Thursday, October 27, 2011

Feast or Famine

"Historians need to be thinking simultaneously about how to research, write, and teach in a world of unheard-of historical abundance and how to avoid a future of record scarcity."     
~Roy Rosenzweig

As an historian, I am often uncomfortable with the idea of discussing the problems of the future, or contemplating possible solutions.  I would much rather discuss and interpret the past, and allow others to work out the challenges of the future and fill me in on the results later.  However, with classes such as Digital History and Understanding Archives: The Management of Primary Sources in the Digital Age I am being forced a bit outside my comfort zone.  I must also admit, after being bombarded with figures about how much information is being digitally produced and how technology is changing so quickly that information is being lost, I mostly want to bury my dead in the sand and hope that people smarter than I figure this thing out.

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But, as with anything frightening, the more you learn about it, the less power it holds over you.  So after more reading, while the problem may still seem overwhelming - and I might still not be able to predict any solutions, at least I feel capable of discussing the issues (while occasionally interjecting my opinions.)

One of the things that has struck me while learning about digital sources, present and future, is the dichotomy that exists within these problems.  For example, technology now allows us to store vast amounts of data in very small forms, such as flash drives.  However, technology is also changing so quickly that it is easy for things to become unusable in a very short amount of time.  So the same technology that makes it easy to store things, may make it harder to read them.  I recall as an undergrad writing a paper on my old desktop computer.  As Murphy's Law predicted, something happened to my computer and I could not retrieve my work.  However, I was in luck!  I had save my work on a 3 1/2" floppy disk.  I do not even want to begin to tell you how difficult it was to find another computer that still had a floppy drive.  What had once been the standard storage format was now woefully out of date.

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Naturally when considering this problem, my simple solution was to continuously update storage mediums to a contemporary format.  That was until I gave some consideration as to how much work that would be for a constantly growing archive of information.  The rate at which institutions - governments for example - produce documents, it would be incredibly challenging to stay on top of a task such as that.  Next I considered always keeping the old hardware and software around to read old storage formats.  However, as Ross King points out in his Introduction to Digital Preservation, maintaining that old hardware relies on having technology to keep those machines going.  As my example points out - machines fail and without someone producing replacement parts, they can be hard to maintain.

Computer scientist Jeff Rothenberg favours the idea of "emulation," which is to emulate obsolete systems on future, unknown systems, so that a digital document's original software can be run in the future despite being obsolete.  When I read this is sounded like a great idea, but not being a computer scientist, I had no idea how it would work.  Unfortunately, as Roy Rosenzweig mentions, critics of emulation are quick to point out it is still in the theory stage.  I think Rosenzweig's most important point is that we need to stop looking for the "Holy Grail" cure-all solution, and institutions need to start implementing a solution that works best for them.

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My knee-jerk reaction is always to declare "Save everything!"  Until I realize that we have never saved everything, and yet there is still impressive historical scholarship.  Rosenzweig put it most succinctly when he said, "we have never preserved everything; we need to start preserving something."  This is what made me feel empowered to possibly be part of the solution, and not just someone ignoring the problem.  I don't have to come up with some amazing technological (and practical) solution to the digital dilemma.  If I stay involved in the discussion, even as someone just digesting information, I can implement solutions within my own sphere of influence in the future - be it a museum, archive, or academic institution.

Combined with the technical issues of digital preservation, historians are also facing the problem of doing research in a world where people are more concerned about privacy than ever.  Both the United States and Canada have privacy laws that control what kind of information is collected, kept, and released about citizens.  There was a recent controversy in Canada over making the long form of the census voluntary and all the information that would be lost for future historians as a result.  People are more protective of their personal information in the digital age, yet they are still willing to put a lot of it out there on Facebook and Twitter.  These online spaces might be a goldmine for social historians in the future - if they can still be accessed.

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It is hard to imagine how historians will use digital information in the future, especially with potentially limitless amounts of information.  However, today people are studying history in ways that wouldn't have been expected one hundred or even fifty years ago.  Perhaps blogs will become the new diary when it comes to historical research.  Or maybe trends in Google searches will be vital in studying popular culture.  There are always going to be people that want to fit the new medium into the old way of doing things, but with a new medium will come new methods.  Just as we shouldn't use "technology for the sake of technology" - there is no reason to do things the way they have always been done, just because it's the way it has always been done.

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