One Man’s “Offline Penumbra” is Another Man’s Treasure

Patrick Leary begins his article, “Googling the Victorians,” with a short vignette about a man and a painting.

Michael Gorman grew up with a portrait of a Victorian lady in his home. He knew a few details about her from family lore; she was his great-great-great-grandmother, she had died in 1910, and she was a poet. It was only when Gorman googled her name, Letitia Elizabeth Landon, that he discovered the extent of his ancestor’s fame. And it was only when he contacted Victorian scholars that they discovered the existence of Landon’s children. Her extramarital relationship remained a secret for 170 years.

I connected with the story because of my own family heirloom. My ancestors were dairy farmers in Wisconsin and Illinois–as far as I know, there are no famous poets in my family tree–but that does not mean that I treasure my only  photograph of my great-grandparents any less.

Lewis wedding Josie Dahl and John Lewis 1915

My Great-Grandparent’s Wedding Photograph–Caption Handwritten by my Grandpa Vern Lewis

Leary uses his vignette  as an entry-point to discuss how the internet has changed scholarly research. Texts are now searchable and interconnected; scholars can quickly Google obscure references that once took days or weeks of library research to comprehend.Leary argues that, “the universe of searchable nineteenth-century electronic print sources has begun to expand at a rapidly accelerating pace.” And he sees an inherent threat in that expansion.

“The time is near upon us when whatever is not online will simply cease to exist as far as anyone but specialists is concerned, a condition I have come to think of as the offline penumbra.”

Leary’s article was written in 2005, and it is possible that he overestimated the rapid expansion of online sources judging from a few of the sources that he mentions in the article.  The Library of Congress’s Nineteenth Century in Print project is no  longer being updated. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has expanded to 59,003 biographies, however, this database was inaccessible to me from my home computer. It is quite possible that online access to nineteenth century texts has actually decreased rather than increased since 2005. However, that does not negate Leary’s worry that offline content will be overlooked.

I kept expecting Leary to return to the story of the man and his portrait. However, while Leary stresses the use of the internet to facilitate connections, he fails to acknowledge that in this case, it was the “offline penumbra” that made the connection. Without a tangible link to the past, Micheal Gorman would never have googled his famous ancestor.

Leary argues that the  abundance of online content risks making “offline penumbra” irrelevant. However, his example confirms the continuing importance of the offline in a digital age.

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One thought on “One Man’s “Offline Penumbra” is Another Man’s Treasure

  1. drdankerr says:

    Great point! It resonates with the arguments that Nancy Proctor made last week. I love the photo of your Great Grandparents. My cousin has taken to E-bay to gather all kinds of interesting family memorabilia that has for some reason been collected and preserved by non-family members over the years. It is amazing the connections that can be made over the collection of offline penumbra through online searches.

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