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Web users have case of short-term memory
By Rachel Konrad Staff Writer, CNET July 17, 2000, 10:00 a.m. PT

Did life exist before the Internet?

That's not necessarily a facetious question. Many teachers and others wonder whether the ease of doing research online has made students oblivious to history before around 1995, when the Web became popular.

Think tanks, private corporations and government institutions also lament that the majority of researchers, from first graders to doctoral candidates to journalists, perceive the Internet as a one-stop shop that gives them license to cite only sources that can be cut and pasted from the Web.

"The Internet has completely changed the way people think about the world," said Mark Herring, dean of the Dacus Library at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C.

"It doesn't give any sense of time because almost everything on the Web is about events and articles in the last five years," he said. "It doesn't give students the impression that they're sitting on the shoulders of giants. It gives them the impression that they're giants."

Although the scope of historical artifacts online is growing, the Web is generally the domain of documents and photos that were created in 1995 or later. Many public libraries and countless private archives--such as those maintained by newspapers, law firms and private research companies--have digital collections that date to when their Web sites were developed.

A newspaper that created a Web site in 1996, for example, will likely have an online archive of articles and photos since that date. Earlier articles and photos--often stored on microfiche or in envelopes stuffed into file cabinets--are not likely to find their way onto the Web anytime soon.

The Library of Congress National Digital Library is one of the most aggressive programs to archive historical documents online. The goal is to have 5 million items from the library's vast collection in digital format by the end of the year.

Although it will be one of the largest online collections in the world, the digital library will house only 4.2 percent of the library's 119 million items--from books and photos to historical papers and scraps of cloth. This means that people who rely on the Internet will have access to a small subset of the Washington, D.C.-based library's full collection.

Because of the Internet's modern focus, it tends to concentrate on popular culture instead of more far-reaching socioeconomic forces. A search on Yahoo found 76 Web sites dedicated to teenage rock icon Britney Spears--more than three times the 25 sites found on Yahoo dedicated to the Great Depression.

Because the scope of the Internet is relatively narrow, teachers say it has warped people's interpretations of history. Instead of learning about broad economic trends with recurring cycles, said Syracuse University professor Robert Thompson, researchers who cull all of their information from the Internet may think that the United States' economic health of the past half-decade is an unprecedented miracle.

Don't know much about history "In the past 10 years, there has been an absolute and total cataclysmic transformation in research," said Thompson, professor of film and television at the university. "Ten years ago, you had some of the really on-top-of-it people start citing Web sites. Now the vast majority of papers turned into me have been done exclusively with sources on the Internet, and they're missing a lot of information."

Another concern of educators: a general lack of analysis of online information, particularly historical information.

The Internet is a great place to find statistics about the duration of daylight on a given day in a given latitude or how much salary you would need in New York to live the same lifestyle you had in Oklahoma City. But it's considerably more difficult to find information on the lifestyle of women in the Elizabethan Age or on the philosophies of religious leaders in 17th-century America. There are plenty of documents containing such information, but they aren't necessarily available on the Web.

Some experts say the popularity of the Internet has allowed a lack of analysis to invade all types of modern research, from scholarly thought to mainstream journalism. Increasingly, experts say, thesis statements are little more than clusters of facts--not original opinions that use facts to strengthen the arguments.

"When I read the analyses of reporters, be they print or online, I'm amazed at the oblivious viewpoints," said Alan Meckler, CEO of, an industry portal. "A lot of the people who write about the Internet in the popular new economy magazines are totally brainwashed by the business models of today and are oblivious to similar problems that happened as close as 1994 or 1996. There's nothing there except recent data."

The biggest hurdle to amassing a more complete digital history, it seems, is that the endeavor is expensive--and the niche is largely unprofitable.

In 1997, The British Library tried to enlist private funds to create a self-sustaining digital library service. But by 1998, the library discontinued the plan, insisting it had proved impossible to balance the objectives of the library with those of profit-minded funders.

Obvious revenue streams don't seem likely to emerge in the immediate future. Even private companies competing in the digital archiving space say they're unlikely to become the next hot niche for Wall Street investors.

Tom Pisello, vice president of marketing for Winter Park, Fla.-based Digital Owl, says no company has figured out a consistent revenue stream for digital archiving because of the high cost of converting text or microfiche to digital format. But he's confident that new technology will lower costs and new markets will emerge.

Virtual research Digital Owl bundles digital artifacts, letting publishers sell themed research online. For example, Digital Owl would cull the Web and build a comprehensive package on the Vietnam War then sell it to ""

"It's a massive job and requires massive investment," said Pisello, "and pricing is still up in the air...There are tools to help automate the work, but it's still hard."

Another pitfall so far has been the lack of standards for digital formats. Why should libraries and universities invest millions of dollars to put artifacts on the Web using formatting commands in HTML, when that technology might change and render their investment obsolete?

Dublin Core, a 5-year-old organization based in Dublin, Ohio, is working to create a card catalog for the digital age. It aims to establish a list of conventions for standardizing documents, photos, videos, sound clips and other items by author, title, subject, date and dozens of other categories.

"The biggest challenge is that, since our goal is to describe information on the World Wide Web and not the North American Web or the Italian Web or the Chinese Web, we have to reach a consensus on what these standards should be," said Stuart Weibel, senior research scientist and director of the Dublin Core initiative. "In the Web world, it's more complicated than it used to be. We have to identify consensus so people across disciplines, national boundaries, national industrial sectors and other (classifications) can use the information."

Some online archivists are bullish that the Internet will eventually become the world's most comprehensive historical repository. They're confident that technology will quiet the naysayers who believe that pre-Internet history will fade from consciousness.

"Where there's an appetite, it will be filled--especially in a dot-com world," said Byron Allen, CEO of Los Angeles-based, which is creating a pop culture archive of some syndicated TV shows. "Everyone is working at warp speed to find their niche and to satisfy consumers. If consumers have a huge appetite for information before 1990, then that appetite will be fed ferociously."

Paul Cooper, CEO of Perceptual Robotics of Evanston, Ill., is more cautious. "It's easy to think in 10 or 20 years we'll have the basics online, but it's not going to happen overnight or even in one or two years."


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