You are here

Stories from the Digital Age

Harvard Library Strategic Conversations organized "Reality Matters" to explore use of primary materials.

April 23, 2013—In the digital age, some professors might grumble that students today don’t even know how to read a newspaper. Jill Lepore, David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History, Harvard College Professor and Chair of the History and Literature Program, knows that they’re right.

Lepore shared her story during “Reality Matters,” organized by Harvard Library Strategic Conservations, which explored the use of items from the wealth of Harvard’s library and museum collections, and the benefits and challenges of both tactile and digital versions for teaching and learning.

Lepore, who teaches a course on the 1800 presidential election between Adams and Jefferson, coordinated a field trip a few years back to Houghton Library, so that her students could read actual newspapers from that hard-fought political campaign. After a session with a curator on handling the materials, Lepore said, her students approached a table of original newspapers…and froze in place, leaving them untouched.

For a few minutes, Lepore was puzzled by their non-response. Then she finally asked whether any of them had actually ever picked up or handled a physical, printed newspaper.

Not a single one of them had.

“I’ve really struggled with the implications of a generational gap between me and my students, wherein their principal encounter with many different kinds of information has only ever been digital,” Lepore said.

Realizing that she had to find a way to connect students with printed materials, Lepore turned to a seemingly obsolete form of technology: the photocopier. Distributing a giant, four-page replica of an ancient Boston newspaper to her audience, she invited attendees to spend a few minutes engaging with the material. Heads quickly bent before white monoliths of text, and the room echoed with the soft rustle of turned pages.

For Lepore, this additional step allows students to physically connect with the way in which news was produced in an age that is beginning to end. Indeed, for her students, it’s already past. Her plea, she said, was to recognize that the form of the newspaper had its own benefits as a practice of reading.

“The digital paper divide allows us to think historically in a wholly new and exciting way,” she said, but “we’re not just talking about technological changes, we’re talking about changing practices of reading.”

In closing, Lepore said that her solution could only last for so long, as photocopiers are surely on the way to becoming obsolete and being phased out of use entirely. “They’re not going to be around forever,” she said. “There aren’t going to be photocopiers in our department forever, right?”

The experience prompted Lepore to join with Leah Price, Professor of English, to develop a course called “How to Read a Book,” in which students read books that focus on reading, such as Fahrenheit 451. In the class, students were asked to take notes using a variety of note-taking devices: making their own clay tablets, using ink and quills, and even typewriters.

“Students really learned from that, and we learned a lot from it,” she said, noting that the students found taking notes on clay tablets was surprisingly challenging.