Session 510: Digital History and Digital Collections (aka, a fan letter for Roy and Dan)

There were lots of interesting ideas in the talks given by Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig during their SAA session Archives Seminar: Possibilities and Problems of Digital History and Digital Collections (session 510).

Two big ideas were discussed: the first about historians and their relationship to internet archiving and the second about using the internet to create collections around significant events. These are not the same thing.

In his article Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era, Roy talks extensively about the dual challenges of loosing information as it disappears from the net before being archived and the future challenge to historians faced with a nearly complete historical record. This assumes we get the internet archiving thing right in the first place. It assumes those in power let the multitude of voices be heard. It assumes corporately sponsored sites providing free services for posting content survive, are archived and do the right thing when it comes to preventing censorship.

The Who Built America CD-ROM, released in 1993 and bundled with Apple computers for K-12 educational use, covered the history of America from 1876 and 1914. It came under fire in the Wall Street Journal for including discussions of homosexuality, birth control and abortion. Fast forward to now when schools use filtering software to prevent ‘inappropriate’ material from being viewed by students – in much the same way as Google China uses to filter search results. He shared with us the contrast of the search results from Google Images for ‘Tiananmen square’ vs the search results from Google Images China for ‘Tiananmen square’. Something so simple makes you appreciate the freedoms we often forget here in the US.

It makes me look again at the DOPA (Deleting Online Predators Act) legislation recently passed by the House of Representatives. In the ALA’s analysis of DOPA, they point out all the basics as to why DOPA is a rotten idea. Cool Cat Teacher Blog has a great point by point analysis of What’s Wrong with DOPA. There are many more rants about this all over the net – and I don’t feel the need to add my voice to that throng – but I can’t get it out of my head that DOPA’s being signed into law would be a huge step BACK for freedom of speech and learning and internet innovation in the USA. How crazy is it that at the same time that we are fighting to get enough funding for our archivists, librarians and teachers – we should also have to fight initiatives such as this that would not only make their jobs harder but also siphon away some of those precious resources in order to enforce DOPA?

In the category of good things for historians and educators is the great progress of open source projects of all sorts. When I say Open Source I don’t just mean software – but also the collection and communication of knowledge and experience in many forms. Wikipedia and YouTube are not just fun experiments – but sources of real information. I can only imagine the sorts of insights a researcher might glean from the specific clips of TV shows selected and arranged as music videos by TV show fans (to see what I am talking about, take a look at some of the video’s returned from a search on gilmore girls music video – or the name of your favorite pop TV characters). I would even venture to say that YouTube has found a way to provide a method of responding to TV, perhaps starting down a path away from TV as the ultimate passive one way experience.

Roy talked about ‘Open Sources’ being the ultimate goal – and gave a final plug to fight to increase budgets of institutions that are funding important projects.

Dan’s part of the session addressed that second big idea I listed – using the internet to document major events. He presented an overview of the work of ECHO: Exploring and Collecting History Online. ECHO had been in existence for a year at the time of 9/11 and used 9/11 as a test case for their research to that point. The Hurricane Digital Memory Bank is another project launched by ECHO to document stories of Katrina, Rita and Wilma.

He told us the story behind the creation of the 9/11 digital archive – how they decided they had to do something quickly to collect the experiences of people surrounding the events of September 11th, 2001. They weren’t quite sure what they were doing – if they were making the best choices – but they just went for it. They keep everything. There was no ‘appraisal’ phase to creating this ‘digital archive’. He actually made a point a few minutes into his talk to say he would stop using the word archive, and use the term collection instead, in the interest of not having tomatoes thrown at him by his archivist audience.

The lack of appraisal issue brought a question at the end of the session about where that leaves archivists who believe that appraisal is part of the foundation of archival practice? The answer was that we have the space – so why not keep it all? Dan gave an example of a colleague who had written extensively based on research done using World War II rumors they found in the Library of Congress. These easily could have been discarded as not important – but you never know how information you keep can be used later. He told a story about how they noticed that some people are using the 9/11 digital archive as a place to research teen slang because it has such a deep collection of teen narratives submitted to be part of the archive.

This reminded me a story that Prof. Bruce Ambacher told us during his Archival Principals, Practices and Programs course at UMD. During the design phase for the new National Archives building in College Park, MD, the Electronic Records division was approached to find out how much room they needed for future records. Their answer was none. They believed that the speed at which the space required to store digital data was shrinking was faster than the rate of growth of new records coming into the archive. One of the driving forces behind the strong arguments for the need for appraisal in US archives was born out of the sheer bulk of records that could not possibly be kept. While I know that I am oversimplifying the arguments for and against appraisal (Jenkinson vs Schellenberg, etc) – at the same time it is interesting to take a fresh look at this in the light of removing the challenges of storage.

Dan also addressed some interesting questions about the needs of ‘digital scholarship’. They got zip codes from 60% of the submissions for the 9/11 archive – they hope to increase the accuracy and completeness of GIS information in the hurricane archive by using Google Maps new feature to permit pinpointing latitude and longitude based on an address or intersection. He showed us some interesting analysis made possible by pulling slices of data out of the 9/11 archive and placing it as layers on a Google Map. In the world of mashups, one can see this as an interesting and exciting new avenue for research. I will update this post with links to his promised details to come on his website about how to do this sort of analysis with Google Maps. There will soon be a researchers interface of some kind available at the 9/11 archive (I believe in sync with the 5 year annivarsary of September 11).
Near the end of the session a woman took a moment to thank them for taking the initiative to create the 9/11 archive. She pointed out that much of what is in archives across the US today is the result of individuals choosing to save and collect things they believed to be important. The woman who had originally asked about the place of appraisal in a ‘keep everything digital world’ was clapping and nodding and saying ‘she’s right!’ as the full room applauded.

So – keep it all. Snatch it up before it disappears (there were fun stats like the fact that most blogs remain active for 3 months, most email addresses last about 2 years and inactive Yahoo Groups are deleted after 6 months). There is likely a place for ‘curitorial views’ of the information created by those who evaluate the contents of the archive – but why assume that something isn’t important? I would imagine that as computers become faster and programming becomes smarter – if we keep as much as we can now, we can perhaps automate the sorting it out later with expert systems that follow very detailed rules for creating more organized views of the information for researchers.

This panel had so many interesting themes that crossed over into other panels throughout the conference. The Maine Archivist talking about ‘stopping the bleeding’ of digital data loss in his talk about the Maine GeoArchives. The panel on blogging (that I will write more about in a future post). The RLG Roundtable with presentations from people over at InternetArchive and their talks about archiving everything (ALSO deserves it’s own future post).

I feel guilty for not managing to touch on everything they spoke about – it really was one of the best sessions I attended at the conference. I think that having voices from outside the archival profession represented is both a good reality check and great for the cross-polination of ideas. Roy and Dan have recently published a book titled Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web – definitely on my ‘to be read’ list.

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Posted on 6th August 2006
Under: born digital records, future-proofing, GIS, historical research, internet archiving, open source, SAA2006 | No Comments » | Print This Post Print This Post

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