Computers and Software

Historians and Hypertext: Is It More than Hype?

Roy Rosenzweig and Steve Brier, March 1994

"[I]n ten years or so," D. H. Jonassen predicted more than ten years ago in The Technology of Text, "the book as we know it will be as obsolete as is movable type today." Jonassen is hardly the only techno-enthusiast to get carried away by the potential of electronic media to reshape the way we consume and read information. More than thirty years ago, Ted Nelson, who coined the term "hypertext," was already arguing that print books would be obsolete in just five years.

Nelson may be an imprecise prophet, but he has proved to have a flair for inventing words. The 1980s did not see the withering away of the print book, but they did mark the emergence of a vast literature (most of it, ironically, in print form) on "hypertext." In Nelson's words, hypertext is "nonsequential writing—text that branches and allows choices, best read at an interactive screen ... a series of text chunks connected by links which offer the reader different pathways." In its most general meaning (as referring to "chunks" of information and the links between them), there is nothing very new or extraordinary about hypertext. Works as diverse as the Talmud and a footnoted scholarly article are built on the idea of interlinked information that might be read nonsequentially.

What is new, however, is the possibility of using computers and electronic storage media to very rapidly link together vast quantities of information. Back in 1945, Vannevar Bush, the first director of the federal government's Office of Scientific Research and Development, proposed the "memex," a device "in which the individual stores his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility." Bush's vision was only that; the technology of his day was inadequate to his ambition. (His solution to the storage problem—microfilm—is guaranteed to make any historian groan.) But by 1961, when the even more ambitious Nelson was a sociology graduate student looking for a way to organize his research notes, the computer had appeared as the obvious solution to the problem of storing and linking enormous quantities of information. And for the past three decades, Nelson has been promoting what he calls his Xanadu project—an effort to build a "docuverse" in which all the world's literature is tied into "a universal instantaneous hypertext publishing network."

Nelson's Xanadu—like the Xanadu of Citizen Kane, a film by one of Nelson's heroes, Orson Welles—remains uncompleted. Still, the failure of hypertext or electronic books to live up to the promises and prophecies of their hyperenthusiasts should not lead us to dismiss out of hand the possibilities of using computers and digital media to present the past. Even considering the existing technology, electronic history books do have a place on our shelves even if it is not yet time to toss our trusty paperbacks into the dustbin of history (books). In this essay, we want to report on our own effort at electronic publishing as a way of suggesting some of the advantages and a few of the limitations of this new medium.

Briefly summarized, our electronic history book, Who Built America? From the Centennial Celebration of 1876 to the Great War of 1914, published by the Voyager Company and developed by us in collaboration with Josh Brown and other colleagues at Hunter College's American Social History Project (ASHP) and George Mason University, provides an interactive, multimedia introduction to American history of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries on a single CD-ROM disk for Macintosh computers. The "spine" of this computer book is a basic survey of American history from 1876 to 1914, which is drawn from the second volume of ASHP's book, Who Built America? published by Pantheon Books in 1992. Added to—and, in the process, transforming—this textual survey are nearly two hundred "excursions," which branch off from the main body of the text. Those excursions contain about seven hundred source documents in various media that allow students as well as interested general readers to go beyond (and behind) the printed page and to immerse themselves in the primary and secondary sources that professional historians use to make sense of the past. In addition to about five thousand pages of textual documents, there are about four-and-a-half hours of audio documents (oral histories, recorded speeches, and musical performances), forty-five minutes of films, more than seven hundred photographic-quality pictures, and about seventy-five charts, graphs, and maps.

The advantages of the computer and CD-ROM for presenting the turn of the century to students are easily summarized. One rests on the vast space offered by the CD-ROM, which can hold 640 megabytes of data—the equivalent of more than 300 thousand typed pages. Thus, whereas the print version of the four chapters of Who Built America? could only include forty primary documents of 250 to 750 words, the CD-ROM includes not only hundreds more documents but also much longer ones. For example, we have dozens of letters written home by Swedish, English, and Polish immigrants rather than just one or two. Indeed, the educational edition of the Who Built America? includes five full-length books, including Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and Booker T. Washington's Up From Slavery. (The capaciousness of the CD-ROM also encouraged us to incorporate some less serious excursions that might not make their way into a conventional book. One excursion explores the origin of the custom of answering the phone with "hello" and includes an early vaudeville routine, "Cohen on the Telephone." Another allows you to complete the world's first crossword puzzle, which appeared in a New York newspaper in 1913.)

The second key advantage of this medium is its ability to locate and keep track of all that information very efficiently. If we asked you to find the 117 instances of the word "work" in the first four chapters of the printed volume, it would take you a couple of days and you would probably miss some of them. In the electronic version, it would take only about eleven seconds. In just a few more seconds, we could even locate the 406 instances of the same word in all the thousands of pages of primary documents, the excursion introductions, the captions, and the time line, and then provide a list of all the instances in context. The computer would also keep track of which ones you had looked at and keep markers for the ones to which you want to return. Moreover, you can search in more extensive and complex ways; you could be taken only to the instances of "working class" or "working-class politics" or even pages where the word "class" appears anywhere near the word "women." The program also offers many other ways to locate and link things very quickly. A "resource index," for example, provides you with rapid access to all seven hundred primary documents, whether organized by topic (from American Indians to women) or by type of document (film, audio, photographs and images, puzzles and games, maps and graphs, or text). Using the find feature and the resource index allows those who want to do so to learn about American history in a decidedly nonlinear fashion.

A related advantage of the computer's ability to access and keep track of information is what we might call "simultaneity"—the ability to move very quickly from one body of information to another—to shift from reading the African American congressman Robert Smalls denouncing the disfranchisement of black voters, to studying statistics on the effects of the secret ballot on voting, to examining the text of the Louisiana grandfather clause, to considering the historical debate between C. Vann Woodward and Howard Rabinowitz on the origins of Jim Crow, to listening to a recording of Booker T. Washington offering his famous "Atlanta Compromise." In effect, readers can instantly get behind the page to see materials out of which the basic text has been crafted. In addition, they can very quickly locate information that will help them understand what they are reading. You can, for example, hold down the mouse on any place name in the text and be shown that place's location on a U.S. map. If you are lost temporally rather than spatially, you can switch to any of seven categories in a detailed time line that spans the 1876–1914 period.

The third thing that the electronic book can provide that the print version can not is multimedia. For historians, the advantages of this are obvious. The past occurred in more than one medium, so why not be able to present it in multiple dimensions? The four-and-a-half hours of audio "documents" are particularly valuable in making the past immediate and vivid. Thirty-five different oral history witnesses—for example, Miriam Allen DeFord on her introduction to birth control in 1914; George Kills in Sight on the death of Crazy Horse; Pauline Newman on organizing the "Uprising of the 20,000" in 1909; Eubie Blake on the origins of ragtime; Vaseline Usher on the 1906 Atlanta race riot; and Luther Addington on religion in rural Appalachia—tell their stories in their own voices.

These reminiscences are supplemented by sixteen contemporary sound clips of famous Americans, including William Jennings Bryan delivering the "Cross of Gold" speech, Woodrow Wilson campaigning for the presidency, William Howard Taft appealing to labor voters, Andrew Carnegie touting the "Gospel of Wealth," Russell Conwell looking for "Acres of Diamonds," and Weber and Fields doing two of their popular vaudeville routines. Twenty-five songs present the musical diversity of the nation, including Mexican corridos, Sousa marches, Italian American Christmas music, Tin Pan Alley tunes, African American work songs, and coal miner laments.

When we first started work on this project in 1990, the only way to present film would have been to put it on an additional laserdisk to be played on a separate laserdisk player and television monitor. But the appearance in 1991 of "QuickTime," a piece of software that allows the display of films directly on the computer screen has enabled us to incorporate twenty early film clips as well. Thus, the excursion on the 1912 election includes film footage of all three major party candidates. Other film footage includes Edwin Porter's "documentary" of the sinking of the Maine, women suffragists marching down Fifth Avenue in 1915, a 1904 view of the interior of the giant Westinghouse factory, black soldiers marching in the Philippines, heavyweight champ Jim Corbett knocking out Peter Courtney, and a streetcar view of Boston in 1906. We have also drawn upon the earliest fiction films: The excursion on the railroad allows you to see the film classic, The Great Train Robbery, in its entirety; and the excursion on temperance includes a satirical view of Carry Nation in The Kansas Saloon Smashers.

The advantages of massive space and multimedia bring with them some implicit dangers. There is no doubt, for example, that 640 megabytes offers exciting new possibilities that are simply not possible in 640 book pages. But as we know from print books, length does not equal quality. The old slogan from computer programming—"garbage in, garbage out"—can be equally applied to CD-ROMs. (Some of the earliest history CD-ROMs have won the derisive but accurate label of "shovelware.") And while sound and film are terrific additions to history teaching, these media can turn history into television commercials in which the media glitz overwhelms sustained contact with difficult ideas. We believe that we should be very wary of the justification for multimedia that is offered over and over again: Students no longer read; they are visually oriented. Therefore, we need to respond to that with multimedia. Well, yes, we should certainly respond, for example, by drawing on and then developing skills of visual literacy. But there is no reason to give up reading, simply because it is somehow old fashioned or out of fashion. Here, we heartily embrace the slogan that our collaborators at Voyager have coined and even put on their T-shirts: "Text: The Next Frontier."

Thus, despite the unconventional nature of Who Built America?, we have tried to retain some of the traditional features of a printed book. It even looks very much like a printed book on screen with two columns of type and frequent pictures. We and our collaborators at Voyager devoted considerable time and effort to experimenting with typography and layout in order to make Who Built America? pleasing to look at and easy to read. The reader can page through the book briskly using the arrow keys. To make quick paging possible, the pictures are not immediately presented in full, eight-bit photographic quality, which takes a few seconds to load into the computer's memory. But the higher quality image, including a detailed caption and source information, is only a click of the mouse away.

Other traditional book features are also retained. You can, for example, take notes in the margin or in a separate notebook. (Less traditionally, a "resource collector" serves as a sort of multimedia notebook in which you can assemble your own compilation of specific sound and film clips and pictures as well as text.) If you prefer to do the electronic version of "highlighting," you can boldface or underline any text you select. Here the advantage over the printed book is that you can erase any markings you have made with no trouble. And you can electronically fold-over ("dog-ear") the corner of a page and, again, the computer will rapidly locate that marked page for you as well as any of your marginal notes.

Just as Who Built America? on CD-ROM retains many of the traditional features of a print book, so too the process of writing it was quite traditional in many respects. The largest amount of our work involved the customary tasks that are familiar to all historians: selection, analysis, and synthesis. Whereas our CD-ROM contains many more primary documents than any print book, those documents still represent a small selection from the vast historical record. That selection is rooted in our best historical judgment. Similarly, the documents cannot readily stand on their own. Every document is explained and contextualized; we spent hundreds of hours researching the backgrounds for each of the documents and synthesizing the latest scholarship on a myriad of topics from sharecropping in the South, to Indian education at the Carlisle school to Asian immigrants at Angel Island, to Coxey's Army in Washington, to the Armory Show in New York. We think there is little danger that the new electronic media are going to "displace" historians; a more realistic worry would be that the vast space of the CD-ROM is going to challenge the energy and ingenuity of historians to fill those disks in creative and intelligent ways.

New electronic media will also challenge our creativity as teachers if we are going to use them in ways that live up to their promise to democratize education and empower students. At its best, interactive technology has the potential to make exciting materials available to a broader audience, to give students and others direct access to primary documents that might be available at the Library of Congress but not at their local library. In addition, computer technology can make it possible (though it doesn't assure that possibility) for students and other readers to have more control over their learning and to move at their own pace and make decisions about what direction they want to go in, about what byways they want to investigate. New technology may also free up teachers from some of the most repetitive and least edifying aspects of teaching and allow them to spend time working directly and creatively with students.

But we need always to keep in mind the opposite tendencies that are at least implicit (e.g., expensive new technologies may wind up being available only at more affluent institutions, and the technologies can be exploited to make education more constraining, to make students move at an even more rigid lockstep through material). And at least to some, the new technology is seen as a cheap and quick fix to the problems of American education. Chris Whittle and his business and education allies are, for example, promoting technology as a way of increasing teacher productivity and (not coincidentally) turning education into a private and profit-making venture.

Our own view, however, is that we are a long way from the days when students will telecommute to Digital U. Even the seemingly simple and straightforward task of getting faculty and students to learn and make use of new computer technologies is far from simple or straightforward. And, at least for the next few years, our struggles with incompatible formats and platforms will remind us why the adoption of standard railroad track gauges was an important breakthrough of the late nineteenth century. Moreover, we doubt that teaching will be as readily subject to automation as some believe or hope. Still, the future is far from determined. Any new technology carries within it repressive as well as liberating possibilities. Although a Luddite resistance to technological change may seem appealing at times, we would argue instead that it is worth engaging with these new technologies in an effort to try to insure that they indeed become badly needed tools of empowerment, enlightenment, and excitement. We may still be a long way from the death of the print book or the birth of the hypertextual "docuverse," but the rapid emergence of new electronic media for reading, storing, and linking information means that even those of us who spend much of our time studying the past will need to play close attention, as well, to the future.

Further Reading

For some good introductions to "hypertext," see George P. Landow, Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (1992); Cliff McKnight, Andrew Dillon, and John Richardson, Hypertext in Context (1991); Jeff Conklin, "Hypertext: An Introduction and Survey," Computer (September 1987), 17–41. Who Built America? From the Centennial Celebration of 1876 to the Great War of 1914 is available from the Voyager Company, 1 Bridge St., Irvington, NY 10533; 1-800-446-2001.

—Roy Rosenzweig is professor of history at George Mason University and Steve Brier is director of the American Social History Project and the Center for Media and Learning at Hunter College, CUNY.