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Building a New Widener

By Pierpaolo Barbieri

In the fall term of 1897, a young man in precarious health enrolled in an experimental psychology course with Professor Hugo Münsterberg. Although the contents of those lectures and discussions are forever lost in a sea of memories, we know the student, Robert Frost, would later call it his “greatest inspiration.” Now, technology provides us the technical means to preserve those life-changing classes offered at Harvard. Forever.

In our University, just like in contemporary American society, media is everywhere. It is a safe bet that every undergraduate has at least a class or section in a room equipped with a projector, speakers, and a media hub, in addition to any laptops, plasma TVs, and increasingly, personal media players like the video iPod or Microsoft’s Origami project.

However, our Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) has displayed a shocking lack of long-term vision in its treatment of media information on campus; instead of the current policy of junking information—or failing to record it in the first place—FAS should follow Google’s steps and digitally preserve this incredibly valuable information. Although books have historically been the best way to store knowledge, they are by no means the only means, and FAS should take full advantage of the potential of digitalized media. After all, discussions and lectures by our professors are at least as important as our courses’ reading lists.

To the benefit of many students’ schedules, podcasts and class lecture videos are now available for a growing number of classes. From Bits to Ec10, students can go beyond classmate notes and get a real taste of the real thing. Nevertheless, after the classes are done, the videos are usually deleted to save server storage and reduce costs. At best, the decision is left to the professor of the course. Moreover, filmed classes, due to fear of students not attending and the cost of filming, are still the exception rather than the rule.

This haphazard and erratic media storage should change; we should create a server with Harvard Professors’ lectures saved for posterity, a 21st century Widener. Rather than deleting them and restricting access, FAS should keep media information (primarily videos of classes) permanently, thus providing future generations with live images of our current faculty.

Admittedly, the cost of recording and storing these videos would be high. But it can be managed. According to FAS Assistant Dean Robert G. Doyle, three different steps are needed get a class online: preparation, recording, and editing. Considering all human capital, virtual storage, and technical cost, a one-hour lecture costs around 75 dollars. At this point in time, it seems prohibitively expensive to record all classes; nevertheless, we can still do better than the status quo. Until costs become small enough to record everything, we should rely on CUE guide ratings and even departmental discretion to choose the best courses to be preserved.

Despite the fact that FAS is already emulating the American federal government in its growing deficit, preserving the available videos today and promoting more filming in the future would show a commitment to the long-term benefits of education and to our breathtaking faculty. Moreover, this will only become more possible with time. When FAS acquired its first terabyte server in 1997, it cost over a million dollars. Today, prototype laptops have that capacity. Although recording and storage will undoubtably become cheaper over time, there is no time to lose. Had we started before, philosophy students could open video players with Robert Nozick and John Rawls and gauge their ideas in real time.

Upon arrival at Harvard, I was told that I would leave this place wishing that I could have taken more classes. Creating a database of class videos, the “new Widener,” would benefit both undergrads on campus and alumni all over the world. It could even open lucrative new revenue streams—possibly even subsidizing the program itself—if we sell access to the database a la iTunes. Regardless of the means chosen, the ends would be to create a parallel endowment not measured in dollars in foreign investment funds, but in our professors’ wealth of knowledge. And we might even be able to trace our next Frost’s inspiration right to the source: that early Tuesday morning lecture by Münsterberg that rocked his world. But the diverging roads between preservation and oblivion require a fast and brave decision from FAS. We have to start now.

Pierpaolo Barbieri ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Thayer Hall.

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