Online Musings of a Public Historian

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!

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