For one of my classes this semester we’ve been reading Stylish Academic Writing by Helen Sword. The goal of the class is to help PhD students learn about the value of research, with a particular focus on accessible research that makes a significant difference in a particular community and (hopefully) the world. Too often valuable research results are packaged up in dry containers, that are generally unaccessible to other members of the field, and all the smart people and interested people outside of the academic community. We’re reading Sword’s book to learn some techniques for helping make this happen.

For this week’s class we were asked to select a piece of “stylish academic writing” and briefly discuss what we liked about it.

In a way I’m cheating. Many consider The New Yorker to be the epitome of stylish writing, and its pages are no stranger to academia. So selecting an article from there seems like an easy win, right? Well, yes – but the trick (for me) was finding something that was actually relevant to my interest in researching Web archives. Fortunately, I knew about [Jill Lepore]’s article The Cobweb already, and it was a natural fit since I had already done a bit of blogging writing in response to her article.

Jill Lepore is a professor of American history at Harvard University. She has written about the need to bridge the gap between academic writing and the larger world of publishing and the Web. So she clearly cultivates accessibility and compelling narrative in her own writing. But I really didn’t know about her work before running across The Cobweb, which was circulating around in the discussion of nerdy folks I follow on Twitter who are interested in Web archives.

One of the most notable things about The New Yorker is its iconic use of cartoons. They immediately drag you in, if you are draggable, and this one worked on me:

Ok, an image isn’t really writing, and this one was created by an artist named Harry Campbell, not Lepore herself. But presentation matters, and collaboration matters even more. Another thing that matters for engagement is a good title. Cobweb is a near perfect title since it references the World Wide Web with an metaphor of disrepair or inattention – all in one word. Nicely played Lepore.

However, there are lots and lots of other artfully crafted words. The thing I really admire in this piece is Lepore’s ability to discuss a fairly mundane technical topic (the preservation of Web content) in terms that are both immediately accessible, while also making the topic relevant to a completely different non-technical domain, the field of history.

The footnote, a landmark in the history of civilization, took centuries to invent and to spread. It has taken mere years nearly to destroy. A footnote used to say, “Here is how I know this and where I found it.” A footnote that’s a link says, “Here is what I used to know and where I once found it, but chances are it’s not there anymore.” It doesn’t matter whether footnotes are your stock-in-trade. Everybody’s in a pinch. Citing a Web page as the source for something you know—using a URL as evidence—is ubiquitous. Many people find themselves doing it three or four times before breakfast and five times more before lunch. What happens when your evidence vanishes by dinnertime?

This paragraph is a great example of Lepore in action. The evidence vanishing by dinnertime references a just previous discussion about how a post to a Russian social-media site by a Ukrainian separatist leader was deleted two hours later. The post included video of a plane being shot down, which was believed to be a Ukrainian transport plane…but turned out to be Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

This paragraph connects the practice of history and the mechanics of the simple footnote to things we do everyday, and which I am doing in this post – linking to things on the Web in order to cite them. The whimsical and ordinary use of lunch and dinnertime in the description juxtaposed with the tragedy of the 283 people who were killed when this plane was shot down works to highlight this discontinuity between the ephemeral nature of the Web and the work of the historian.

Here’s another paragraph that I particularly liked, and which I was trying to recall recently (I’m putting it on the Web here so I can hopefully remember next time):

The Web dwells in a never-ending present. It is—elementally—ethereal, ephemeral, unstable, and unreliable. Sometimes when you try to visit a Web page what you see is an error message: “Page Not Found.” This is known as “link rot,” and it’s a drag, but it’s better than the alternative. More often, you see an updated Web page; most likely the original has been overwritten.

I think the first sentence is one of the best and shortest description of the peculiar medium of the Web I’ve ever read. Lepore is able to balance what often appears to be a fatal flaw in the technology of the Web with its real strengths: immediacy and currency.

This post wasn’t meant to be a complete review of Cobweb but just to highlight a few things I really like about it for class. There’s a lot more good stuff in there, so be sure to check it out if you are interested in the Web and history. Maybe I’ll add more over time as I inevitably return to reading Cobweb in the future…as long as is still there. I guess there’s always the print copy somewhere if they forget to renew their DNS registration, or the whole Internet goes up in flames due to a world energy crisis and cyberwarfare. Maybe?