- Burn This Book?
It seems a bit soon to suggest that readers burn this first page in a new series that will look at the history of medicine and the Internet. But as the discussion in these occasional columns progresses, I do hope that readers will begin to see resources in medical history, and in information in general, in a different light. What is the “unit of knowledge” in scholarship? Must it fall between two covers? Some have no doubt of it. Others have begun to see knowledge as a larger, organic entity, with elusive borders. I hope the shift in perception that inevitably accompanies the study of history on the Internet will encompass both groups: those “turned on” in recent years to the resources offered by the Internet, and those seducible by these occasional overtures to the Internet’s remarkable and innovative features.
Bulletin readers wishing simply to “cut to the chase” should skip to the section below called “Where to Start.” Others will, I hope, tarry to sample some tidbits intended for both new “netizens” and even a few of my fellow zealots. Future columns will concentrate on the most rapidly burgeoning segment of the Net, what many of the Bulletin’s readers will instantly recognize as the “Web.”
Two developments prompt this emphasis. First, scholars’ use of the Internet revolves around two core sets of applications: electronic mail (“e-mail”), and the hypertext-laden, complexly linked World Bank of textual and graphical information known as the World Wide Web (usually [End Page 112] abbreviated as the “Web,” WWW, or W3). 1 Both e-mail and the Web respond to our wish to meet our intellectual desires with ever greater dispatch. They also resonate with some of our other deepest needs: to communicate with others, and to sate our appetites for all sorts of information—always as expeditiously as possible.
E-mail is ubiquitous and relatively straightforward. The price of admission is not high: e-mail is readily available to most scholars with networked or dial-up access to either an academic computer network or one of the several “pay per view” networks such as America Online. By contrast, as these words are written (late summer 1996), my informal survey indicates that more members of the American Association for the History of Medicine use the electronic mailbox regularly than use the World Wide Web. The Web is much more technologically demanding than e-mail; to use the Web, it helps to be connected through a network, although a growing number of Internet service providers now offer adequate dial-up access. Moreover, the Web is pocked with pitfalls. For example, most Web users have come across the “orphaned URL” (Uniform Resource Locator): attempting to locate a source known to be “out there”—let’s say the Osler Library—the reader encounters only a terse error message, “URL Not Found.” 2 Because Web publishing is, in 1996–97, still in its buccaneering early days, this scenario occurs fairly frequently. It usually reflects the physical relocation of a website. Although considerate “webmasters” (those in charge of maintaining websites) provide transitional links to new sites, the reader often has to exercise ingenuity to find the source’s new location.
Despite such problems, the Web continues to expand. It is this second development that prompts my concentrating on the Web: the enormous social impact of this expansion, since 1994–95, whose effects continue unabated today. I’m confident this impact will be even more obvious by the time this column appears in 1997: an example, if there ever was one, of the lag between traditional “cold” media (these words) and “hot” media (our subject). The Web, for better or worse, has brought epochal changes in domains as disparate as higher education, health care, and humanities research. For those who need access to library-based and other forms of information it has dramatically leveled the field, providing remote access to resources no matter where users are located, and with little or no delay or penalty imposed by distance from major centers. [End Page 113]
Such changes owe to the Web’s presence as the most graphical, fastest-growing, and most...