The Ugly Truth About Preservation

Is Bert Evil?  And, Should We Care?

There once was a website called Bert Is Evil.  It no longer exists.  Is it important that it no longer exists?  Perhaps it becomes important when we realize that it disappeared after September 11.  The image of Bert was inserted to an anti-America image and the creator of Bert Is Evil was threatened with legal action, so he deleted the site.  But, if you want it is still possible to see what Bert Is Evil looked like.  This is because of Internet Archive, a private organization that tries to archive the Internet.  This is a noble goal but one organization cannot do such work alone.  In his article Scarcity of Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era, Roy Rosenzweig writes about issues dealing with digital and physical preservation, the issues with each, and the relationship between historians and archivists.

The idea that the Internet should be preserved is catching on and people are wondering who is going to do it and how it is going to be done.  When this article was written, 2003, the government was not preserving the digital world, or records created digitally.  The National Archives does not require that digital record be kept digitally.  Rosenzweig then makes the point that even if digital record preserved the technology that they are preserved with may not be readable five years later.  It is not that the technology has deteriorated it is that it is now outdated. Rosenzweig states: “well before most digital media degrade, they are likely to become unreadable because of changes in hardware…or software.” While I am not always on the digital bandwagon the Internet has changed everything and it is time to conquer the problem of preservation.

But what will happen once the Internet is being archived faithfully?  It is very possible that once this happens there will be amazing amounts of primary source material available. No longer will historians be able to complain about not having enough information, they will be complaining about having too much information.  What will the world come to when historians have a plethora of information?  My sarcasm aside Rosenzweig’s point is a good one.  What will happen when scholars have too many sources, have too much information, have too many places to look?  While not having enough information can be frustrating at least a topic can be narrow and have focus.  This possibility could be a reality but only if society starts preserving all of the digital material being created right now.  Just preserving these records though is not the end it is merely the beginning of a process.

The Archivist and the Historian Should be Friends

What I found most interesting in the Rosenzweig’s article was his dissection of the relationship between archivists and historians.  After reading Nicholson Baker’s book Double Fold I had some idea of the disagreement between historians and archivist, and yes I am a bit biased on the side of keep everything.  After reading Rosenzweig’s article I think the relationship between the groups is better explained.  Historians want to save everything while archivist have to figure out how to store everything that gets preserved, not the easiest job.  What comes through the last part of the article is about the different directions that historians and archivists approach the topic of preservation.  Rosenzweig makes the point that both parties will have to change their attitudes before they have another conversation about preservation again, but he is adamant that both groups need to talk about how to preserve the past and how to preserve digital records as well.

Rosenzweig makes the point that in the beginning the historian and the archivist were friends.  They were part of the same professional organization, the AHA, when “historians saw themselves as having a responsibility for preserving as well as researching the past.”  Now perhaps this is a bit strong but the divide between being a historian and an archivist has become great.  To go by this strong characterization historians want to save everything while archivist have to figure out how to store everything that gets preserved.  What comes through the last part of the article is about the different directions that historians and archivists approach the topic of preservation.  Rosenzweig makes the point that both parties will have to change their attitudes before they have another conversation about preservation again, but he is adamant that both groups need to talk about how to preserve the past and how to preserve digital records as well.

Scarcity or Abundance is a valuable article for better understanding the complexities of preservation digital or otherwise.  The Internet has changed the way that documents are created and preservation of physical documents has never been easy.  How history is being preserved is important and it is equally important that historians and archivist understand what needs to be, should be, and is being preserved.