What I Learned Doing a Multimedia Project on the French Revolution
Lynn Hunt, July 2002
From the President's column in the Summer 2002 Perspectives Online
A few years ago, colleagues from the American Social History Project at the City University of New York (http://www.ashp.cuny.edu) approached me about their idea for a CD-ROM on the French Revolution. They had completed a successful CD-ROM project on American history, Who Built America? which won the 1994 American Historical Association James Harvey Robinson Prize, and wanted to branch out into other areas of history. I was to serve as consultant to the project along with Jack Censer at George Mason University. Although I knew nothing at all about CD-ROMs, and my expertise on the Internet consisted of sending and receiving messages on some antiquated, pre-Eudora e-mail system, I jumped at the chance, convinced that I ought to know something about this new format for presenting information. What was possible, what was feasible, both in financial and research terms? Would the CD-ROM as a medium open up issues previously unconsidered? Was it true that these new ways of organizing information would challenge our usual linear, narrative forms of historical argument? I believed that some kind of direct involvement would be the best way to find the answers to these questions.
On the spectrum that runs from those who still handwrite their articles, books, and personal communications to those who spend hours surfing the net, learning new software, and putting up their own web pages, I locate myself somewhere in the middle. True, in the early 1980s I did have one of the very first "portable" personal computers, the Osborne, which looked and weighed something like a sewing machine, offered a screen the size of a 4 x 6 index card, and could store exactly 33 pages of text on a single-sided, single-density diskette (for a brief history of the Osborne, see http://www.digitalcentury.com/encyclo/update/osborne.html). And by the mid-1980s I was encouraging my graduate students to get a personal computer to write their dissertations. But I never got a note-taking or bibliography program, never read my manuals, always cared more about the look of my printout than the heft of my RAM, and generally followed rather than led the way into the new technology. This has not changed.
But from the very first minute, I enjoyed working on the CD-ROM project, in part because it afforded occasions for wonderful collaborative conversations with colleagues such as Roy Rosenzweig and Steve Brier from the ASHP, and in part because I didn't have to do the hard part. Roy, Steve, Josh Brown and Pennee Bender organized the technical side of the project, from the digitization of images in the Museum of the French Revolution in Vizille, France, to the recording of Jack Censer's and my voice-overs for the slide shows in a sound studio in lower Manhattan. Jack and I planned together all the major sections and divided the work of choosing documents, writing the narration for the slide shows, and preparing the companion narrative history of the French Revolution, but Jack organized the final collection and translation of documents, images, and songs from his office at George Mason University and supervised the research of the post-doctoral fellows who worked on the project along with us. He stayed in constant contact with Roy Rosenzweig and the Center for History and New Media at GMU (http://www.chnm.gmu.edu) that was founded in 1994 and helped us with every aspect of the project.
Although our technologically informed colleagues worried that CD-ROMs might become obsolete by the time we had finished our project, the technology did not develop quite as quickly as was anticipated. Virtually every PC can now read CD-ROMs, and even though our project is now available in large measure on the Web—at http://www.chnm.gmu.edu/revolution/—the CD-ROM still has some advantages over the web. You don't have to be online, for starters, and the information is always available in the same place with the same mode of access. The server is never down unless your own computer crashes altogether. The CD-ROM comes in the back of a more or less standard printed narrative history (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution, published in 2001 by Pennsylvania State University Press), but it offers enormous advantages over the book format. You can put much more information on one CD-ROM than in any one book, and you can include types of information that cannot be printed and that are rarely accessible to students or even to researchers, such as images from distant museums or libraries: this one has 250 images, most of them in color, from a variety of libraries and museums in France and the United States; recorded revolutionary songs with lyrics available in both French and English; 300 translated documents; maps; a timeline; a glossary; narrative slide shows with voice-over narration; and essays on how to read images or listen to revolutionary music by experts in those fields.
The CD-ROM also has a variety of pedagogical aids ranging from a search function that promptly gives the enquirer a list of every reference made, for example, by or about Robespierre to various workbook possibilities such as underlining, dog-earing of pages, note-taking and even indexing of the notes taken. Although the CD-ROM has "pages," these are only notional; the "reader" need not follow any particular order, indeed various features ensure that users will skip from section to section thereby creating their own narrative thread. There is simply no comparison between what can be offered in print form and on CD-ROM.
So is there any down side to this amazing technology? I see two types of problems, one that is solvable with some time and thought and one that might well prove insurmountable. The hurdle that can be jumped with a certain amount of practice is the navigation of such an immense amount of information. Students often complain in working with our CD-ROM that it's too complex: the students have to follow instructions in order to get to the materials they need, and they have to have some clue as to what they might want in order to make productive use of the sources. Using a CD-ROM on the French Revolution is very different from searching the web for information about Marie-Antoinette, for example. The web will give a student various potted histories, which are sometimes, even much of the time, erroneous in content and generally lacking in analysis, and perhaps an occasional painting of the queen. The CD-ROM begins by essentially posing a question: once the students have a list of all the places where Marie-Antoinette comes up from the search function, they have to decide where to go first-to a document, a song, an engraving?-and then have to figure out what to do with it by reading the headnote, lyrics, or caption or by returning to the narrative introduction to the CD-ROM section or to the printed text to find out about her place in events. In other words, the CD-ROM frustrates students who want quick answers; it basically poses question after question. It demands much more sustained attention than the web.
Yet while this problem can at least be addressed by well-focused pedagogy-getting the students to a place where they can truly benefit from the richness of the sources at their disposal-the second type of problem is much more intractable: the immense labor and therefore expense involved in developing a pedagogically useful CD-ROM. The cost of developing this CD-ROM on the French Revolution was well in excess of $500,000, and even with that budget we couldn't afford to pay the permissions for even very short clips from famous movies about the French Revolution. The National Endowment for the Humanities and the Florence Gould Foundation provided funding for the vital first years of collecting and translating documents, locating and digitizing images, drawing maps, recording narrations, and in particular, programming the digitized materials so that they would be structured in a clear manner, easily linked together, and searchable. The publisher, Pennsylvania State University Press, made a vital financial contribution to last minute adjustments, but no publisher, commercial or academic, would have been willing to support all these costs from the beginning. Those closer to the technological end of the project could tell fascinating-and exasperating-stories about the constantly disappointed expectation that a new, more standardized, platform for CD-ROMS would be developed in conjunction with our project and then made available to teachers to prepare their own materials for classroom use. Instead, our team had to work through almost every aspect of the project on its own. At least 40 different people contributed, including work-study students, graduate research assistants, translators, postdoctoral fellows, scanners, programmers, translators, sound technicians, piano players, map drawers, and project coordinators, not to mention the unpaid or very much underpaid labors of numerous faculty and curators in New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Boston, Athens, Georgia, Vizille, and Paris. The great cost of the project measures the distance between a CD-ROM that simply gathers together digitized information in catalogue form (I have seen one CD-ROM of images of the French Revolution that numbers the images in order with no further information) and one that integrates a variety of different kinds of documents into an integrated package usable in thousands of different ways. It is one thing to store your family photos on a CD-ROM and quite another to develop a useful and interesting pedagogical tool.
The bad news is that the cost of producing multimedia packages for teaching is not going to go down anytime soon. Such projects require serious funding, take a long time to complete, and need high levels of organization. It seems very unlikely that an individual faculty member could undertake such an effort; putting a document reader on a CD-ROM or online is not the same thing as coordinating images, music, maps, narrated slide shows and lengthy narrative introductions with text documents. But there is some good news too. Universities have begun to establish centers for the new media to coordinate these endeavors and to keep abreast of the ever-expanding horizon of possibilities. And the horizon does keep expanding as computer memory grows and the capacity to receive and play audiovisual materials leaps forward in astonishing fashion.
Perhaps most encouraging for teachers and researchers is the decentralization that is inherent in the Internet as a medium. New sources of information keep popping up, sometimes from the most unexpected of places. An individual does a web page to provide links to everything interesting about Aphra Behn, a foundation makes a CD-ROM of the collected works of Voltaire, a university library puts its rare maps on the Web, a national library begins to digitize whole collections. A thousand flowers are blooming in the world of digitized information. Sitting in front of my tiny Osborne screen 20 years ago, I would never have even dreamed of the prospect, and even if I had, the flowers would have been gray and white!
—Lynn Hunt is Eugen Weber Professor of European History at UCLA and is the president of the AHA. She can be reached by e-mail addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org.