Feb 8, 2012

What Alan Lomax Can Tell Us About Research and Teaching in the Digital Age

Last week the New York Times reported that the world will soon have digital access to an unbelievable trove of recorded music and dance from around the globe, thanks to the decades-long effort by Alan Lomax and a crew of archivists who, since Lomax’s death in 2002, have worked to digitize the recordings and photographs he collected. According to the Times, this includes
some 5,000 hours of sound recordings, 400,000 feet of film, 3,000 videotapes, 5,000 photographs and piles of manuscripts.
Lomax was an ethnographer who traveled throughout the U.S. and, eventually, the world to record people playing music and talking about their art. He later became interested in dance and performance. His recordings document musical traditions from around the world and are an unparalleled resource for musicians and historians. Now, the collection is in the process of being fully digitized and made available for free on the internet. 

As I work on my dissertation and contemplate my career prospects, I am constantly confronting questions about the roles of scholarship, academia, and education in an era in which an unimaginable amount of information is available to anyone with a computer. What’s the role of researchers, writers, and educators when everyone can find the answers to their questions with a Google search? Reading about this enormous digital collection helped me figure out a way to articulate an answer. 

The collection is, clearly, an incredible example of the promise of the internet for the preservation of historical material (and information of all kinds). Anyone with a web connection will be able to explore the collection and hear music that would previously have required an expensive and lengthy trip to an archive, which itself necessitates specialized research skills and knowledge. We will be able to sit at our computers and hear musicians from Mississippi prisons in the 1940s, Spain in the 1950s, and the Soviet Union in the 1960s

But the availability of these recordings (and other document troves on the web), far from making scholarship superfluous, also shows exactly why research and teaching are as essential as ever in the internet era. While interested listeners will certainly browse the collection, how many will have the time to listen to anything close to 5,000 hours of sound recordings or look at hundreds of thousands of feet of film? When I browsed the collection, I was instantly overwhelmed by its scale. As much as ever, we need researchers who will wade through that collection and tell us what’s inside, so that the rest of us can have a useful starting point when we load the website in our own homes. For thousands of years, that has been the role of researchers in the humanities and sciences: combing through data, synthesizing what’s already known, and making it possible to take further steps in the development of human knowledge without always having to start at the beginning.

The quantity of information, historical and otherwise, available on the internet is staggering. But who’s going to wade through it and figure out what’s there, if not scholars? And who’s going to teach students how to do the same, if not teachers?

No comments:

Post a Comment