Dan Cohen is revisited this week, though instead of a rallying cry to produce more content online as he did in his blog post advocating for more historical scholars to create blogs of their own, which I discussed here, he is now commenting on the seemingly over abundance of information that can not be easily sorted through in the majority of historical databases available now. He compares this phenomenon to the reality described in the short story “The Library of Babel”, which is about a library containing books filled with all the words in the world combined in every way possible, but no way of knowing what contains what. The inhabitants of this world are destined to search the library through books of gibberish, hoping that eventually they will find something containing some meaning to it.
Needless to say this comparison of a fruitless search through an endless library of meaningless books to historical databases is a bit unsettling, though not without merit. In my time as a history major I can attest to the frustration of searching through countless library databases trying to find something of relevance, desperately trying to think of the specific combination of search words that will not bring up hundreds of links to something which only mention your desired topic in passing, or the same search terms being used in an article completely unrelated before shouting at your computer screen “No I did not want to know about French domestic life! I need something on Ottoman Coffee-houses!”, needless to say, the struggle is real.
Cohen proposes to help alleviate some of the problems attributed to trying to find related primary sources and scholarly writings on a specific subject my introducing an API format of searching, similar to the ones that Google and Yahoo both use. Cohen argues the success of this style, however he also notes that it’s not exactly a cost effective approach, stating that Google and Yahoo use it because they are both in the commercial sectors. Though this may be the case, both Cohen and I, as well as perhaps anyone who’s ever used a clunky search engine based Historical database, would say that the benefits far outweigh the costs.