Wednesday, October 21, 2009

From academic obscurity to digital discovery

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
October 21, 2009


The authors spent untold sleepless nights fueled by coffee and a combination of dread and expectation. Surrounded by stacks of dog-eared books, armed with a thick yellow Hi-Liter, the culmination of years of study is expressed in the composition of a thesis.

Or, as it is often known, a Damned Thesis.

Once completed, this intellectual masterwork is professionally hard bound, carefully assigned a library designation, and promptly ignored.

Neglected by fellow academics and forgotten by all save one’s own closest kin, the vast majority of these papers exist in the purgatorial semidarkness of dusty library shelves.

All that is about to change.

The University of British Columbia is embarking on an ambitious project to make available online all the master’s theses and doctoral dissertations ever accepted by the school.

We’re talking 33,500 titles (many of them convoluted, relying heavily on the use of the colon). On completion, some five million pages of (often dense) text will be posted.

That’s a lot of footnotes.

“You never know what is going to be of interest to someone somewhere somehow down the road,” said university archivist Christopher Hives.

Since the fall of 2007, post-graduate students have been able to file their theses and dissertations electronically, a process Mr. Hives compares with filing income tax online. One assumes it is about as easy to access — and about as painful to prepare.

The next step was to also place online all the papers filed earlier.

“It would be nice,” the archivist says, “to give these guys the same exposure.”

In the past, a researcher had to look up the author, or subject, in a catalogue, then read through the document on microfiche, an unpleasant, headache-inducing experience limited, somewhat blessedly, to library hours.

Soon, all the papers can be searched from the comfort of your home at any time of the day on any day of the year. A university’s entire scholarly output in its history available after a few keystrokes.

“Discovery becomes easy,” Mr. Hives said.

The UBC Retrospective Theses Digitization Project began with submissions from 1992. The reason? Those papers, stored in the basement of Library Processing Centre, had not been bound, making it easy to feed them into the digitization machine. Turns out to have been a serendipitous decision, as the library has to abandon the building at the end of the year to make way for the relocation of the school of population and public health.

The first 100 graduate theses have also been placed online.

Six of the first 10 degrees were issued to women, beginning with a master’s awarded in 1919 to Ruth Fulton for A study of the estimation of iron and the separation of maganese from iron by phenyl-nitroso-hydroxylamine ammonium (cupferron). It is somewhat less of a gripping read than Isobel Harvey’s Dickens and De Morgan, or Edna Napier’s Joseph Conrad’s women, or Hazel Wilband’s Thackeray, a study.

Among the notable figures included in the first hundred are future university president Walter Gage and future Order of Canada honouree Evelyn (Story) Lett.

Some of the older papers are of topics so esoteric as to be laughable. Others are surprisingly relevant.

Helen Mathews earned a master’s in bacteriology in 1926 for Transfer of infection by handshakes. She wrote the paper just a few years after millions died in the Spanish influenza pandemic, noting “handshaking seems even more important in the transference of disease than the use of a common towel.” Yecch. Lesson: Wash your hands.

Undoubtedly, someone someday will write a thesis about the archive’s theses project.

The archives earlier digitized 60,000 pages of campus publications, from starchy official news bulletins to the puerile student newspaper.

When Christiane Job researched a kinesiology thesis on sports pioneer Ruth Wilson, she supplemented her hands-on research of scrapbooks and yearbooks by doing a quick word search through back issues of the Ubyssey student newspaper. Using a database was so easy it almost felt like cheating. She found material in the electronic archives that even with the patience of Job she would otherwise have missed had she had to rely solely on flipping through the yellowed pages of bound volumes.

Among the papers to be placed online will be a 1985 theses on Business Archives: Historical developments and future prospects by a certain university archivist.

What a wondrous age.

Meanwhile, after rifling through the dissertation titles yesterday afternoon, the impulse to revive my own forlorn academic career inspired a thesis of my own.

For a pregraduate degree in procrastination, please accept the submission, Envisioning the Breadline: A Socio-Biographical Study in the Circumstances and Consequences of Missing Deadline.

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