Roy Rosenzweig’s essay, Scarcity or Abundance, presents digital data as both “fragile” and “promiscuous” – capable of being copied and transmitted endlessly, and yet also likely to be lost, ignored, or deleted. Ownership and copyright are significant barriers to any source aggregating digital data. What’s more, even preserved objects may be lost to degradation in storage media or software and hardware obsolescence. Online archives offer the promise of truly democratic access, but the intermittent mixture of public- and private-sector funding has not been able to achieve anything near a comprehensive database. On the one hand, historians are presented with an abundance of potentially useful data, and on the other, a scarcity of available funding for storage and preservation. Rosenzweig argues that historians must take a much more active role in decision-making over what gets stored; future historians will have enough challenges without large gaps in the historical record.
Historians, broadly speaking, have had a tepid reaction to the shift towards large digital databases. While the prospect of having more potential sources is exciting, many historians worry about valuable information being drowned out in a sea of noise. Still others worry that direct digital access to historical archives will undermine the interpretive role of the historian, enabling people to draw their own conclusions – however informed or uninformed they may be – by looking at objects directly. This controversy touches on a major debate about the relationship between historians and the broader public.
New advances in technology have allowed digital preservation to move beyond pure data storage and retrieval. 3-D scanning allows curators to digitize entire artifacts. This technology has also been used to digitally reconstruct objects from shattered pieces, which is particularly useful if such pieces are too physically delicate to risk manipulating by hand. Harvard’s Semitic museum even used this technology to 3-D print a complete replica of a shattered 3,000-year-old Mesopotamian ceramic sculpture. Though the digitally reconstructed lion sculpture is not the “real” artifact, it offers visitors a real representation of what the completed object looked like. Other visitors might also employ their own 3-D scanning technology to print their own version at home, or even digitally mesh artifacts with each other. Though mobile-based scanning technology is still maturing, it has great future potential for visitor engagement at museums and public history sites.