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Who Built America? From the Centennial Celebration of 1876 to the Great War of 1914.

By Roy Rosenzweig, Steve Brier and Josh Brown. (New York: The Voyager Company, 1993. CD-ROM Educational Edition $195.00/Individual Edition $49.95).

For some time now cyberbabble has pronounced the book obsolete: in the brave new world of hypertext students will no longer be prisoners of presequenced paragraphs and chapters, but will flit from idea to image to dataset to song as moved by the promptings of their own creative imaginations. At educational computing conferences in the 1980s, enthusiasts pointed out that a prototype application of Brown University's Intermedia software (sadly, an example of visionary academic development which was left in the dust when a commercial counterpart, Hypercard, appeared) had no predetermined starting point and offered no preferred path through the massive quantities of text and images which it placed at the students' disposal. My own questions (and I believe those of other experienced teachers of the humanities) about educational objectives and how exactly this mode of reaming would advance them went largely unanswered at the time.

It is therefore both instructive and reassuring, when one examines this first major commercial hypertext product for the undergraduate history market, to learn how very like a book it is. Essentially, the developers started with a textbook by Rosenzweig, Brier and others, which had already been published in old-fashioned paper form, and enhanced it with huge amounts of additional material. The enhancements include oral history interviews, contemporary recordings of speeches, music from the period, early motion pictures, maps, charts and graphs (and the data which lie behind them), photographs, drawings, advertisements, and, of course, text--including both primary documents and more recent historical analysis. It is possible to access any of these items at any time; one could, for example, display an alphabetical list of all the songs, and listen to them one by one. However, the structure of the whole work strongly encourages the user to approach all these materials through the main text which the authors themselves have written.

The user begins with a detailed table of contents to the main text which looks like its model in a paper book, but is interactive. One can go directly from the contents page to any chapter, section or page and can retrieve the contents page at any time by pointing at the chapter number which appears in the running head of each page of the main text. (It is possible also to go directly from the table of contents to the movies and the songs, but it is not immediately evident how to do it.) Many pages of the main text contain illustrations. Initially these grainy little pictures are unprepossessing, but one soon reams that they are merely enlarged details of the real illustrations. A mouse click on one of them brings up the full picture--say a Lewis Hine photograph of child laborers or a Degas painting of a New Orleans cotton exchange--in a stunningly high-quality reproduction with a caption on source and context. In the lower right-hand comer of certain pages a small "railroad track" icon indicates an "excursion," accessible via a mouse click. The excursion consists of one or more text, sound or image items relevant to topics discussed on that page. One could actually go beyond the specific items in the excursion using the various search and index capabilities of the system. No matter how far afield the user strays, however, there seems always to be a "return" button which brings one back to his or her place in the main text. The "look and feel" of the book is further sustained by capabilities which are provided for underlining passages, typing notes in margins, and even dog-earring pages.

So what are we to surmise from this unblushing imitation of that despised relic, the book, and even the reinforcement of its antique modes of information storage and retrieval? One is tempted to imagine a marketing person telling the developers: "Look here, if this thing don't look like a book, the profs ain't gonna make the kids buy it!" But somehow I doubt that that is what happened. I think we can take this product as really vindicating the book's continuing utility. Books, after all, offer two great advantages--portability and random access. Of portability I will have more to say later, but we all access information in books randomly by riffling their pages (which is why we prefer books over the "sequential access" of microfilm), and publishers assist us in this activity with tables of contents, indexes, running heads, chapter titles and subheadings. (Anybody who has tried to use printed computer documentation in which all topics are arranged alphabetically and no summary of topics is provided will realize that some computer professionals don't quite understand how books are supposed to work.)

The developers of Who Built America? do not just take advantage of the latest computing technology, but also incorporate the experience of the historical profession in appropriating for undergraduate teaching two great prior technological innovations of the past 40 years or so--the paperback and the photocopier. The paperback revolution of the 1950s greatly enhanced both the portability and random access capabilities of books used in undergraduate history courses. Once students could purchase essentially all the reading material for a course, they could do that reading wherever they pleased--not just in the reserve room. Moreover, since they owned the books they could mark in them at will, thus improving their capacity for randomly accessing the information they deemed important when exams approached. The photocopier gave us the capability (though not without legal and administrative problems) of extending these benefits of portability and random access to materials which no publisher found it economic to bring out in paperback.

These innovations--especially the paperback revolution--provided an alternative to the older model of undergraduate history reading assignments in which the student typically purchased one weighty hardbound textbook and an accompanying volume of documents. The purpose of the document collection was to enable the student to begin thinking "like an historian," but it was rarely possible to print enough documentary material to make that possible. More often, I imagine, the student used the documents to find examples which sustained the argument in the textbook.

The developers of Who Built America? have revived this earlier textbook + documents model. Whether the documents they have chosen will really get the students to think critically about what the "textbook" says is perhaps debatable. However, they certainly have taken advantage of the electronic technology to include much more material than we are accustomed to seeing in a document collection. The images and sound will be a valuable motivator for students, but what really impresses me is the great volume of text documents which are provided. Where a printed document collection might contain one or two of a certain category of primary sources this work may have half a dozen, and when the authors include a recent journal article they often reproduce it in its entirety rather than abridging it to 5 or 10 pages. The instructor who is hesitating at requiring a $50 purchase by his or her students should reflect on whether it will really be necessary to assign anything else in the course. However, the photocopier having given us the expectation of easy tailoring of our own reading lists, I would expect many faculty who assign this work to wish for the capability to add a few scanned articles and documents of their own choosing.

But what of that other wonderful characteristic of the book: portability. I am very fortunate to have in my office a Macintosh Quadra 660AV with 8Mb of RAM which is ideal for reading (viewing, listening to) Who Built America? Nevertheless, mea culpa, I am some months late in delivering this review to the Journal essentially because of my ingrained habit of using my evening and weekend time at home for such tasks as reading the works which I am reviewing. At this moment few students even at my own computer-rich university would, I imagine, have suitable computers in their dorm rooms--where the paperback revolution has conditioned them to expect to do their course reading. If I were to assign this work in a course next semester nearly all the students would have to use computers in public clusters. It would be like the old situation in which nearly the entire reading for a course required use of the reserve room, and under those circumstances I frankly would anticipate that many of the students would find a way to print hard copy of the assigned chapters and documents and only return to the cluster when I insisted that they look at some images or listen to some music.

I do not want to conclude on that discouraging note, however. We are living through a period in which last year's leading edge technology is next year's dinosaur. I think it entirely likely that within a very few years the technology for taking advantage of this product will in fact be available, if not on every student's desk, at least down the hall, in many American universities. I hope that the publishers will stay the course, keeping this product in print until the growing accessibility of the necessary technology makes it economically' viable.
COPYRIGHT 1995 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Miller, David W.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1995
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