When I was a child, I was surrounded by printed material, much of which was obsolete by 1950’s standards. A precocious reader, I was fascinated by my grandfather’s copy of the 11th Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, purchased new in 1911. The powers that be had not yet purged the Condon School library of the books purchased when the school opened in 1926, so I got to enjoy Richard Haliburton’s Book of Marvels and other classics, complete with ornate bindings, murky black and white photographs, and that faint musty smell of old pulp paper. For a bookish ten year old, there were two frames of reference: Eugene, Oregon, in 1958, including my own experience, the local daily paper, and what was taught in school, and a wider world seen through the lens of journalism a half century before.
A toy store we occasionally patronized shared a storefront with the Magazine Exchange, where I discovered the world of National Geographics. The older ones were more exciting. Most of my modest allowance went for used magazines, and I amassed quite a collection, which I still have. Not only that, but I read a significant portion of it, and that miscellaneous information is still floating around in my brain.
From time to time I look at those shelves of yellowing magazines and wonder if I should get rid of them, but nostalgia always gets the better of me. That and realizing that something I read more than fifty years ago has become relevant, and that I know approximately where to find it. For example, I wanted to make the point that the fancy clothing on peasants in medieval illuminations like the Luttrell Psalter most probably represented not wishful thinking, but putting those peasants in their Sunday best, and I dimly remembered seeing examples in old National Geographics. This Rumani woman from Greece, who appeared in the December 1930 issue, obviously put on all her finery to pose for the camera.
At one time I routinely purged printed material in my house on the assumption that I could always rely on either the Eugene Public Library or the much larger collections of the University of Oregon library to have what I wanted, when I wanted it. Now I’m much more cautious. The University of Oregon library, in particular, increasingly substitutes subscriptions to online digital archives to paper holdings. The problems with this are numerous. Unless I am a student or faculty member, I can’t access the digital archive, although I could formerly go to the library and take the book off the shelf. If either the university or the archive provider decides to discontinue the relationship, access is completely lost.
Digital archives tend to have arbitrary cutoff dates, which make it difficult to research the history of ideas. The picture one forms of the state of scientific knowledge in the 1920’s, based not on what was published then, but on what has been published about it since 1980, is bound to be biased. There is also the problem of rapidly changing formats, and of one’s computer, or operating system, or internet connection suddenly becoming obsolete because the other end of the equation has upgraded. Unless both the database and the access point are constantly maintained at considerable expense in money and labor, the information becomes inaccessible in a way no printed or handwritten page can match. It is easier for me to access Thomas Condon’s (died 1907) original manuscripts on Oregon paleontology, housed in the University of Oregon’s rare book collections, than it is to get at my own research data recorded on magnetic tape for use by an old mainframe computer in 1971.
Because electronic databases contain vast amounts of material, people tend to assume that they are complete or at least do not contain systematic omissions. Because search engines operating on these databases return such a plethora of matches, most of them seemingly irrelevant, people tend to assume that they are thorough and have no biases of their own. American scholars, if they recognize these limitations of information retrieval at all, are apt to relegate them to the realm of identifiably totalitarian countries with no pretense to freedom of information.
The drawback that prompted writing this essay, however, is the ease with which a text that exists only in electronic form, or is disseminated principally electronically, can be altered and the altered version substituted for the original. For an information sponge like myself, this creates considerable dissonance. I have a distinct memory of something, but, when I want to use it and revisit the electronic resource, it isn’t there. For example, I have a clear recollection of reading a chapter in a book on urban health from the late 1990’s discussing how mortality from every infectious disease except polio had declined drastically before there was a specific medical intervention for the disease, and citing the 1957-58 measles epidemic as a prime example. I remember that epidemic well – it put me in bed with a fever of 105. I wanted to cite that epidemic in a discussion of vaccination during the recent measles hysteria, so I went to the Center for Disease Control website , which I have found to be a reliable source for medical information, at least below the most superficial layers. I could not find anything about the 1957-58 epidemic on the site, although there was plenty about epidemics earlier in the 20th century which had high mortality rates, and an epidemic in the 1990’s, after vaccination was introduced, which affected mainly poorer Americans who were not vaccinated. It appeared that someone had gone in and rewritten the CDC web page to reinforce the impression that vaccination, and vaccination alone, was responsible for the large drop in measles-related deaths between 1940 and 1980.
The more I use electronic information, the less comfortable I am with relying on it. I want my decision-making in matters of consequence to have a solid grounding, and that means grounding in a medium which is not ephemeral, and is not easily manipulated and altered by shadowy forces behind the scenes.
National Geographic Magazines – Martha Sherwood
Rumani woman – National Geographic, December, 1930.