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Scarcity AND Abundance?

January 31, 2013

Roy Rosenzweig argues in “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era” that we are both drowning in digital media and yet store this vast repository of information in a degradable format. Digital corrosion, the breakdown of magnetic tape, and changes in hardware and software can all render this vast wealth of information useless to us. Conservation efforts are underway, but come in direct conflict with the increasingly overbearing exercise of copyright by large private corporations. Are we shocked that Adobe warns us not to read ebooks aloud? We shouldn’t be.

Rosenzweig zeroes in on the Internet Archive which has gathered a mind-boggling large amount of web data. Google Groups has also gotten into the act, which prompts Rosenzweig to wax philosophical about the nature of privatization sweeping the global economy. Even with the efforts of these and other groups, despite their commercial or non-commercial motivations, there is such a huge amount of information to preserve that these endeavors seem futile.

Never fear! This means that we need historians and archivists even more. And the first thing they need to do, argues Rosenzweig, is become their own historians. This requires a changing of methods. Identifying and preserving information has become so paramount, in a sea of rapidly growing data, that future historians ought to be compelled to help catalog what might be significant. This has led Rosenzweig to conclude that the entire historical profession may need to be overhauled for the twenty-first century.

I’m inclined to agree, although ennui about the brave and scary digital future are coming fast and furious these days. There are much larger historical arcs that tend to be missing in such analyses. The global economy is being privatized? The democratization of information is leading to chaos and angst? new methods are needed in order to deal with the rapid growth of technology? Welcome to the last five hundred years.

For my part, I have no illusions about what I do. While some groups work in concert to do altruistic things, I think many of us are left to our own devices, for better or for worse. We have to compete with institutions that have an overwhelming amount of resources, whose leaders may or may not have noble intentions. While it’s easy to get starry eyed about the future, I’m not sure I know what I mean anymore when I say “we.”

  1. mskic permalink

    I think one of the most important topics Rosenzweig discusses is one that you point out in this post: “changes in hardware and software.” With internet formats continually transforming, it is impossible for tasks such as digital archives projects to keep pace. Developing digital archives that are both robust and flexible is incredibly important.

  2. I also agree with Matt, that society needs to create global digital archives to house are abundance of historical data. My question, after doing this reading, is what the heck are we going to do if the internet gets wiped out and there is no possible way to get back the lost information? I agree with R.R. that the “United States is losing its memory.” Do you think society will regress? Will future generations have to start from scratch–or build a new sense of identity? These are all troubling questions. I think now we, as historians, need to work along side IT personnel to develop both historical methods that are conducive to digital sources, as well as devices that will allow us to recall data from out-of-date hardware and software.

  3. Your final comments are a bit cryptic! What do you mean?

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