Suzanne Fields

Luddites of the world, awake. Pixels have been working magic while you've slept. Pixels have not replaced the word, but preserved it in a different form. Scanned books are not burned books. Digitized information has opened learning to a new generation of readers.

Having been dragged, kicking and screaming, into the interactive world of digital megadata, I've been persuaded that pixels, those tiny dots that make up the digital image, are not the most subversives things to come down the information highway since moveable type replaced the monks who inscribed ancient texts. Like everything else in the digital world, electronic postings can be good or ill, harnessed to expand knowledge or reduce critical thought. It's up to us (as it always is).

I was surprised to find an ally in Bruce Cole, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). He has written 14 books, most of them about the Italian Renaissance, and as we talked over a vitello tonnato salad in a small Italian restaurant near his office just off Pennsylvania Ave., he explained how the NEH has opened a digital humanities initiative aimed at understanding how digital technologies deepen understanding of the humanities.

He's not talking about copyrighted material or the book publishers' lawsuit against Google for scanning whole books. He wants to encourage grants for developing tools to explore the vast resources available in the humanities for scholars, students and ordinary citizens. He cites, for example, the NEH project that will make all of Walt Whitman's archive accessible online. He's enthusiastic about a project with the intriguing title of "The Valley of the Shadow," a "hypermedia archive" at the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Technology, which weaves together thousands of sources relating to two communities -- one southern, one northern -- before, during and after the Civil War. The humanities endowment is collaborating with the National Science Foundation to document endangered languages, preserving them digitally: "They are really the DNA of civilization."

Mr. Cole compares this to the human genome project. He describes the digital newspaper project, a collaborative effort with the Library of Congress, which will eventually include historically significant newspapers from every state and territory between 1836 and 1922. Not just the articles, but the advertisements as well, telling the history and describing the economy and sociology of the time.


Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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