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The Golden Ratio by goosecommerce
May 19, 2010, 12:14 am
Filed under: History and Historians, Ivory Towers | Tags: , ,

Or, Φ Upon Lesser Calculations!


If have any interest in the whole Library of Congress / Twitter development, you should go read Dan Cohen’s smart post on the topic:

Cohen’s post is largely about how to apply the key insight from William Press’s work on the efficacy of “strong” profiling to archival practice like the LoC’s acquisition of the Twitchive (Twarchive?). He comes up with what he terms a “calculus of importance” — but what I’m going to call Press-Cohen’s law, cause that’s more internet sciency — for best allotting collection and curation resources:

In other words, if you believe that the notebooks of a known writer are likely to be 100 times more important to future historians and researchers than the blog of a nobody, you should spend 10, not 100, times the resources in preserving those notebooks over the blog. It’s still a considerable gap, but much less than the traditional (authoritarian) model would suggest. The calculus of importance thus implies that libraries and archives should consciously pursue contents such as those in the Cambridge University Library tower, even if they feel it runs counter to common sense.

An perspicuous friend and colleague of mine wondered if a corollary to Press-Cohen’s law would make sense for research, as well as archive compilation. That is, “should a historian spend only 10 times as much effort pursuing the obvious characters and institutions (or historiographies), instead of 100?”

PF&C suggested that “standard disciplinary practice already says yes” — and I would agree, and even go further and say that it is probably worthwhile to make the use of such a ratio explicit (hence the post!).

Going to a known wells and looking from a new perspective needs to be part of our practice, but within limits (you should dig in lots of new places, too). The 100/10 ratio seems a pretty reasonable rule of thumb, in a world of limited time and resources for research.

What think you, yea historians of teh internets?

PS: Isn’t quasi-social science fun?


Image cite: fd, “Golden Spirals,” Flickr, CC License

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