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?


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About Zach Klitzman

A History Grad student at American University

3 responses to “Scarcity vs. Abundance: Scary Stuff”

  1. sydney rhodes says :

    Zach, I completely agree with you and I am glad that someone said it: I also do not believe that the ability to digitize everything is going to hinder us as historians at all. I am fairly certain that I am capable of deciding whether or not Justin Bieber’s tweets are relevant to my research. While it may be a little scary to have to sort through more documents than normal, it’s not anything that historians aren’t already used to doing.

    I do think that we should start making strides in not only digitizing our records but finding new ways to preserve the actual document itself. Nothing beats finding the original and if we are able to keep the paper documents than the amount of sources available to us on the internet will not seem so scary.

  2. drdankerr says :

    Nice thoughtful post Zach — I agree with you by and large. Scarcity is still a part of the threat and the central paradox even as huge quantities of things are being preserved. Access and control of digital information is another huge question mark future historians will have to grapple with. Nonetheless, cautious optimism is in order. The internet archive capture one of my early community project websites:

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