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American Quarterly 58.3 (2006) 943-980

Digital Junction
Debra DeRuyver
Jennifer Evans


Ten years ago, Randy Bass, project director for the American Studies Crossroads Project ( asked, "What will we be looking at when the World Wide Web is invisible?"—invisibility referring to the way that a technology has of disappearing once it becomes a ubiquitous part of our lives. 1 He predicted in his essay that by 2006 the Web would, in fact, be invisible and that "'primary materials' will comprise a significant answer to the question." While the digitization of primary sources has largely been under the purview of commercial enterprises or our neighbors in the information sciences, American studies professionals and our digital humanities compatriots have been actively involved in placing some primary sources online. Carl Smith, for example, professor of English and American studies at Northwestern University teamed up with the Chicago Historical Society and Northwestern's Academic Technologies to digitize sources and create (in 1996) The Great Chicago Fire and The Web of Memory (, one of the best of the early online exhibitions/essays/archives. Graduate students, perhaps more familiar with the new technology, have also been involved in memorable projects. See, for example, Kelly Quinn's Learning from Langston Terrace (, which contains digitized primary sources and some historical background on this 1930s racially segregated New Deal housing project. But, as both of the aforementioned projects illustrate, putting primary sources online is not enough. As Bass continues in his answer, "the real power of these materials will not come from sheer access to primary resources, but the connections that can be made across them and the visibility of the process of the work being done on them."

While much has been written on teaching with technology and the need to instruct students in the use of online archives and primary source materials, 2 the "connections that can be made across" primary sources and the "visibility of the process of the work being done on them" in our own scholarship has [End Page 943] not kept up with the pace at which primary sources are being digitized and made available. One of the reasons for this, as Jerome McGann points out, is that "we're illiterate." 3 As scholars, most of us do not know how to use "any of the languages we need to understand how to operate with our proliferating digital technologies—not even elementary markup languages." Furthermore, he points out, our illiteracy places us on the margins of discussions and decisions that are being made every day with regard to the digital transformation of our cultural heritage—the primary sources that are of vital interest to us as scholars and educators.

Some Web sites we traversed for this article were designed, or utilized particular technologies, to help foster connections. With great difficulty, for example, one can overlay a printed 1907 Sanborn Fire Insurance map and current street map to see the changes, but in digital form this is easily accomplished. Without expensive audiovisual equipment and prohibitive technical skills, one cannot create one's own "folk songs" by remixing and overlaying a range of sounds taken from New York's Lower East Side, but on Folk Songs for the Five Points (, one can easily experiment and, in so doing, not only create something new but also develop a greater understanding, appreciation, and connection to the material through the process.

But, we were disappointed to realize that for the vast majority of online primary sources, the information professionals involved in the project have not made the simplest of connections—a hyperlink between two Web pages—available to their users. For example, we ran across a photographer whose photographs were held in a collection in Louisiana and at the Library of Congress (LOC). The Louisiana site mentioned that the bulk of the photographer's work was at LOC, but did not provide a link to the scanned images LOC had online, while LOC...


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