Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Strategies in a Culture of Digital Abundance

Roy Rosenzweig is an influential voice in the emerging field of digital history. His article Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era raises the issue of how to preserve the increasing amount of primary and secondary sources accumulating online, and if successful, how will the practice of history adapt to having an almost complete historical record. The scope of information Rosenzweig presents in his article is quite large, and he discusses a number of very important issues. Over the next few paragraphs I will address some of the themes in Rosenzweig’s article by contextualizing the “abundance” of sources, introducing the ways in which individuals and organization are attempting to manage them, and discussing the issues of ownership and authority that must be re-examined by those working in history-related fields if they wish to preserve and make use of today’s digital culture.

Understanding the abundance of sources is essential if historians are to assist in their preservation and future use. Born-digital and digitized versions of analogue materials are being created at an astronomical rate. According to Lyman and Varian's "How Much Information", in 2002 alone five exabytes of digital information was produced – the equivalent of the contents of the Library of Congress, multiplied 37,000 times.

A number of different groups are working towards the preservation of this overwhelming amount of information, including archivists, librarians, private individuals, governments and corporations, although historians have thus far not been well represented. Preservation attempts have included creating direct print analogues or migration to more easily preserved mediums, however these projects lose the inherent value of the digital medium such as links, hypertextuality and the interactive or experiential aspect. Others have salvaged original equipment to ensure future readability of their documents, but these machines have a limited lifespan. The technical solution of emulation software has also been suggested but currently it is only a theoretical solution. While some believe that a perfect solution of total preservation is possible, it is unlikely that such a solution will be discovered in time to save much of our current digital culture, which is constantly disappearing. Rather, a combination of all of the above must be used to create effective, practical solutions to the preservation of digital culture.

As a result of the rapid growth of digital resources, the issue of ownership must be rethought. Already the source of debate by archivists and librarians, historians must enter the discussion. Private individuals and companies such as The Internet Archive, Microsoft’s Corbis , and several large publishing companies such as the Thompson Company have taken an entrepreneurial approach to digitizing analogue material and preserving/creating born-digital material. While the results of some these projects are freely accessible (as is the case with the Internet Archive through its Wayback Machine, most of the resources are leased to users for a profit. The corporations that control digital versions of analogue material, even those in the public realm, effectively own them as they control their access and use. In turn this has created what some call the “second digital divide”, disenfranchising scholars without access to universities that can afford the licensing fees, as well as high school students and teachers, the general public, and economically underdeveloped organizations in North America and abroad.[1] Ownership by corporations also affects the will and legal ability of libraries and archives from preserving the material. This is worrying, as libraries and archives have traditionally been responsible for the preservation of the historical record, and the corporations, who see digital content as a means of revenue generation, have no long-term preservation plans for the materials and may cease their operations once it is no longer profitable, with potentially devastating results to the contemporary historical record

The idea of authority, traditionally seen as the prerogative of academics, must also be rethought as a result of the current digital age. The widespread availability of sources online is creating greater accessibility of scholarly work to the public (even though much of it is hidden in the deep-web), and is making the work of amateurs and enthusiasts much more prevalent, which serves to erode traditional scholarly authority. Another example of the erosion of traditional authority is Wikipedia, which encourages contributions from everyone. Not only does this new forum not defer to academics, but it enables members of the public to directly challenge academic authority.[2] Authority of documents themselves is also becoming a greater issue. While analogue materials have long been subject to forgery, the ease with which a digital document can be faked is far higher, and it will no doubt take some creative thinking to ensure the continued authority of the historical record, as well as building public and scholars’ trust in the new digital medium. The authority to preserve digital material must also be evaluated. As mentioned above, due to restrictions on use by the companies who control access to the material, the traditional keepers of our shared memory (libraries and archives) can no longer preserve material in their traditional manner. Government departments are typically understaffed and underfunded, and cannot be looked to as standard-bearers. Even the private companies such as the Internet Archives, which uses bots to crawl the web taking snapshots of web pages, are limited in their preservation attempts by the aforementioned gated access and copyright restrictions.

In order to begin actively preserving today’s digital culture cooperation is needed between historians, librarians and archivists; between academics and the private sector; and between academics and non-academics. Many historians have taken the view that preservation is the responsibility of libraries and archives, and have therefore stayed out of the digital preservation dialogue. However, historians will be directly affected by the outcome of current strategizing, and therefore have a responsibility to engage in the debate. Although historians would like to keep everything, whereas librarians and archivists must take a more practical approach based on available resources, the three parties have a common purpose – to ensure the preservation of at least some of our current digital culture. As a united front, historians, librarians and archivists should cooperate with the private sector, which has the potential to be an able collaborative partner through funding, technology, and access to the vast digital collections already assembled. Finally, academics must be ready and willing to cooperate with the non-academic public, because ultimately, the current digital historical record should be preserved not just for academics, but for everyone.

[1] Rosenzweig, " The Road to Xanadu: Public and Private Pathways on the History Web," Journal of American History 88, no. 2 (Sep 2001): 548-579. http://chnm.gmu.edu/essays-on-history-new-media/essays/?essayid=9; Rosenzweig, " Should Historical Scholarship Be Free?" AHA Perspectives (Apr 2005). http://chnm.gmu.edu/essays-on-history-new-media/essays/?essayid=2
[2] Rosenzweig, " Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past," Journal of American History 93, no. 1 (Jun 2006): 117-146.

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