Vol 6|No 3|November-December|1996
Disneyfication of History -- NetWorth . . . Hotbot Top Forty -- Librarians Leading
The Disneyfication of History:
Why Books, Libraries
by Jamie McKenzie"We live in a world where there is more and more information,
and less and less meaning."
Simulacra and Simulation, 1981
If history is the unembellished, factual reporting of events in our past, there is considerable risk that new information sources, technologies, marketing forces and media empires may insulate us from history and replace it with what Baudrillard (and the Bible) have called simulacra.
With some exceptions (such as publicly funded sites - the Census, NASA, etc.), the Internet offers information which is currently popular, trendy, fashionable and cool. Search for something as central to our national experience as Thanksgiving and you are unlikely to find much more than recipes and tourist attractions.
We are often left wondering "Where's the turkey?"
If we do find any turkey, it is likely to be a large, colorful cartoon character dancing about with cartoon Pilgrims and early Americans to the cheerful music of show tunes. What we face with the current move toward popularly generated and entertainment molded information sources is the Disneyfication of history . . . a phrase which has been popping up with frequency as various novels and stories have been converted into Disney productions.
Looking ahead to the Thanksgiving holiday and knowing that schools often devote considerable attention to its observance (or study), I began to collect Thanksgiving sites in mid October to post on the Bellingham Schools' home page where they would be readily accessible.
This quest took me far more hours than I would have ever predicted to find sites worth visiting. As I searched. I kept wondering how a thirteen year old student would feel if given the same assignment?
The Information Harvest was not a rich and rewarding one.
There was no Information Feast.
I found the Information Crop so slim and meager that I almost dropped the idea of offering a list. Perhaps there was something wrong with the planting? Did we forget the obligatory fish in the soil along with the kernels of corn?
When employing search engines, I found that the leading players in the Thanksgiving story, people like Squanto and Miles Standish, had no real Internet presence. They were "virtually forgotten."
When looking for information on the Wampanoag tribe, for example. I found dozens of articles about recent efforts to build casinos but very little about the history of the tribe.
Go Look at the resulting list, if you wish. Judge for yourself the value - the depth, the comprehensiveness and the reliability - of these sources when compared to a good library collection.
Check out this list of Thanksgiving related books at the Fort Leavenworth Children's Library for example. My findings after investing more than ten hours in this search . . .
In this case, Plymouth offers us "America's Homepage", a "living" museum and offers an extensive Web site.
America's Homepage advertises:
"Coming to Plymouth? Organize your trip with a FREE "Vacation Planner"!"
America's Homepage site gives you history along with much tourism. It bills itself as the "Official Tourguide, Historical Reference and Community Business Exchange for Plymouth, MA and the surrounding area. Produced in Cooperation with Destination Plymouth , The Plymouth Area Chamber of Commerce."
MarketPlace Plymouth ©
Plymouth Area Events List
Getting to Plymouth
Another Web site with substantial information about Thanksgiving, the Mayflower Web Page, is offered by an individual who is passionate about genealogy . . .
As often the case with Web sites offered by "patrons," the author tells us about himself but does not mention academic credentials:
"The author of this web page, Caleb Johnson, is a member of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants with documented descent from Mayflower passengers John Alden (3-lines); William, Alice, and Priscilla Mullins (3-lines); Myles Standish; Henry Samson; George Soule; Edward Doty; and Richard Warren. He is also a member of the Alden Kindred of America."
[Note (9/25/97) - Since the original version of this article, Mr. Johnson has added information about academic credentials.]
Why should we care?
Some of the information on this site is what we social scientists and historians (see my resume for credentials) would call "primary source material." Diaries, list of passengers, etc. may be relatively reliable when posted on a site maintained by an individual who posts no credentials. But how do we know? It is hard enough to know when a person has formal training and credentials.
To the author's credit, he does offer a page about his research sources, but he is silent on the issue of credentials and training.
This issue becomes problematic when a Web author begins to explain his or her personal view of history to our young people.
Many sections of this site are the author's personal comments and observations about history written with the same authoritative tone we associate with textbooks and scholarly works.
He argues, for example, that the Pilgrims' clothing differed dramatically from popular images . . .
"Clothing of the Pilgrims: Did you know that the Pilgrims never wore buckles, and their clothing was usually not black? Did you know that Pilgrim boys wore dresses? And blue was a color often worn by girls?"
The author provides a list of books at the end as sources, but he does not provide footnotes specifying the pages and location of his evidence.
Why does this matter?
Compare his claims with the photographs of Plymouth Plantation, the "living museum." Which of these sources is projecting an accurate history?
In Mr. Nelson's section debunking Myths about the Pilgrims, he dismisses charges that the Mayflower passengers mistreated the Native Americans, failing to mention some of the information which other sites provide about the Pilgrims taking the Native American corn and digging up and taking things from grave sites. His version of history comes into conflict with others.
Perhaps those with strong family loyalties can be forgiven for offering Web sites which offer a sanitized version of their family's past, but children seeking the truth about the Pilgrims may find the Web a challenge. At the same time, a quick glance at the fiction and historical accounts resident in the typical school library may not release us from concern. Many of these same sources have offered more myth than history, with information distorted in ways which play down the slave-trading of the English and their aggressive actions. Many are old and out-of-date.
"The Indian and Metis peoples of North America are being annihilated by that Assassin of Culture, The Disney Empire. Through shameless sentimentality they have reduced a real people to an icon. They have trivialized a people's religion. They have distorted history to fit a formula story line. To them, an Indian may be a Wild Savage or a Noble Savage, but not a person. "What they did to Arabs with Aladdin, ecology with the Lion King, an ancient and profound myth with Beauty and The Beast, Afro-Americans with Song of the South, they are doing to Aboriginal people with Pocahontas.
"David McCullough, president of the Society of American Historians, has begun a campaign to prevent the Walt Disney Co. from building a Civil War theme park near Manassas Battlefield in Virginia.
"At a press conference, McCullough charged Disney with mounting a "blitzkrieg," a "sacrilege" that would create "synthetic history by destroying real history."
The Contest for Public Culture in America Since the Sixties
NCSS Statement on Global Education
NCSS Curriculum Guidelines Teaching for Change A Catalog of Resources for K-12 Anti-racist, Multicultural Education Going beyond the traditional "heroes and holidays" from The Network of Educators on the Americas (NECA).
What may make the information available on the Web worse than the information in textbooks and school libraries is the lack of investment in Web information sites by professional writers, publishers and historians. This lack of investment combined with dominance by marketing forces and entertainment empires turns history into spectacle.
It is quite possible that we have substituted simulacra for history.
Perhaps Web History is Virtual History.
Several issues back (September, 1996) I pretended to be Socrates searching the Web with HotBot to find out how well my reputation had survived after several thousand years. I compared my number of hits with those of Bill Gates and Madonna.
I found 28,650 matches searching for the name: Socrates. But when I looked for Bill Gates, it returned 49,982 matches. Searching for the name: Madonna, HotBot returned 57,633 matches.
This experience made me wonder just who the Web cares about and covers? Who gets noticed? Who is well covered?
I gathered a list of thinkers and artists and writers and politicians and religious figures each of whom might deserve some attention.
Some were the mighty and the famous.
Others were smart and important but not necessarily well known.
Wanting to balance gender, I borrowed heavily from a book published in 1985, Notebooks of the Mind, by Vera John-Steiner (University of New Mexico Press ISBN 0-8263-0828-7) which looked at 100 thinkers, a list which was half male and half female.
I was curious to see whether little known thinkers of the 1980s would find their way onto the Web.
In the next few issues I will be sharing my findings in stages. This issue I am reporting the HotBot Top Forty and considering the meaning of these "big hitters."
Figure - Category - Number of Hits
Download the full database of more than 150 people (ASCI text file).
The amount of attention devoted to a particular individual like Socrates, Bill Gates or OJ Simpson seems to be more a function of their notoriety and celebrity than their importance to society, their contributions to knowledge, or their good works.
The coverage of an idea, a topic or an issue seems to be shaped more by fashion and fad than significance.
The Net is an information source driven by the winds of consumer preferences and trends. Popular wins out over profound.
Net Worth is measured in the currency of publicists, public relations managers, marketing gurus and pundits.
We have a new "Hit Parade" - a new "Top Forty" - a HotBot list of Web figures whose names appear on the most pages, whose personae command the most attention, the most bandwidth and the most HTML code.
But Net Worth is not that simple, either. Each time a pattern emerges, it is soon broken by one or more anomalies.
George Washington, Socrates and Thomas Jefferson rank right up there with Madona, Bill Clinton and Bill Gates.
Top of the list? God and Jesus. Go figure!
There are many surprises . . .
Madonna (ranked 5th) has nearly three times as many pages as the nearest celebrity competitor (Michael Jordan), and she beats out Gates (6th), Jefferson (7th), Socrates (8th), and Kennedy (9th). She's in the same league with Clinton and George Washington, but all three are eclipsed by Jesus Christ and God, both of whom have far more Web pages than anybody.
There are so many surprises and variations in patterns that it is very difficult to identify any rules which might predict with certainty which types of people would attract the most attention. The following common sensical hypotheses are quickly disproven by the data:
As with the case of best-selling novels and work of non-fiction, unfortunately, there is no close relationship between the number of hits and the quality of information provided for an individual. What we have is a measure of popularity.
In the next issue of From Now On, we will extend the analysis by evaluating the quality of the top 20 "hits" scored for the Top 40 by several search engines.
Dramatic changes in the information landscape like those explored above suggest that library media specialists must shift their roles in ways that bring them to the leading edge of these changes. Those who accept the challenges and the opportunities accompanying new technologies will find themselves more important to their clients than ever before.
At the same time, we must recognize that the claims regarding the imminent replacement of school libraries by electronic resources is probably a long way off. We will need shelves with hard copy books for quite a few years to come as the new resources are still too unreliable and unsubstantial to support serious inquiry.
We will also need school librarians more than ever before as the challenge of exploring the new information landscape becomes more demanding. Media specialists with information savvy will be prime players in post modem schools.
Kentucky has made a clear commitment to this vision . . .
Schools which view the library media center as an integral part of the instructional program, with all the resources necessary to influence student achievement, increase their opportunity for success. With a new emphasis on skills which enable students to access and synthesize information available in both print and electronic media, the role of the library media center and the library media specialist take on new importance to the success of the entire school.
From Online II - Essentials of a Model Library Media Program (Kentucky Department of Education, April, 1995)
In many school districts, classrooms connect to each other in LANs (local area networks) which allow students to access information housed in the school library media center without leaving their classrooms. Mammoth fileservers (now replacing CD-ROM towers) deliver encyclopedias, periodicals and immense databases without a visit to the library.
Some districts develop WANs (wide area networks) linking all the classrooms and information centers of all schools, supporting communication and transfer of data throughout the district. With dial-in access, students and staff communicate over bulletin boards and electronic mail systems 24 hours daily.
The district connects its WAN with a regional network, thereby gaining access to students, educators and information far and wide. As part of this link, the district connects with the Internet, permitting a "pipe-line" directly from classroom PCs to information which is "real time."
The PC in the classroom and the PC at home become Information ATMs in such districts. Students, parents and staff have access to information which is as convenient as the automated tellers provided by banks.
In some parts of the country, school leaders have used the new systems as an excuse to eliminate library positions. In others, library media specialist have augmented their leadership roles by embracing, directing and modifying the new systems while guiding the rest of the staff forward into new terrain.
With abundant and redundant information resources, the primary challenge is showing children and teaching staff how to navigate through oceans of data purposefully and how to find that information which will cast light on the question being studied. The media specialist becomes an expert in teaching information searching skills - hyper-navigating.
For now, large group instruction in such hyper-navigating optimally occurs in library media centers. An entire 3rd grade class can sit in the library with their teacher to learn the use of an electronic encyclopedia, for example. The library media specialist demonstrates effective searching and provides staff development at the same time - with the ultimate goal of equipping teachers to provide similar guidance remotely.
Enterprising media specialists learn to navigate the Internet before anybody else in the school, knowing that they can then provide guidance to both students and staff as they tackle this often frustrating information source. The specialist identifies worthwhile sites which save clients from time-wasting and meandering. The specialist shares these lists, incorporates them as "hotlists" within search software and helps construct "virtual museums" on the World Wide Web which include pointers to excellent sources.
As clients struggle with new information technologies, media specialists show information users how they might best access, assess and filter data and information. King (1993) sees them showing users how to "handle overload, judge quality, identify needs and apply information."
With all of the attention currently being devoted to whole language and integrated curriculum at the elementary level, media specialists can support the development of such learning experiences by helping staff and students to identify and evaluate literature and reading which is worth their time. Several publishers now offer information products that support thematic word searches which produce carefully targeted reading lists along with recent book reviews. The media specialist who offers such information mediating support to a team of curriculum planners is modeling the kinds information skills we hope students will acquire.
Now that IT (Information Technology) - the design of information delivery systems and supporting hardware - is a field of increasing importance and interest to schools, many media specialists are coming to think of themselves as Infotects - the designers of information systems.
The proliferation of LANs and WANs demands that someone in each school other than engineers and technicians, someone with an intimate knowledge of student learning, supervises the installation and development of such systems to meet student and staff needs.
The question is not as simple as connecting all classrooms and information systems. An educator also needs to ask what information services might best reside upon such networks with what kinds of access? Which encyclopedia will serve all 45 classrooms? Should it be multi-media or text-based? How many users can access the Internet at a time? Need there be any scheduling? How do systems choices influence student learning?
With so much information shifting to electronic and digital formats, the media specialist must now act as the guardian of artifacts such as pictures, objects, old manuscripts, taped interviews of local figures and many other items which deserve multi-sensory study - touching, smelling, tasting, etc.
While the quality of many electronic artifacts is excellent, the media specialist guides the school through conscious choices which take into account the strengths and weaknesses of various media. There will be times when a videodisk rendering of a painting may surpass a print, but there will be other times when the printed version is superior.
As schools begin to fill with "virtual" experiences, the media specialist helps students and staff maintain contact with that which is real and authentic. At the same time, the specialist may act as a leader in the development of virtual museums which provide students with a rich collection of electronic artifacts.
Even while embracing worthwhile changes, we must preserve the best of our traditional roles. The time-honored tradition of introducing students to literature with book talks and dramatized readings deserves protection. So does the careful matching-making of individual students with delightful books. Library media specialists who decide to serve as trail-blazers and pioneers, leading their school's charge into the Age of Information, will find their roles strengthened and enhanced if they seek the right blend of traditional with new.
King, H. (1993) Walls around the electronic library, The Electronic Library , Vol. 11, No. 3, June, 1993, pp. 165-174. Medford, NJ.
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