“Scarcity or abundance? Preserving the past.”
Super brief summary:
A preservation philosophy: “The greatest enemy of a good plan is the dream of a perfect plan. We have never preserved everything; we need to start preserving something.” (p. 20)
In this article, author Roy Rosenzweig writes about digital preservation, especially the preservation of “born digital” content like webpages. Websites, blogs, and online forums can provide important information about subcultures and events in history, but their impermanent nature makes it difficult for future historians to use them.
How digital preservation could change the history field:
The author also writes about how historians haven’t engaged in debates about digital and technology preservation the way that librarians and archivists have, even though historians potentially have the most to lose if the “history” that is happening online now isn’t preserved. In 1936, archivists that had previously been members of the American Historical Association broke off to form the Society of American Archivists. Rosenzweig also notes that “disintermediation” may be a reason why historians haven’t fully embraced universal digital libraries—the way the profession is now, including the way historians currently do research, would be jeopardized. But Rosenzweig imagines a future in which graduate students of history learn to search digital resources effectively and read outdated formats.
Some challenges to digital preservation:
- · Technology: Technology changes so quickly that it becomes outdated every 5 years or so. Preservation requires “intervention before it is too late to save not just the files but also the original equipment.” (p. 14) Possible solutions: migrating digital files, creating a standard format, emulation
- · Copyright: Publishers typically don’t put much effort into preservation because “there is no obvious profit to be made in ensuring that something wll be available in a hundred years when it is in the public domain and can’t be sold or licensed.” (p. 12) Also, lots of web content doesn’t have clear ownership and is considered “semi-published.”
- · Lack of government support: The National Archives’ electronic records program basically collapsed under the Reagan administration. The government will only provide further funding for the NDIIP, a more recent initiative (2000) if funds can be matched in equal amounts by private funds.
Who preserves what (in general):
- · Research libraries: books, magazine, other published works
- · National Archives and local/state archives: government records
- · Historical societies and special collections: records and papers from businesses, organizations, individuals of note
- · Collectors: postcards, journals, ephemera
- · AHA: American Historical Association
- · SAA: Society of American Archivists
- · EAD: Encoded Archival Description
- · OAIS: Open Archival Information Systems
- · NHPRC: National Historical Publications and Record Commission
- · NDIIP: National Digital Information Infrastructure Program
- · POP: persistent object preservation
- · Disintermediation: elimination of intermediaries a la Ebay: only buyers and sellers.
- · Pitt Project: an early (1993-1996) research effort funded by the NHPRC. Focused on archiving “records” instead of raw data. Had a narrow, though professional, view of record keeping.
- · IA: Internet Archive: another early (1996) archival project started by Brewster Kahle that gathered snapshots of webpages using Internet “crawlers.” Public access available in 2002 called “the Wayback Machine.”
Roy Rosenzweig, "Scarcity or abundance? Preserving the past," American Historical Review 108:3 (2003), 735-762.