I have a confession to make.
Reading Roy Rosenzweig’s article “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era” scared me. So much of history is at our finger tips (abundance), yet the inherent challenges in digital media preservation might lead to great losses (scarcity) is a paradox that initially frightened me. (It didn’t help that both my class’s website and the general American University site crashed this week.)
But after some deep breaths, and a chance now to reflect, I think I can sleep safe at night.
If we fail to preserve 100% of the recent past, we won’t be doing worse than our ancestors. In response to Brewster Kahle’s over-optimism on our ability to digitize everything, Rosenzweig points out that we’ve never saved more than a fraction of our cultural memory. And while of course this has led to thousands of historical questions whose answers we’ll never learn, we still have a strong sense of the past. Considering the baseline, improvement in both pure quantity, as well as access and diversity, of resources will improve historical discourse.
On the other hand, the argument that the potential abundance will undermine the historical profession is misplaced. Sure, with so much out there, it’s not going to be feasible for historians to completely master the entire world of knowledge of a certain topic (e.g. Robert Caro and LBJ to use Rosenzweig’s example.) Yet, with so much information out there, the possibilities are nearly endless for different types of interpretation. And yes, some of these “historians” who provide alternate interpretations might be what we’d call “amateurs.” But I agree with Rosenzweig that the democratization of access to historical sources is a good thing. More scholarship can’t hurt!
As for the actual preservation, I wholeheartedly agree that federal institutions can, and should, play a role. That’s why I was glad to see all the efforts of the NDIIPP, especially their top-down approach to instructing the public on how to digitize. But I do think federal institutions like LoC and NARA can take it a step further. If Australia and Scandinavia copyright digital materials only if they’re deposited into national institutions, why can’t the U.S. adopt this policy too? Especially considering the potential instability of commercial depositories like Google, and the Internet Archive, public archives are critical.
In the end, while the potential for calamity is there, I think I’m cautiously optimistic that our historical memory is not in danger due to the scarcity vs. abundance paradox.
What are your thoughts on scarcity vs. abundance?
In his 2011 blog post Going Digital, William J. Turkel described how “Emphasis is shifting from a web of pages to a web of people.” I think his observation certainly is true in 2014, especially when viewed through the lens of Twitter. I use Twitter to get my news, and the beauty of the site is that I can follow who I want, changing my feed as my tastes change. Contrast this with the “web of pages” where I got news on the internet by visiting specific sites, not “following” individuals. What do I mean? Let’s use sports media as an example after the jump.
There was this post. This was the first post.
Hello and welcome to my blog. I’m a Masters student at American University in Washington, D.C., in the Public History program. I’ve created this blog for History 677 “History and New Media,” and have some ideas about what I’ll post outside of my responses to the readings. But the reason I’m excited to start this blog is that I can see it going in many different directions, so who knows what it’ll end up looking like in the weeks, months and years ahead.
A little about myself: I’m originally from Washington, D.C., and a big fan of our sports teams (even when they continually break my heart). I received a BA in History from the University of Pennsylvania in 2010, where I wrote for the school newspaper and was in the Pep Band (Go Quakers!). I wrote my senior honors thesis on Andrew Jackson’s election, and my historical interest is the U.S. from roughly the Revolutionary Period through the Civil War. I currently work at President Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington D.C., a non-profit historic site where Abraham Lincoln spent 1/4 quarter of his Presidency, including the summer and fall of 1862 when he drafted the Emancipation Proclamation. We’re open 362 days a year for tours, so come visit!
Please follow me on twitter @zachhistoryau, and if you have any questions or comments, write me an email at zk9098 AT american dot edu. Let me know if you have any thoughts on the blog.
To paraphrase one of my favorite Presidents (in case there was any doubt), thanks for joining me as I blog about “The mystic chords of memory” that make up our national history.
PS While messing around with some of Word Press’ features, I decide to insert a poll asking about favorite historical eras, plus a few topics. Apologies if my inherent biases as a mostly political historian focused on the U.S. affected the choices. Just wanted to get a broad sense of what people were interested in, so it’s not meant to be exhaustive.