U.S. Intellectual History Blog

History in a “Rarity-Free” World

I came across an interesting essay earlier today [h/t this comment on LGM] that uses the recent passing of radio host Casey Kasem to muse about the death of the “rarity.” In the not terribly distant past, author Rex Sorgatz notes, rare pieces of culture, like the infamous tape of Casey Kasem losing his temper in the middle of a long-distance dedication, were valuable commodities that earned their owners a certain amount of cultural capital. Now, Sorgatz argues,

With access to infinite bytes of media, describing a digital object as ‘rare’ sticks out like a lumbering anachronism….

‘Rare’ is such an quizzical descriptor, a blatant contradiction of the very nature of digital culture. Rarity describes a state of scarcity, and as we enter a proto-post-scarcity economy, digital stuff defies such shortages.

Things are no longer rare; they are either popular or unpopular.

Rarity itself has become very rare.

It’s an interesting notion, and Sorgatz provides examples of a variety of once-rare items that, now digitized, are just a Google-search away. He even notes an interesting evolution in the Simpsons character the Comic Book Guy. In the ‘90s when he was introduced, the Comic Book Guy had access to obscure cultural items unavailable to Bart Simpson and the other shows other characters. Today, Sorgatz argues, he’s reduced to insisting on the superiority of his opinion about things that are available to all the characters on the show.

But while there’s a kernel of truth in Sorgatz’s point about the easy availability of lots of cultural artifacts, on the whole I think he’s actually very wrong. And he’s wrong in a way that is of particular interest to historians.

I’m sure many of us, especially the historians among us, have had the experience of not finding online a text, a video, a film, a piece of music, or some other document for which we’re searching. Sometimes the item in question is simply too obscure for anyone to have bothered digitizing and placing it online. Sometimes, especially for those of us who work on the last ninety years or so, the item is under copyright and so is either not available online or is behind a paywall.   And some documents are actually secret that governments or private organizations actively keep out of public view.

Archives are, among other things, repositories for items that are not yet part of just-a-click-away culture. I’m writing this from Knoxville, Tennessee, where I’m starting four days of research at the Alex Haley Papers, which even have a restriction on them that prohibits photocopying or photographing of documents (this is going to be a very old-fashioned four days of research).

Sorgatz’s sense that everything is available online is, in fact, trivially false.

But Sorgatz’s argument is interesting because it is, in a way, so commonplace. Many people, especially those who’ve grown up with the internet, seem to feel that everything is just a click or two away (especially if one is willing to skirt intellectual property rules).

This sense of the universal availability of everything clashes with a popular notion of what historians are for. The general public, to the extent they think about historians at all, often think of us as detectives of the past, who can uncover information not available to non-historians. In a world in which everyone is presumed to have access to everything, such a task might seem less important.

A few years ago, David Frum wrote a dismissive review of Laura Kalman’s Right Star Rising: A New Politics, 1974-1980 for the New York Times Sunday book review section (where else would David Frum be asked to review a work of history?). Here is the core of Frum’s case against Kalman:

As a work of history about the Ford and Carter years, there is nothing seriously wrong with it. The facts are accurate, the writing is clear and the point of view is not tendentious. Once upon a time, such a book might have been useful to somebody.

But the question it raises — and it’s not a question about this book alone — is: What’s the point of this kind of history in the age of the Internet? Suppose I’m an undergraduate who stumbles for the first time across the phrase “Proposition 13.” I could, if I were minded, walk over to the university library, pull this book from the shelf and flip to the index. Or I could save myself two hours and Google it. I wouldn’t learn more from a Google search than I’d learn in these pages. But I wouldn’t learn a whole lot less either.

Even beyond the fact that everything really isn’t available online, I think both Sorgatz and Frum underestimate the value in what historians actually do, which is not merely gaining access to otherwise inaccessible bits of the past, but also involves knowing enough and thinking carefully enough about that past that we can draw useful conclusions about it. History is not merely about finding and showing stuff, about saying “look at this rare thing that I discovered,” but it is also, more importantly, about understanding the significance of stuff, however rare it is or isn’t.

Our extraordinarily information-and-media-rich environment actually makes this curatorial and critical aspect of historical work all the more important. Even if something can be discovered by Googling it, if people don’t know to look for or how to look for it, they won’t find it (and Google itself is less transparent than it appears…but that’s a discussion for another day).

At any rate, while our supposedly rarity-free world has not rendered historians superfluous, there’s a real danger that non-historians might assume that it has, that they don’t need to read our work because they could always Google it for themselves if the spirit ever moved them.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I was just talking to a friend of mine a few days ago in the library, and we discussed how there are still quite a few older history journals that just aren’t found online. It’s sometimes quite fun (and illuminating) to dig through the footnotes of an older work of history and start looking for those old sources. Not *everything* is online, as you point out. And to the point about the Frum review, even if it was, you need historians to, at least attempt in some way, to make sense of it all.

  2. “Our extraordinarily information-and-media-rich environment actually makes this curatorial and critical aspect of historical work all the more important.”

    Fully agreed. And it’s arguments like this that have been brought forward in favor of humanistic pursuits more broadly these days.

    But, also in journalism. was recently chatting with someone about this very interesting piece on Jason Leopold and FOIA (https://medium.com/matter/the-secret-to-getting-top-secret-secrets-1f693eaf609a). it raises some of the same questions about political reporting today and the attractiveness of putting “primary sources” online. Some such sources are transparent, some are totally opaque and require a great deal of contextualization–that is, as you say, understanding the significance of any given piece of information and then giving it meaning through narration…

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