Digital Preservation

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.



4 Replies to “Digital Preservation”

  1. I like your point about the controversy of the relationship between historians and the public. This is a valid concern when discussing the presentation of history with any medium. I think that historians should not fear using this newer technology because the public might misinterpret the information or take the place of the historian. People misinterpret information even if it is presented in a monograph. I think that making history more accessible is a good thing overall.

  2. I like that you discuss the overabundance of information, which I see as an important discussion that is slowly beginning to pick up steam. With theoretically unlimited storage space and funding to preserve everything digitally, how much of that material will ever be put to use? In the past collection of materials for preservation has been methodical, in that those materials which are deemed important for future generations are those which are preserved. It makes the job of a historians more manageable. However, it is also a powerful tool for the suppression of narratives people don’t want told, and there are reasons why James Madison’s papers remain and not scores of small farmers, industrial workers, people of color or women some the same era. Preserving EVERYTHING makes drowning out these narratives more difficult, as someone who has a stake in presenting their argument and correcting the historical record can dig deep and find the sources they need, but makes finding any cohesive narrative among the wealth of information more difficult in general.

  3. Your point about the danger of public audiences to use these newly available sources to make problematic conclusions about the past is very interesting. I agree that historians should worry about losing their primary voice in interpretations of the past. However, in this post you bring up an observation about large-scale digitization of historical sources that may actually pose a response to this problem you identified, as you discuss the complications of doing historical research with these expanding archives. Of course, people can still be selective and choose that support their preconceived arguments but maybe this mass digitization and digital preservation also to a degree makes the public more reliant on the work and training of a historian.

  4. Also, picking up on the thread about the relationship between the historian and the public, I’ve always felt that Chomsky had the best notion of the “public intellectual.” His ideas on this point are a bit scattered throughout a lot of his writings and interviews, but if you piece his ideas about anti-authoritarianism and Cartesian common sense together, you get a very different kind of public scholarship from the Gramscian “organic intellectual,” for example. I’ve tried to apply this as best I could to my own archive project, where I try to provide my audience with the tools they need to exercise their own intelligence and come to their own conclusions without me imposing myself as an authority on the topic. Of course, the danger that people will bring foregone conclusions and use information irresponsibly are always there. But I still think this is a better model than asking audiences to accept our authority as historians. We still have an important role to play, but I don’t think that means doing the interpretation for our audience. There’s a lot more to say about what Chomsky meant and how he used political economy, but maybe another time.

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