Online Musings of a Public Historian

Archive for January, 2014

Preserving the Digital


Today, the amount of information available online is astonishing.  Social media networks allow anyone who uses them (which, arguably, a significant amount of the population does) to leave a digital record of themselves through online photo albums, sharing internal thoughts, feelings, and beliefs in text posts, and conversations between one another – both public and private.  Research databases such as those offered by JSTOR and the Library of Congress allow users easy access to scholarly articles and primary sources alike, thanks to the transference of physical items, papers, and photographs to a digital medium through scanning and the like.  In fact, one could argue, that this ability to transform the physical into the digital is itself a significant innovation in terms of preserving historic material.

But how do we go about preserving this digital historic material?

In his essay, “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era,” Roy Rosenzweig addresses precisely this question.  Asserting that with the digital boom of recent decades historians have, in a way, fallen victim to the misconception “that we have [reached] a golden age of preservation in which everything of importance was saved,” Rosenzweig highlights the significant absence of any substantial tool or methodology for the preservation of online materials. Urging historians not to take a backseat to the proceedings concerning the development of more advanced digital preservation, Rosenzweig sounds a call to action of sorts for those in the field to take on the “social, economic, legal, and organizational” hazards that come along with digital documents, particularly in issues of authenticity and ownership.

Written in 2003, Rosenzweig’s article is, admittedly, a bit dated.  However, simply looking at the vast changes within the digital world over the course of the past decade serves to reinforce his primary points.  As these rapid technological changes take place, how can a single system of preservation for digital materials be developed and employed? Have we made any progress since the time of Rosenzweig’s writing? What more can we do? How do you think the digital sphere is going to look a decade from now?

As a postscript of sorts, the Bert is Evil website lamented by Rosenzweig for its deletion from the digital world following the 9/11 attacks appears today to be alive and well on the web. Additionally, it seems to now have a sister site, Barby is Bad, chronicling the nefarious deeds of another American children’s icon, the Barbie doll.  While I am unsure if these sites were created by the initial Bert is Evil web designer, I still encourage you to check them out — they are pretty entertaining!

Defining Digital History & Some Thoughts on Interactivity

When it comes to navigating my way through the digital world, I tend to fall squarely in the “technologically challenged” category.  Sure, I have a basic understanding of search engines, research databases, and some social media platforms (although I’m still struggling to learn the ropes with this whole Twitter thing). Give me anything more complex than a Facebook page or JSTOR search, however, and I am utterly lost.  As such, I’m hoping my experience in the History and New Media class will help to combat this ineptitude, in addition to broadening my understanding of digital history as a practice.

To do this, however, we’re going to have start with the basics:

What, exactly, IS “Digital History?”

In The Journal of American History’s “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History,” William G. Thomas defines digital history as “an approach to examining and representing the past that works with the new communication technologies of the computer, the Internet network, and software systems.”  He goes on to describe digital history as serving two functions, one as “an open arena of scholarly production and communication,” and the other as “a methodological approach…to create a framework…through the technology for people to experience, read, and follow.”

This emphasis on the interactive value of digital history is reinforced in Roy Rosenzweig and Dan Cohen’s online handbook, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web. In their introduction, “Promises and Perils of Digital History,” Cohen and Rosenzweig highlight interactivity as one of digital history’s “additive advantages,” enabling multiple forms of historical dialogue to occur all at once.

Such a high level of interactivity, while undoubtedly useful in the collaboration on and production of scholarly material on the web, does not come without its pitfalls.  In their discussion of the “perils” associated with digital history, Cohen and Rosenzweig warn that what may be originally intended as a two-way medium through which users can connect with the experiences of others runs the risk of becoming a one-way channel. In so doing, a feature initially meant to be interactive can instead devolve into a passive state, “only permit[ting] us to experience more of ourselves.”

With this in mind, what can we as historians do to combat this risk of passivity? Is it inevitable? How can we enrich the interactive experiences of ourselves and others?

Certainly, interactivity is not the only key feature of digital history.  There are several other defining characteristics to be aware of, such as the capacity, accessibility, and diversity of available tools and technologies.  Similarly, there also exist a number of disadvantages associated with the practice in addition to that of passivity.  These include issues of quality/authenticity, readability, and inaccessibility.

Does the good of digital history outweigh the bad? (I like to think so!) Do you think, like some of the authors in the JAH discussion mention, that some of these disadvantages may eventually disappear with the advent of new technologies?


Hello Everybody!

Welcome to my new blog, created to correspond with AU’s History and New Media course.  The posts in this space will respond to assigned readings and reflect on course discussions throughout the course of this semester. 

Looking forward to learning more about practicing public history in the digital world as I build this blog and engage with others!

Thanks for stopping by!