Monday, March 24, 2014

The Danger of Googling Yourself

During the spring semester of 1979 at the University of Charleston, I took a class entitled “History of the American City.” It was taught by a history professor whom I respected by the name of Dr. Eugene Harper. This wasn’t the typical college class where you would simply show up at the classroom and sit through a lecture—it turned out that “History of the American City” required us to get out and explore the city. I remember Dr. Harper getting one of the long vans used by the athletic department and taking the class for a tour of Charleston, with special emphasis on the unique architecture of the historic East End district.

Speaking of architecture, I remember that this class required two different books, and one of them was a nice paperback that explained architectural terms and styles. Before I took this class I didn’t know the difference between Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian columns. I might have thought that an eyelid dormer was a medical condition! I certainly didn’t know the difference between Neo-Classical, Richardsonian Romanesque, French Second Empire, and other styles of architecture.

I also remember that Dr. Harper required us to go across the river to the West Virginia Cultural Center, where we had to use the State Archives library to access Charleston city directories (not phone books, but a directory of people and businesses for every street within the city) from the late 1800s. I can’t remember exactly what we were researching, but I remember that what I originally thought was a boring assignment ended up being interesting to see the different old businesses (e.g., blacksmith shops) listed on downtown Charleston streets. I probably muttered to myself when this was first assigned (especially since I didn’t have a car on campus and had to rely on friends to get over to the Cultural Center), but I soon realized that it let us see the evolution of the city.

Perhaps the biggest assignment for this class was that Dr. Harper expected every student to complete a nomination form to get a building put on the National Register of Historic Places. That was an unusual expectation for college students of that day. This wasn’t just a stodgy research paper—it was an actual government form for something tangible. He expected us to do a task that adults with real jobs perform!

Most of my fellow classmates chose to do their nomination on a building within the greater Charleston area. However, I decided to do mine on a building in my hometown of Parkersburg that had been very important to me—the Carnegie Library. It was a grand old building with extensive woodwork inside, a bronze-railed spiral staircase, thick glass floors in the back area (children were nervous to walk on them), a stained glass window of Andrew Carnegie, and two huge stone lions guarding the entrance.

My mother started taking my sister and me to the local library before we started school, and the books I checked out from there provided a strong basis for my academic career. I was always interested in non-fiction, and loved reading biographies. I also enjoyed history and science books—I can still remember reading a book that explained the basic controls used to fly a helicopter, and in a pinch, I still think I could fly one if needed. The love of books that the Carnegie Library cultivated in me is still paying dividends today.

In the mid-70s, a city-county collaboration resulted in a new library getting built, and the future of the smaller, older Carnegie Library was in question. Over spring break while in Parkersburg, I interviewed the doctor who had purchased the building at a public auction. The information from that interview at his home provided the basis for my nomination form. I dutifully turned in my form to Dr. Harper and finished the class, thinking that “History of the American City” was destined to be merely one small line of many on the transcript of my personal academic history. It was over and soon to be forgotten.

However, I recently discovered that my “paper” for this class has not been forgotten. In the late ‘70s, no one could have visualized the emergence of the Internet, and how so much information is available from the “world wide web” with merely a few keystrokes. One day I decided to Google my name to see where I might be mentioned. To my amazement, I found out that I am mentioned in a footnote of a Wikipedia page for the Carnegie Library in Parkersburg.

Apparently, Dr. Harper had shared the nomination forms his class had filled out with the state historical authorities whom he knew well. The date on the nomination form is from August, which would not be part of the spring semester. I can’t remember if Dr. Harper had asked me to submit the form again, or if a secretary at the State Archives might have converted my handwritten form into a formal typed document during the summer. Regardless, the West Virginia Division of Culture and History's State Historic Preservation Office has posted all nomination forms for the National Register of Historic Places on-line, and mine got referenced in Wikipedia.

I never dreamed that I would be confronted with one of my school assignments 35 years later! To make it worse, I’m not the only one who can see my work—anyone with a connection to the Internet can view the assignment I completed for that class. Had I known that this paper was going to be on display for the whole world to see, I definitely would have put a lot more time and effort into it! As I look back on it now, it is somewhat embarrassing (especially given the high expectations I place on the students in the classes I teach). However, perhaps this story will serve as a lesson to students everywhere to always put forth your best efforts, because you never know who, how, and when your assignment might come back to haunt you!

Oh, and one more reaction to Googling oneself—I wish I knew the name of the student who gave me the mediocre marks on a site called!

I didn’t take this old picture of the Carnegie Library,
but it accompanies my nomination form.

No comments:

Post a Comment