Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in the Digital Era

Roy Rosenzweig begins his article with a discussion of the Bert is Evil website. He uses this story as an example of the changing landscape for preservation because of the expansion of the digital world. In this introduction he poses two quandaries to the reader; first, how are historians and archivists to deal with the fragility of born digital records and second, if all of these digital materials are preserved, how do historians interact with a complete historical record?

Rosenzweig weaves his discussion of these two issues together throughout the body of the article. One important discussion is that there is not a uniform way of archiving digital materials. Many of the examples he provides, such as the Internet Archive, are projects taken on by private individuals to maintain this media. This is a serious problem because the collection of these valuable resources are entirely dependent on one person. There is no back up system if they move on from the project. He adds that historians as a community need to take on the responsibility of this preservation. They need to adapt the way that they convey historical information to specific audiences in the light of the digital age.

Other issues addressed in this article revolve on the difficulty of preserving digital media. a major issue is that the rate of technological evolution makes many media forms obsolete in a short number of years. Where a piece of paper can last for a hundred years with proper preservation, born digital files are often saved on formats that are obsolete within five years. Rosenzweig points out that converting all of this information to new formats to keep up with hardware and software innovations is the equivalent in time and energy of photocopying an entire library every five years.

Beyond these logistical difficulties, born digital materials interact with each other in very different ways than other objects. In making physical copies of these records, one loses the ability to mine these connections for important contextual information. In a similar vein, the anonymity of digital media makes it difficult to ensure the authenticity and ownership of such documents.

Rosenzweig emphasizes that the inherent problems in preserving digital media are compounded by those who are most affected by its preservation. Historians and archivists have traditionally disagreed on what should be preserved. Digital resources are no exception. Further, historians typically do not take an active role in collecting resources for preservation. With the abundance of materials that are created each day, it is important for as many people as possible to take responsibility for preserving these document for future generations.

In this article, Rosenzweig raises a number of important points about preservation in the advent of digital media. What do you see as the most relevant issues for historians and archivists in this age? How do historians deal with the new challenges of interpreting digital media for the historical narrative? How will historical narratives be affected by the abundance of potential sources available?

3 Replies to “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in the Digital Era”

  1. I’ve done a little research on the Internet Archive for another paper that I am working on and there are some interesting issues that come up related to it in the realm of copyright. As many websites, especially those created and maintained by corporations, are held as copyrighted intellectual property, the fact that the Internet Archive works by crawling the Internet and duplicating websites for preservation can raise some questions about the legality of its process.

    While the Internet Archive has generally avoided litigation on the basis of copyright infringement despite copying and making publicly available vast quantities of website content without the consent of its creator(s) and/or owner(s), the database that it has generated can have applications beyond the historical and archival practices that we focus on. In most cases those “public good” uses are what protects the Internet Archive from infringement suits, however, I read an interesting article from the perspective of in-house corporate lawyers that explained how copies of old versions of one company’s website were used against it in a lawsuit over trade secrets. As a result, the company sued the Internet Archive for a host of violations including copyright infringement but the case had not concluded when the article was written.

    The article suggested that perhaps the Internet Archive should require companies to opt-in to their process before any copyrighted material is archived, but this strikes me as an impossible premise. First, even if you could track down someone to make that decision at thousands of individual companies, presumably few would say yes on the off chance their material might be used against them at a later date. Second, as information created specifically for public display on the Internet (communicating a company’s image to potential customers and business partners and distributed freely) rather than copyrighted material marketed as a product (like songs or video, for which duplication theoretically undercuts the earning power of the producer), the preservation of these websites for future study seems like a wholly different issue. Do you think that companies should be able to manage their online content in perpetuity or does the value of archiving this material to document a particular cultural moment warrant an exception?

  2. I think it is important to note that Rosenzweig’s article was published in 2003. I have to imagine that much has changed in these years. It seems as if their is a lot more acceptance now of digital sources by libraries and archives. Going to the LoC’s website quickly shows that they have embraced digitization as a resource. Also think back to the crowd sourcing article, where a institution was even willing to bring in the public in their digitization project.

    At the same time it seems that technological advances and increased processing power have the potential to solve some of the digital formatting issues that Rosenzweig mentions. With the tremendous processing power computers have today, transferring file formats is both possible and can be done quickly for many files.

    I think some of the timeless things that Rosenzweig mentions are what have already been mentioned here, copyright issues and who should be in charge of digitization projects and collecting digital information. This is an issue we keep coming back to in class, and seems to be one of the greatest tensions found in the difficult to regulate internet.

  3. I found this article to be quite insightful as Rosenzweig points out the difficulty historians encounter when dealing with the vast wealth of information from digital archives and sources. Because there is such a vastness of information, historians must realize that their research only makes a small dent in the larger realm of topics covered by digital data.

    Because of this, historians need to be humble and recognize that there is no way they can possibly know all the information on their topics and truly be veritable experts. Rosenzweig gave a good example when he described how it took Robert Caro 26 years to peruse through over 2,000 boxes of Senate documents when writing about Lyndon Johnson before his vice-presidency. Issues like this are becoming more of a problem for researchers as they have neither the time nor the patience to look through such vastness. A humble attitude by historians with the realization that you are only making a small splash into a very large sea would be a welcome addition to the historical field of debates.

    I had no idea how the field of digital sources seems to be in grave flux. I previously thought that if some sources were digitized then they were preserved forever in the archives of technological eternity. Rosenzweig shows not only that this assumption is false but also that debates over privatization and public ownership stoke an already blazing fire. I think Rosenzweig puts it most succinctly when he says that “the greatest enemy of a good plan is the dream of a perfect plan” (11). Instead of trying to save the universe of primary sources in digital archives, perhaps we should open debate about which ones might be more important, insightful, and useful for future historians.

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