What to save and how?

Lisa Spiro’s article really demonstrates how digital history has a lot of promise, but it’s still in the early experimental stages.  Everybody seems to think digital is good, and will be helpful, but there’s no consensus on how so.  What is the full potential of digitalization for history?  Will we ever know?  Can we?

The report of the American Council for Learned Societies brings up some good information on what it calls “cyberinfrastructure.”  If done right, digital can be much superior to the old ways of finding things- but nobody is sure what “done right” means.  At the Digital History Conference at Yale (see below), many complained about what was lost with digitalization.  For example, some even thought the list of due dates for a library book was important to know (it’s a part of the book’s history); yet that is lost with digitalization.  Maybe in the future, even stuff like that can somehow be saved in the cyberinfrastructure.

After reading Anderson, I see how the internet can host so many new types of sources; and after reading Cohen, I see how difficult it will be to save all that stuff, and then somehow be able to find it.  But then there is the larger question of what is worth saving from all those new, “democratically” made sources.

The Rosenzweig article was particularly good, though ironically none of the images were working in the link.  The author brings up the point of how easy it is to delete digital sources, such as the Bert is Evil photos.  Yet he ignores the equally large point of how easy it is to insert things.  In the same manner that Soviets could delete enemies and traitors from photos, the image of Bert can be easily added to a photo of Bin Laden.  Now, it might be funny to us, but remember that the foreigner mentioned in the article had no idea who Bert was, and so innocently used the picture.  What will happen in the far future, when historians lacking our cultural context look at joke pictures that might somehow be saved?  A future historian, with as much knowledge of Sesame Street as that foreigner, may stress for hours over a picture of Bin Laden next to a puppet.  And think of the countless amount of similar material found across the internet- not all of that will disappear.  I guess this ultimately brings us back to the question of what is worth saving, and in what context to be made useful.

Links:

American Council for Learned Societies: http://www.acls.org/uploadedFiles/Publications/Programs/Our_Cultural_Commonwealth.pdf

Lisa Spiro: http://digitalscholarship.wordpress.com/2008/08/11/doing-digital-scholarship-presentation-at-digital-humanities-2008/

Dan Cohen: http://www.dlib.org/dlib/march06/cohen/03cohen.html

Roy Rosenzweig: http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ahr/108.3/rosenzweig.html

Chris Anderson: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.10/tail.html

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