The Problem of Abundance

The Needle in the Haystack

This week’s readings got me thinking about the overabundance of online source material we have for both historical research and for daily information necessary for keeping up with current events. The amount and variety of information available to students and everyone else in the digital age is overwhelming, and can cause people to simply give up trying to find accurate, unbiased information, as Dan Cohen explains in his article entitled “What We Learned from Studying the News Consumption Habits of College Students.” This in turn relates to Ian Milligan’s chapter, “Learning to See the Past at Scale,” in the book, “Seeing the Past with Computers: Experiments with Augmented Reality and Computer Vision for History.” In his chapter, Milligan describes in detail methods for handling an overabundance of sources on the web, and how to archive them.

While this abundance can be beneficial for students and scholars everywhere, making the need to visit physical libraries often obsolete, and making the research process possible even during a global pandemic, there are clear issues that can and do arise. I personally resonated with Cohen’s article, because I only keep up with the news when I am living with my parents, and consequently my news comes from multiple TV sources. Outside of that, I only get news from talking to other people and Facebook, and maybe my CNN app sometimes. I truly find the time it takes to closely analyze my news sources and consult each one every single day, searching endlessly for reliable information, to be exhausting, especially on top of my graduate school work and other responsibilities. Along with that, the simple amount of information that hits me when I do consult several news sources “paralyzes” me, as Cohen mentions, and often it is so full of negative, dire news that it puts me in a bad state of mind as well. Am I the only graduate student/young professional who feels this way?

I agree with Cohen’s assessment that “A more active stance by librarians, journalists, educators, and others who convey truth-seeking habits is essential.” I agree that, as Cohen says, it is problematic that only 7% of college students have consulted their local librarian today. However, how should these people step up to the plate? What should they be doing more of in order to help with this problem? Cohen claims that students have a lack of “temporal bandwidth,” and are always stuck worrying about the now instead of being able to see the bigger picture, thanks to social media and excess information. How are we to combat this? How do I, as a grad student myself, combat this in my own life? While being informed as a global citizen is important, I have immediate concerns like classes, Covid19, and internships to be concerned with. The more “stuff” that gets piled into our minds to worry about will only make us less capable of remembering information, planning wisely for the future, and doing adequate work. I, and most other students I know, cannot contain both out current worries and concerns, historical worries and concerns, and future ones in our heads, along with everyone else’s current issues, without falling apart. Most working adults should not have to do this either, or cannot do it! I would have liked for Cohen to have provided some possible solutions to the problem he was highlighting in his article, since the way it is written seems to just add one more thing to the plate of worries.

In relation to digital history, the experience of trying to keep up with the news is quite similar. Hunting for historical sources can be hit or miss, depending in your topic, and sometimes, the amount of websites and articles and photos and videos is so overwhelming that an amateur researcher, such as a college or grad student, doesn’t even know where to start or how to narrow themselves down enough to actually learn something from their research and make a contribution to the field of history. Searching through thousands of articles from just one search that you thought was fairly specific takes too much time and energy to waste. endlessly tracing the web for metadata on a photograph that has been used countless times by different people is a tremendous waste of time, especially for those who don’t know about TinEye, a site that helps you find origins of images more easily. Knowing what research question to settle with and follow can be like running on a hamster wheel, and sometimes, it takes forever to find a topic that other people haven’t covered (hence the abundance of historical information available stressing people out in the first place). While digital history and a variety of sources are a gift, I agree that it should be managed properly, but I don’t know how to accomplish that, and apparently, neither did Cohen…

One reply on “The Needle in the Haystack”

I also feel overwhelmed with the choices of news outlets that all have varying degrees of bias depending on the source. The same information can be presented in multiple ways with real or fabricated context to push narrative. It becomes mentally draining to corroborate news information than to simply “read the news”. With the ability to cheaply host websites with no oversight, leads to increasing abundant news sources that do not provide any “real” news at all.

The historical side is also frustrating at times as changes to search engines overtime leads to clear and concise web sources jumbled into a mess of pop-history results of no sources with incorrect information at worst or a copy and paste from Wikipedia. The algorithm tied with marketing data will always top rational organization as it pays to keep Google’s lights on so to speak.

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