Why do we collect history online?
This is a heady question that is central to the future of history writing, research, and publication. As Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig point out in “Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web,” the ephemeral nature of history as it happens in the digital age raises new challenges of preservation. They use an effective example to illustrate their argument: The September 11th attacks. Accounts and responses online to the attacks proliferated rapidly, and Cohen and Rosenzweig note that various archiving organizations including the Library of Congress, the Internet Archives and Webarchivist.org moved quickly to organize and preserve this material under the auspices of the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Thus, some history from a dramatic, destructive, and politically significant event was captured for future reflection.
Still, the magnitude of such endeavors is daunting. As we’ve already visited here and elsewhere, the technical hurdles and copyright concerns are added to the already challenging concern of history in general: to synthesize and analyze sources of information from past events in order to understand and explain them. Meanwhile, the democratic nature of the online medium causes problems. Mischievous teens can pose as historical characters to confound historians, Cohen and Rosenzweig lament, somewhat hilariously.
All this aside, there is still a utopianist bent to their view. According to Cohen and Rosenzweig, Internet archives can be larger and more diverse. This is, of course, true by virtue of the advancement in memory technology. As someone who has done transcription work from oral histories, the authors’ point that internet archiving already completes the main chore of typing up this material, this is compelling, exciting, and a relief to the difficult tedium this task can pose.
In any case, whether we like it or not, this is happening. More and more organizations and libraries are stepping up to do their part archiving online materials of all kinds. Skepticism of the quality and content of this material should be treated like that of any other produced my humans. It is inherently subjective; but only so much as the lenses used to understand the significance of the aforementioned remnants of the past: the historians themselves.