Publication Date

April 19, 2023

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Undergraduate Education

Over the last few decades, the AHA has hosted many discussions about the changing place of the book in our discipline, from its declining importance vis-à-vis other forms for communicating historical ideas to instructors’ disinclination to assign entire books to undergraduate students. However such arguments resolve, the book remains central to our work as historians, an extended form of writing that permits us to pursue complex and detailed arguments about the past.

A person sitting with an open book on their lap, and an e-reader on their book.

As the medium through which information is delivered changes, teachers need to realize that their students may not be understanding their texts in the same way. Daniel Sancho/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Amid these changes, a more fundamental transformation has been overlooked: our students no longer perceive the materials that we assign in the same light that we do, as they now inhabit a largely digital world. Professional historians understand the internal workings of the discipline as only members of a guild can, and students have to take up a more in-depth study in order to come to a similar understanding. The new situation differs, however, in that students do not necessarily recognize what were once the most basic components of the history student’s study. Forget comprehending the processes of research, writing, and publishing that go into academic work—our students may not even perceive a book to be a book.

There is an exercise I have frequently performed with students in seminars. When I conceived of this activity, I hoped to get students to think about the secret codes that go into constructing footnotes. I wanted them to see that different sorts of publications were each rendered in a specific format that revealed much to the informed. An essay from a collection, for example, could be readily distinguished from the article in a journal by the way a note was constructed. To illustrate this point and to create a hands-on activity that would break up our class time, I carried an armload of volumes to our meeting. With an eclectic mix of monographs, both singly and co-authored; edited collections, with essays by one author and by multiple authors; issues of journals; editions of a single primary source; and compilations of multiple primary sources, I toted a smattering of the volumes we all have lining our office shelves.

In class, I passed out the volumes, one to each student, asking them to take 10 minutes to consider what they held in their hands and then explain it to their classmates. When it came time to go around the room for their reports, the first students spoke hesitantly: Did I want to know about the content of the work or something else? After a few false starts, they each described the nature of their tome, presenting authorship, provenance, and purpose.

I wanted students to see that different sorts of publications were each rendered in a specific format that revealed much to the informed.

Such a simple exercise, yet I have heard repeatedly about this 30-minute activity from my students. They described themselves as “blown away” that day, they referred to the activity occasionally over the course of the term, and a number praised it in the end-of-term evaluations. Having spent far longer on the other aspects of the course, I felt a bit let down that they thought the course’s best component was a simple activity offered on the spur of the moment. Yet I realized that their reactions exposed a difference between where my students and I begin our engagement with the receptacles of historical content. Separate from any discussion of the esoteric code behind note formatting, students proved eager to explore the physical object and to consider why it had been assembled and by whom.

I see a downloaded book or article as a physical object that has been rendered in digital form. I do this unconsciously, often longing for the book in my hand to avoid reading it on a screen. My graduate students at least pretend to understand my hesitation, although they praise the easy searchability of an ebook. My undergraduate students do not think at all about a physical book, article, or essay behind the words on the page. If they have a measure of internet literacy, history undergraduates check the platform on which a source is posted, aware that they need to distinguish an actual academic resource from the posted claims of some ideologue. While they navigate the digital world with these skills, they have little sense of the concrete nature of the objects that they use. When I teach secondary sources, I perceive them to have a nature that is fundamental to their existence, but my students see only words on a screen, separated from any larger context. Understandably, they do not recognize that the words have a history, a setting, and a larger purpose. That disparity explained why my impromptu lesson proved a revelation.

This disconnect from the material reality of the book means that when history teachers think or speak about our assigned secondary sources, we assume knowledge our students do not possess. What we envision differs from what they perceive. When students read only on electronic devices, the source becomes disconnected from any concrete existence outside the words on a screen. We may be simply witnessing the effects of the digitization of knowledge, and this disconnect between what the teacher and the student perceive may pass with time as we all—both teachers and students—become digital natives. Yet the fact that they cannot envision the container holding the words they read matters, and not just to us but to them.

If the reception of writing, academic or otherwise, is changed in this way, what does that mean for the future of the book and the discipline? History is dedicated to understanding context and change over time. Much as some of us enjoy contesting intellectual concerns in short, cutting insights conveyed in a tweet, I trust we all recognize the limits of the form for conveying sophisticated historical reasoning. We know we need the book or other long-form platforms to communicate larger arguments made based on our in-depth work in the archives. In addition, books themselves have a history and a historical importance that students are less equipped to understand if the book as a physical object is not part of their experience.

Our students, interacting with content only in disembodied forms—often in small and unconnected increments—do not perceive the details behind the text. It was for this reason that my students found struggling over the nature of the physical volumes so intriguing. They praised the “What do you have in your hand?” exercise for exposing them to the object itself. Until that exercise, their sense of a book/article/essay as such was attenuated. Their relationship to the content they absorbed as students was fragmentary—they collected bits, using search functions that navigated their way through larger documents. They could not make out the parameters containing the information they used toward their learning.

This new world of information untethered to physical objects or specific arguments creates in our students a new mindset.

Do our students need this awareness of a book? Or is it simply enough that teachers recognize that they live in a world where bits are fragmented and without larger purpose? Information on the internet gives the impression of being infinite. Early heralds of our new digital age praised its prospects for democratizing knowledge and making information widely available. Its accessibility is a clear benefit, although we have come to lament the fact that its reliability is uncertain. With seemingly limitless information—in contrast to the constraints imposed by the covers of a book, which places parameters around the extent of the information they contain—the internet demands that users search out what they seek to know. This new world of a seeming infinity of information untethered to physical objects or specific intellectual arguments creates in our students a new mindset, one foreign to my generation’s perceptions but basic to their own.

If we want our students to think deeply about the past, we must figure out how to give them a better sense of our efforts to do that thinking. Otherwise, books are in danger of disappearing into the cybersphere, artifacts of the past that have no relationship to the work we undertake with our students. Our students (indeed the larger public) need to know that historical arguments amount to more than isolated facts and disembodied fragments.

I fear this loss of the sense of a book is only the first step toward a fully digital future. At my most apocalyptic, I envision a future in which we cannot sustain the computer technology on which we rely. Like fossil fuels, the rare materials that go into the manufacture of our myriad devices are finite. The triumph of the digital will eventually strain the available resources no matter how carefully they are marshaled. There’s a reason why science fiction often features the mining of rare materials on some distant planet: we will not be able to fill our demand indefinitely. In our deep dependence on technology, we behave as if the electricity and the precious metals needed to keep our digital world going will always be available. The days of computer technology may stretch before us into the distant future, but they must necessarily be numbered. When the digital inevitably crashes, we won’t be able to find a specific book in our libraries because all the card catalogs are gone. Perhaps we won’t have libraries with physical stacks to trawl for books anyway. By then, readers will have entirely lost the sense of the book as distinct from other ways of putting together words to convey ideas.

The book becoming digital gives us the convenience of portability and searchability. It frees library space, as we can all appreciate. But it also changes the way we relate to the presentation of ideas and information. The implications of that shift are subtle, far reaching, and barely explored.

Carla Gardina Pestana is Distinguished Professor of History and Joyce Appleby Endowed Chair of America in the World at the University of California, Los Angeles.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.