Born Digital

Natively digital content presents a number of  opportunities and challenges for historians and archivists, and pushes the boundaries of established preservation methods. To begin with, digital archives can have enormous capacity with very little cost or physical footprint, removing what was traditionally one of the major limitations for archivists. Content can be acquired, copied, and transferred almost instantaneously. The open nature of the internet also means that projects can solicit contributions from the general public, though such projects run the risk of being flooded with low-quality or inauthentic submissions (or indeed being ignored entirely). The sheer volume of digital content in existence means that digital historians will need to become very adept at selecting, acquiring, cataloging, and searching through such media; to do otherwise is to risk losing important information to overwhelming background noise. I explored a few online public archives to get a better sense of what such projects look like.

  • The Flickr Commons is a site that aggregates photos submitted by public photo archives, primarily from universities, museums, and libraries. Users can do a general search of image tags, or browse each contributor’s feed and albums. The general quality of metadata is relatively high, although it is much easier to browse by looking through the pre-sorted university albums. It is also easy to accidentally navigate back to the main page of Flickr – I was momentarily confused as to why universities had decided to catalog so many heavily touched-up photos of trains and bridges.
  • The 9/11 Digital Archive is a collection of user-submitted content related to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, including photos, text, audio, video, and other media. Though it contains some direct recordings of the attacks themselves, its main purpose is to be an archive of public memory and emotion; as such, much of the content is personal and expressive. Unfortunately, the metadata is extremely poor, which makes navigating the entire 150,000-item collection next to impossible. In addition, the contributors retain the copyright on all of their submissions, and the site makes clear that it will not provide anyone with a means to contact those contributors.
  • The April 16 Archive is a collection of user-submitted content related to the 2007 Virginia Tech Shooting. Its metadata tags are more extensive than those of the 9/11 Digital Archive, but there is almost no curation whatsoever, and the “collections” folder is completely empty. It is also plagued with technical issues, including missing thumbnails and entire pages of corrupted text. Though it contains many moving stories and images, this lack of organization means that visitors will have difficulty browsing and exploring.
  • The Hurricane Digital Memory Bank is a collection of user-submitted content related Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Despite its age, it is particularly well-organized; tags are consistent and browsing is fairly easy.

One Reply to “Born Digital”

  1. I agree that the April 16th website is especially disorganized. It relates back to your point that historians need to become adept at selecting and organizing digital data. When historians do a poor job at organizing and then make no efforts to maintain their archive, a lot of important information gets lost. Thanks for pointing out that the September 11 website does not allow any contact with the contributors, this is not something that I noticed myself. I can see why this could be a hindrance to researchers who may have questions for these contributors but I also understand why contributors might want to remain relatively private.

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