Digital Formats: the good, the bad, and the ugly

**This blog post highlights a potential digital history project that I will be working on throughout the year and compares four research platforms, examining what I think are the strengths and weaknesses of each platform. I used three digital formats (Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Britannica, Google) and one conventional scholarly source (JSTOR). 

Digital Formats: The good, the bad, the ugly 

Potential Project: Designing and publishing a digital version of an oral history handbook specific to UNC Charlotte students. For my digital history project, I am hoping to create an oral history handbook, made in conjunction with the university library, and the examples will reflect my thesis research on juvenile incarceration in North Carolina. This handbook will be made specifically for UNC Charlotte students and will provide guidelines, templates, examples, and tips on how to create and present oral history projects. In today’s blog post, I am researching the term “juvenile incarceration” across three digital treatments – Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Britannica, and Google – which I then compare to a scholarly source. 

Digital Treatment 1 (Wikipedia): When searching for “juvenile incarceration” in Wikipedia, I received a notice stating The page “Juvenile incarceration” does not exist. You can ask for it to be created, but consider checking the search results below to see whether the topic is already covered. Okay. So that was a bust. Wikipedia then prompted me to explore optional pages such as: 

One of the weaknesses of this page is that it does not exist. Nevertheless, I persisted in my search for information on juvenile incarceration. The suggested Wikipedia article, “Youth Incarceration in the United States,” provided some basic statistics on The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, types of incarceration, trends as of 2000, profiles of youth in custody, criticism of juvenile justice, and the movement to end youth incarceration. This article included 39 references, some of which I was familiar with, such as the “The Whole Pie: The Prison Policy Initiative.” What I found useful from the Wikipedia page were the suggested articles, the references listed, and the “See also” tab at the bottom. If you had a full day to research, Wikipedia could prove a really beneficial source in providing the basic information for a broad topic; a reader would be able to explore different avenues and related topics to see if there was helpful information. This could also be seen as a weakness, since it would take an individual a solid chunk of time to sift through endless “See also” tabs.

Digital Treatment 2 (Encyclopedia Britannica): A search for “juvenile incarceration” in the Encyclopedia Britannica provided me with 650 results. The top five included:

  • Juvenile Justice
  • Juvenile court
  • Home incarceration
  • Juvenile hormone
  • Juvenile delinquent

Since I did not receive a singular or specific article hit while searching “juvenile incarceration” I decided to explore the first page that the Encyclopedia Britannica prompted me to look at.  Written by Donald J. Shoemaker and Gary Jensen, the first article “Juvenile Justice” explained basic knowledge of the juvenile justice system. This article was locked and I was only allowed to see the first 100 words of the article. When I requested to see the rest of the article, I had to enroll in a free 30 day trial. This made it challenging to try and gather information quickly and efficiently from this digital platform. I found the biographical and credential information of the authors useful, as it allowed me explore the authors and see if they had written any other articles that were published online. I thought the first 100 words were well written and provided worthwhile information on (I think this article (if I was able to read it) would prove beneficial in understanding the differences between adult and juvenile criminal act, policies, laws, and procedures). However, this platform did not provide a clear page to the term “juvenile incarceration” and without starting a free trail, I was blocked from accessing information.

Digital Treatment 3 (Google): A Google search for “Juvenile incarceration” first directed me to three suggested scholarly articles, followed by two pages created by the American Civil Liberties Union, a page by the Prison Policy Initiative, the Sentencing Project, and Child Trends. The Prison Policy Initiative was also cited in the Wikipedia article. The American Civil Liberties Union pages provided current statistics on the number of juveniles places either in the juvenile or adult court system and then breaks down juvenile incarceration rates by state. “Youth Confinement” from the Prison Policy Initiative was written by Wendy Sawyer, a Senior Policy Analyst at the PPI. Each of these sources provided relevant and current information and statistics on juvenile incarceration, however, the Prison Policy Initiative provided the most biographical and credential information about the authors.

Conventional Scholarly Source (JSTOR): For my scholarly source, I continued to use the term “juvenile incarceration,” and opted to explore JSTOR. I decided to use the first article that appeared, which was “Juvenile Jails: A Path to the Straight and Narrow or to Hardened Criminality?” written by Randi Hjalmarsson and published in the The Journal of Law & Economics, Vol. 52, No. 4 (November 2009). The author received her PhD in economics from Yale in 2005. Written in APA guide style, this article is well-written for an academic audience and provides three different contributions to the debate on transferring juveniles to criminal courts. Built off empirical data, Hjalmarsson capitalizes “on discontinuities in punishment that arise in Washington State’s juvenile sentencing guidelines to identify the effect of incarceration on the postrelease criminal behavior of juveniles” to form her argument. (Hjalmarsson, 2009, pg. 2) The benefits of using JSTOR (or really any conventional online scholarly source) are that they typically provide direct hits to keywords, they are produced by credited scholars, and provide current (and historical) information on a topic – allowing readers to see the shifts in literature over time. Some of the weakness of this site include the nit-picky way researchers need to input the keywords – if you don’t have an academic background, searching through conventional scholarly sources could prove a time consuming process and frustrating process, as well as the membership JSTOR requires. Most academic institutions provide this, however, if you are not a student or educator, you would need to pay for a JSTOR membership.

Conclusion: Google proved to be the most fruitful digital format when searching for “juvenile incarceration,” however, I realized that my terminology made it difficult to research. The term “juvenile” has been frequently been replaced by “youth,” and I realize I would have received more accurate and easily accessible information if I had been searching for something like “youth incarceration,” “youths in adult prison,” “criminal youth rates by state.” While I thought my search term for “juvenile incarceration” would be broad enough to produce copious page hits through these online platforms, I realize that perhaps it seemed too vague, misinterpreted, or outdated, which is why I struggled to get specific page hits on “juvenile incarceration.” My suggestion for future researchers who are just starting a project would be to start with Google to see if you can find some interesting avenues, then find some key words you can try searching in Encyclopedia Britannica and conventional scholarly sources such as JSTOR. While I think Wikipedia can be used to find helpful references, this digital treatment proved the least useful for me.


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