Curiouser and Curiouser...

My Adventures in blogging, digital and Public History

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Infinite Archive

Accessing History in a Digital World

Can we better understand ourselves by looking at how we employ technology? This question arises from Battelle’s "Database of Intentions". It prompted me to think about more than just what we already have in our digital universe; subsequently I began to think about what we choose to save, create and access. In terms of history, I want to know whose responsibility is it to save data and documents, who is making the decisions? Of course this led to yet another question: If only a select few are making decisions about what should be digitized and saved, who or what is being left out of this large database?

The Single Box Humanities Search suggested by Daniel J. Cohen is a charming idea but of course you need more than just the "techies" to make it happen. You need a panel of humanities ‘experts’ so to speak; persons who can define ideas and terms as most relevant to those in the humanities. They would help to tailor the results such that the most intellectually and /or historically pertinent documents are flagged, but this will only happen however when humanities journals are as open and indexable by search engines as scientific journals. (Cohen) For this to happen, those who preserve , write and edit history need to allow a greater access to primary documents and scholarly journals and what better way to do that then to digitize documents and allow for access on the ‘web’.

Cohen says that "Most important, however, is the question of open access. Outlets for scientific articles are more open and indexable by search engines than humanities journals." So it seems that those in the humanities, including historians, are making it difficult to further their own cause. If, according to Paul. N. Courant in his article "Scholarship and Academic Libraries in the World of Google", the new technology should lead to the sharing and teaching of ideas and easier collaboration across time and space, historians should jump at the chance to preserve and pass on information in a timely manner. I would have to agree with Cohen that "Making things freely available online" is a step toward preserving the past and furthering critical thought in the area of history as access to primary sources allows for more discussion and debate of ideas and issues.

This of course leads to the question of choice. Who chooses what should be ‘saved’ or digitized and what should not? What should be made available and to whom? The sheer cost and time of this undertaking would necessitate that those with the capital would undertake these projects. Large corporations and governments would indeed have the resources, but wouldn’t they also have their own agendas ? What would they choose to leave out or for that matter, include, to further there own interests? The risks of losing some material do not seem as great as not having access to the material in the first place. After all, most who choose to access and read such historical information, employ critical thinking when doing so. Looking at what has been digitized is not really any different than looking at an actual journal or artifact; you employ the same critical thought process and analyse the historical evidence. The digitization of primary sources can only increase our breadth of historical knowledge and understanding by allowing access, collaboration, and debate, not only about historical ideas but the digitization process and its historical significance.


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