Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Alexandria Complex

At the American Historical Association meetings which I'm currently attending I dropped in on a panel discussing whether Google is good for history. Participants at the session identified many problems which Google has yet to redress adequately: the fact that Google’s landing pages don’t disabuse users of what one panelist called “the Alexandria complex” (the hubris to believe that all of the world’s knowledge might be contained in one place), that Google doesn’t clearly identify the limitations and biases that are inherent in online search, and that absent these warnings, Google may breed a level of epistemological trust in users that erodes the healthy skepticism upon which good scholarship depends. By and large I think Brandon Bader, the Googe rep, handled these criticisms gracefully especially in his willingness to acknowledge that he was a little “embarrassed” by the current interface in Google Books. Google might not be as transparent as librarians and academics would like it to be but it’s still playing an important role in democratizing access to knowledge. And while a Google search refracts and bends this knowledge, when used as a complement to other research techniques it’s good for history.

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