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Patrick Leary had a terrific article in Journal of Victorian Culture in 2005 that Alexander Macgillivray just pointed out to me. It’s called “Googling the Victorians,” and the premise is: “Fortuitous electronic connections, and the information that circulates through them, are emerging as hallmarks of humanities scholarship in the digital age. ” He’s got some great examples — tracking down the meaning of an 1858 cartoon’s “Remember the grotto!” caption — to make the point that “What is most striking, and often quite useful, about this sort of fishing expedition is how often the sources in which one finds a ‘hit’ are utterly unexpected.” Here’s another:

…when searching for additional instances, beyond those I had found in print sources, in which the Saturday Review had
been referred to by its critics’ nickname, the Saturday Reviler. Google instantly
located the phrase in the following: a biographical account of Charles Haddon
Spurgeon, as a favourite epithet of his associates; the short-lived 1872 periodical,
The Ladies; an 1864 book about the contemporary stage magicians the Brothers
Davenport; an appendix, by Richard Burton, to his 1885 edition of Arabian Nights;
and a magazine account of a conversation with Frank Harris about his tenure as
editor in the 1890s.

Leahy goes on:

Such experiences reinforce the
conviction that the very randomness with which much online material has been
placed there, and the undiscriminating quality of the search procedure itself,
gives it an advantage denied to more focused research. It has been often and
rather piously proclaimed (by myself, among others) that googling around the
internet cannot possibly substitute for good old-fashioned library research, and
this is certainly true. But we are perhaps reaching a point in our relationship to
the online world at which it is important to recognize that the reverse is equally
true. No amount of time spent in the library stacks would have suggested to me
that any of those sources would be an especially good place to look for instances
of that particular phrase, and if it had, the likelihood of actually discovering
the phrase in a printed edition of any of them would have been virtually nil.

This is an excellent argument for reversing the current momentum of copyright law. Our culture benefits from having as much of this stuff searchable and available as possible. Since 19th century stuff is generally out of copyright, the Victorian scholars are in good shape, as Leahy notes. But why should our ability to research, learn and understand suddenly come to a galloping halt towards the beginning of the 20th century?

I don’t want to miss another of Leahy’s points: “…the vast reach of online
searching is connecting people, not merely with information, but with one
another, often in the most unexpected and fruitful ways.” [Tags: copyright scholarship google everything_is_miscellaneous ]

2 Responses to “Victorian scholarship and the miscellaneous”

  1. on 25 Aug 2007 at 5:38 pmEric Norman

    What would be the incentive for researchers to continue gathering and making available such raw data? I’m not saying that the incentive needs to be economic, but here needs to be some incentive else I don’t think it will happen.

    Nevertheless, I do agree that the momentium should be reversed. The current momentum of “intellectual property” stuff seems to toward creating and preserving revenue streams instead of advancing the arts and sciences.

  2. on 27 Aug 2007 at 10:06 amKate

    One incentive for researchers is the advancement of scholarship and CV, career building opportunities. As evidence mounts that information freely available encourages and expands scholarship in the field, institutions will come to prize or reward their researchers/scholars for their efforts. Thus this type of work will not remain in the realm of “if time and interest”, but will become a player in the hiring and advancement of scholars.

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