Web users have case of short-term
By Rachel Konrad
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
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
whether the ease of doing research online has made students oblivious to
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
Mark Herring, dean of the Dacus Library at Winthrop University in Rock
"It doesn't give any sense of time because almost everything on the Web is
events and articles in the last five years," he said. "It doesn't give
impression that they're sitting on the shoulders of giants. It gives them
impression that they're giants."
Although the scope of historical artifacts online is growing, the Web is
domain of documents and photos that were created in 1995 or later. Many
libraries and countless private archives--such as those maintained by
law firms and private research companies--have digital collections that
when their Web sites were developed.
A newspaper that created a Web site in 1996, for example, will likely have
online archive of articles and photos since that date. Earlier articles
photos--often stored on microfiche or in envelopes stuffed into file
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historical documents online.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,
library will house only 4.2 percent of the library's 119 million
and photos to historical papers and scraps of cloth. This means that
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
instead of more far-reaching socioeconomic forces. A search on Yahoo found
Web sites dedicated to teenage rock icon Britney Spears--more than three
the 25 sites found on Yahoo dedicated to the Great Depression.
Because the scope of the Internet is relatively narrow, teachers say it
people's interpretations of history. Instead of learning about broad
with recurring cycles, said Syracuse University professor Robert Thompson,
researchers who cull all of their information from the Internet may think
United States' economic health of the past half-decade is an unprecedented
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
citing Web sites. Now the vast majority of papers turned into me have been
exclusively with sources on the Internet, and they're missing a lot of
Another concern of educators: a general lack of analysis of online
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
live the same lifestyle you had in Oklahoma City. But it's considerably
to find information on the lifestyle of women in the Elizabethan Age or on
philosophies of religious leaders in 17th-century America. There are
documents containing such information, but they aren't necessarily
available on the
Some experts say the popularity of the Internet has allowed a lack of
invade all types of modern research, from scholarly thought to mainstream
journalism. Increasingly, experts say, thesis statements are little more
of facts--not original opinions that use facts to strengthen the
"When I read the analyses of reporters, be they print or online, I'm
amazed at the
oblivious viewpoints," said Alan Meckler, CEO of Internet.com, an industry
"A lot of the people who write about the Internet in the popular new
magazines are totally brainwashed by the business models of today and are
oblivious to similar problems that happened as close as 1994 or 1996.
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
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
Obvious revenue streams don't seem likely to emerge in the immediate
private companies competing in the digital archiving space say they're
become the next hot niche for Wall Street investors.
Tom Pisello, vice president of marketing for Winter Park, Fla.-based
says no company has figured out a consistent revenue stream for digital
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
Digital Owl bundles digital artifacts, letting publishers sell themed
For example, Digital Owl would cull the Web and build a comprehensive
on the Vietnam War then sell it to "www.veterans.com."
"It's a massive job and requires massive investment," said Pisello, "and
still up in the air...There are tools to help automate the work, but it's
Another pitfall so far has been the lack of standards for digital formats.
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
a card catalog for the digital age. It aims to establish a list of
standardizing documents, photos, videos, sound clips and other items by
title, subject, date and dozens of other categories.
"The biggest challenge is that, since our goal is to describe information
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
said Stuart Weibel, senior research scientist and director of the Dublin
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,
industrial sectors and other (classifications) can use the information."
Some online archivists are bullish that the Internet will eventually
world's most comprehensive historical repository. They're confident that
technology will quiet the naysayers who believe that pre-Internet history
"Where there's an appetite, it will be filled--especially in a dot-com
Byron Allen, CEO of Los Angeles-based EntertainmentStudios.com, 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
have a huge appetite for information before 1990, then that appetite will
Paul Cooper, CEO of Perceptual Robotics of Evanston, Ill., is more
easy to think in 10 or 20 years we'll have the basics online, but it's not
happen overnight or even in one or two years."
Contact F. David Peat