost a lot of money and time for a historian to get to archives around the globe and pour through their collections for the grain of information that was peripheral to the topic of research. During this time, as Putnam explains, the expense of global peripheral reading made local “topical peripheral vision artificially cheap.” A historian in an archive researching a topic, at this time, had to look through many, many documents about information peripheral to the exact topic of research. The lack of text-search-ability of “analog exploration of written sources—the longtime bread and butter of our craft—built in multidimensional awareness.”
Is The Answer
This point resonates with me. Between learning more about information seeking practices during library school, the incredible pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic which forced people of all ages to be all digital whether they liked it or not, and beginning my pursuit of a PhD in history, I often think about information access vs engaging with information. Text-search and the unmediated ability to access documents transnationally has massively sped up research. The ability to read speedily coupled with the pressure to produce speedily leads to “rookie mistakes”, argues Putnam, because “the more far-flung the locales linked through our discoveries, the less consistent our contextual knowledge.”
Though an incredible concern for historians (and PhD students who need to produce a dissertation to prove we’re worth our salt), this absolutely has implications for the broader public. Information access does not mean people are meaningfully learning or engaging with what is searched for and found online. It only means they are accessing information. Not even quality information. Just information related to the search terms used.
Here is what I always refer back to when thinking about this.
“You study history? Gross.”
A few years ago I worked at a public-high school as an instructional aide. As students got to know me, they were surprised and intrigued that I, a (allegedly) “grown up”, was working towards a bachelor’s degree. Their intrigue turned to shock and horror when they learned not just that I majored in history, but that I reeeealllly liked it.
“History is so boring,” one student said to me. “Miss Cassie, you’re telling me you want to learn dates? I hate all the dates,” said another.
After having myself a good chuckle, I told them about the topic of my senior thesis- transnational Black Power during the Cold War- that I was then researching. I showed them the diaries I was looking at, the propaganda posters, and the government documents. At most I mentioned a couple of decades (during the 1960s, during the late ‘60s, etc) and did not hammer on the dates once.
This is when I received some of the highest praise I have ever gotten in my life: “Miss Cassie, if you were my history teacher, I would pay attention in class.”
At the time I thought I dazzled them with the super-coolness of history.
But now I realize they were dazzled by context.
Context Razzle Dazzle
Merely accessing information does not create multi-dimensional understanding and learning. I agree with Putnam that the implications of the speed of text-searchable research that can cross borders without mediation or context needs to be urgently foregrounded. But, I would extend that conversation beyond academia and into the discourse of public services (like education, schools, and libraries). Information overload can lead to hazardous personal and societal outcomes because the combined speed of information access and de-contextualization of pin-point searches limit what can be cognitively processed and understood.
But when budgets of schools, cultural institutions, and humanities departments are being squeezed, the drawbacks of throwing ourselves full force into digital information access and maximizing production with text searching can fall back. I have mentioned before how Dan Greene’s Promise of Access opened my eyes to the problems of metrics, Apple Storification, and “tech is the answer” attitudes that have seeped into public and academic places of learning. And the concerns raised by Putnam this week only add to that suspicion.
But let’s not go full Luddite!
The digital and text turn has, and will continue to, create opportunities for learning and engagement that would otherwise have been impossible.
When I dazzled the high school students with history, I could readily look up photos, maps, and other documents related to history they were interested in. I showed them how they could creatively keyword search to explore their curiosities. This would not have been possible without digital historians, digital humanists, and archivists digitizing resources and making them findable.
If a journalist in Berlin had not digitized their resources and made them text searchable, then I would never have learned that Mercedes-Benz did, in fact, operate in apartheid South Africa.Even the critiques of scholars like Frederick W. Gibbs are indicative of ongoing thoughtful engagement by humanists of all stripes to approach digitization, text search-ability, and their research more ethically. What I find especially hopeful is the call (by no means confined to Gibbs’ critiques but well stated in them none-the-less) to prioritize process over product. De-centering productivity and speed is the direction this needs to go.
- But if I am reading a book digitally? And using one of those awkward e-book interfaces? Forget about it. Unless it is something truly fascinating I often just let it go. It is not worth the time, effort, or eye strain to find that e-endnote in the e-book and hope I can find my e-place on the e-page again.