Scarcity vs. Abundance: Scary Stuff
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?