Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Assignment #6 part 1: Digitization and Digital Preservation

Photo Credit: Illustration by The New York Times; photograph by Doug Mills/The New York Times
Katie Hafner, "History, Digitized (and Abridged)," New York Times, Your Money, March 10, 2007

In this article, Technology Writer Katie Hafner cautions that "important pieces of history that are at risk of disappearing or being ignored in the digital age," due to not being digitized. On the face of it, this argument appears facile and alarmist. If anything, the general public has a level of access to information and historical resources heretofore unimaginable. Archives and local libraries have always contained buried treasures. Only major institutions ever published finding aids or catalogs as bound volumes. Researchers would have to exercise considerable assiduity in order to determine resources' locations, before having to travel to the site.

Nowadays even small archives are able to summarize or offer selected finding aids over the Internet, making pinpointing locations far simpler. Many major libraries and archives afford researchers the opportunity to order duplications online or over the phone. Granted, it might be more complicated than ordering a book from, but it should be recalled that until recently, only a very select few had the inclination or ability to track down primary historical resources and now that cadre has expanded to include almost everyone.

Gafner highlights a central problem: she quotes Edward L. Ayers, who says,"There's an illusion being created that all the world's knowledge is on the Web..." when in reality, as much as there is available online compared to what used to be the case, it still only constitutes the smallest fraction of the cultural heritage materials in existence. So, effectively the issue is false perception on the part of society.

I am a huge advocate for expanded access, particularly for visual materials such as photographs, but I operate under no misconceptions: there is no way that every last scrap of historical documentation can or should be put on the Internet. From many the many issues at stake, I'll choose two: the false belief that having a digital surrogate of a book or manuscript permanently preserves the object, and the difficulty of providing context [provenance for the archives geeks] to archival materials online.

While these objections are philosophical, I believe that they have important practical ramifications. The fact that historical documents' artifactual value is deeply rooted in their physical existence is lost on some people. The fallacy that digitization = preservation is pernicious. Take this passage from the article for example: "I can't tell you how many people have suggested to us, 'Oh, you just need to digitize all that stuff down in the basement and you'll be all right,' " Ms. Wainwright said." If these materials are lost in the flood, they are lost even if digitized versions preserve the textual information. The visceral connection materials offer to the past simply cannot be substituted by pixels, no matter how high the digitization specs are. Moreover, unless serious advances in digital preservation take place, it is not necessarily the case that the digital copies will outlast the original paper-based records or that access will exist in perpetuity.

The concept of provenance has been central to archival theory since the 18th Century. It relates to the context and origination of materials, as well as the relationship of individual documents to the overall fonds, or group of records, as well as to the archival institution maintaining the records. For photographic materials, especially those without attribution, their place amongst a collection is especially relevant. But with Internet meta-searches or googleimages searching being the primary way in which in which casual researchers look for photographs online, the images are often floating signifiers, entirely divorced from their original groups. They maintain their visual information, but without the benefit of context.

Without a doubt, cultural collective memory benefits from increased online access to materials, but it is important to realize that preservation and access have always been limited by resources, attitudes, taste, and access. To combat haphazard and myopic representations of the past, Archivists and librarians should think collectively and cooperatively about what they digitize. Theories such as Documentation Strategy could be helpful, allowing institutions to band together to best reflect society through which documents are selected for digitization. Keep in mind that when we regard historical materials, we draw conclusions about the past based both on what exists and what does not.

1 comment:

Maria said...

Linking access to digitized materials with access to online finding aids/cataloged materials is a very good point.