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What will we do with all this information?
08-19-2012, 03:26 PM
Post: #1
What will we do with all this information?
Today I'm taking a short break from Ida Tarbell to download some information regarding William H. Herndon and Jesse Weik. It got me to thinking about just how much information is out there on Lincoln right at our fingertips just waiting to be found. How in the world can we ever make use of it all?

Take Ida Tarbell, for instance. Had I not been searching for more information on Nathaniel W. Stephenson, I would have never come across a letter he wrote to Tarbell which allowed me to find out that her papers had been digitized and were available for me to peruse at my leisure.

I've always wanted to have a copy of Herndon's 1889 original three-volume biography of Lincoln published by Belford, Clarke and Co., but until the internet arrived, unless I had $1,200 (or more), I would have had to make do with finding one in a library. Now, thanks to Google and the Internet Archive, I can not only have a set of them, I can also have just about every other edition of the work that is available.

With the digitization of papers and articles happening every day, it's an exciting time to be a student of Lincoln, but it's also harrowing. How in the world can one keep up with what is literally changing every day (if not every hour)? There are ways to track various bits of information on Google, but finding Tarbell's papers was the true definition of serendipity, which while satisfying on one plane, is frustrating on another. Had I known about it earlier, I could have been that much closer to my goals.

And what do we do with all this information? Information for its own sake is really nothing more than digital waste if all it is allowed to do is sit out there. It has to have a practical application. Allegheny College is spending a large amount of money to make it so I don't have to hire a researcher, but now I feel a certain amount of pressure (albeit self-inflicted) to produce something to help them justify that expense. After all, if material isn't used, will taxpayers be more willing to foot the costs of future digitization projects just so a few people aren't inconvenienced? While sometimes it's hard to foresee just what benefits something will have, and practicality shouldn't be the only criteria we use to determine if something has value, is this the intellectual equivalent of sending a robot to Mars?

So while I sit at my computer and marvel at just how much easier it is to "do history" in this day and age, I can't help but wonder if we're unleashing a Pandora's box by the tsunami of information that is being made available. How do we separate the good from the bad? Is there a tipping point where all of a sudden we have too much information, or did we pole-vault past that point eons ago?


Abraham Lincoln in the only man, dead or alive, with whom I could have spent five years without one hour of boredom.
--Ida M. Tarbell

I want the respect of intelligent men, but I will choose for myself the intelligent.
--Carl Sandburg
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