Published on Friday, April 10, 2009
Coping with the deluge of information is a major challenge for students, scholars, librarians and the general public. After all, with thousands of online newspapers, blogs, and academic journals, Google Books digitizing millions of titles, massive amounts of information coming online each day, major innovations in content management, and the ubiquitous impact of e-mail, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other new technologies, we find ourselves awash in petabytes of information of widely varying quality.
While we struggle to accommodate Web 2.0 and all of its implications, however, we are paying too little attention to another reality of our time: that the traditional ways of disseminating knowledge have grown well beyond our capacity to assimilate information. There is scarcely a field of academic inquiry that has not experienced massive growth in the past three decades. Few scholars even attempt to stay current in their broad discipline; most operate, sometimes in a near panic to keep up, in sub-disciplines, if not sub-sub-disciplinary fields. Those in multi-disciplinary or inter-disciplinary areas of inquiry face even more profound challenges.
When I entered the academy in the mid-1970s, it was quite possible to keep up with major developments in my sub-discipline of Canadian history. Each book, even in a distant area of Canada’s past, was worth noting, if not reading, and the handful of academic journals in the field were easily accommodated. Now, the profound growth of scholarly output has made it a formidable challenge to try to stay current, forcing many of us to retreat into narrow fields of inquiry, in my case northern Canadian and Aboriginal history.
Many academics have responded to the challenges by being more focused and, ironically, by reading less than in the past. After all, with professional rewards focused on productivity rather than receptivity, many realize that additional publications are more important career-wise than keeping up with the journal literature and reading the latest academic books, save for those germane to their current research. Now, of course, with online material expanding exponentially, the task of staying current has become that much more difficult.
But before we attribute the intellectual explosion to the Internet and digitization, we need to realize that the scale of academe has grown well past the point of saturation. Consider not the material available through new technologies, but focus instead on the old-knowledge systems: academic journals, books and conferences. The proliferation of journals has proven simply remarkable, providing numerous venues for scholarly dissemination (and producing an unhappy debate about the list of top-tier publications, impact factors, citation numbers and the like). The list of scholarly books grows seemingly exponentially – although the sales of these same volumes have been hit severely by declining library budgets, soaring costs and a flooded market among penurious academics.
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