Sunday, September 6, 2015

Revisiting Research Resources

The Renaissance humanists set about recovering old and forgotten texts and bringing these to light: Petrarch found Cicero's Familiar Letters gathering dust, and later publishers like Aldus Manutius would print and disseminate such works. They went back to the primary sources of knowledge from western culture and found more there than they expected.

Similarly, today we benefit from renewed access to otherwise forgotten or barely accessible works. This began with Project Gutenberg when, in 1971, a University of Illinois college freshman, Michael Hart, keyed in the Declaration of Independence and envisioned thousands of freely available electronic texts (Lebert). His dream was realized as first the world wide web in 1990 and then an army of volunteers organized in 2000 began ramping up production. Today, almost 50,000 public domain texts reside on the site.

Little did the Finnish poet know
that his works would be
available to billions
Well known works in the western canon were the first to be digitized in this project, such as Shakespeare and the Bible. But Project Gutenberg -- like other platforms for digital content -- soon found itself accommodating far more obscure works. So, while the well known Old English epic, Beowulf was put into digital form, so also was the less known grammar by Ælfric of Eynsham. This text recovery process quickly began expanding into many different languages: one can peruse the Finnish poet Veikko Antero Koskenniemi's Lyyra ja paimenhuilu in its original tongue, or works in Mayan, Frisian, or Yiddish. The variety of newly available sources goes beyond languages, and includes a multitude of both common and obscure genres (from plays to CIA Factbooks) and formats (from novels and periodicals to computer-generated audiobooks and sheet music).

This proliferation of niche and obscure works is known in digital culture as The Long Tail, a term coined by Chris Anderson. This describes a power distribution curve from statistics in which the "hits" (well known items) are getting serious competition from the long tail of obscure works.

What happens when, quite suddenly, we go to the sources of knowledge and culture and find readily available a massive variety of content and formats for texts and cultural works that until recently were unknown? Well, what you do not get is whatever you had before in terms of education, entertainment, and the status and development of knowledge. You might even get a renaissance.

Once the Europeans of the 14th-17th centuries began seriously to engage the wide variety of cultures, languages, texts, and images being opened to them through humanist efforts and via the reach of printing, our civilization was enriched and varied beyond what anyone in the late middle ages would recognize. With the exponentially broader range of texts and formats now delivered to us digitally, what is in store?

Work Cited
Lebert, Marie. "History of Project Gutenberg." Project Gutenberg News. Project Gutenberg. 2010. Web. Accessed September 3, 2015. <>

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