Hist 696: Save the Data!

With my love of digital archives and my desire to create digital content, digital preservation is an issue near and dear to my heart. On some level, it still seems risky to pour all that time and energy into the creation of digital content that may not be usable in 10 or 20 years. In contrast, information recorded on paper seems much more stable; baring fire, water, and acidic paper, etc., what is written down on paper will remain intact and usable for years to come.

I found the readings for this week, however, encouraging regarding the future of digital data. While there are many questions to be answered and challenged to be tackled, digital preservation seems to be less of an impossible task. What does seem obvious given our previous attempts at preserving this data is that it cannot be preserved in the same way we preserve paper or material artifacts: it cannot be safely stored in an archival box for years until its information is requested. Such an approach has already resulted in carefully stored but inaccessible data because of outdated technology.

I found the piece by Matthew Kirschenbaum et. al., “Digital Forensics and Born-Digital Content in Cultural Heritage Collections,” to offer the most exciting corrective (of the readings) to this approach. Digital Forensics is not something I had thought of in terms of collecting and archiving information, but it makes a lot of sense. In order to access and preserve digital content, we have to work with the information structure of the machines and learn how to uncover the information embedded in digital systems. There is an interesting parallel to be drawn between taking ink samples of Jonathan Edward’s writings to date them and uncovering field updates to see what days a document was opened and worked on. In many ways, the puzzle of digital archival work is what tools are necessary for pulling information from the digital sources, a puzzle that “Digital Forensics” attempts to address.

One question that I had not thought through as much is the question of the usefulness of digital archives because of their abundance of material. Dan Cohen’s article, “The Future of Preserving the Past,” discusses some of the variety of opinions about digital archives and the benefits and problems presented by their openness and the variety of contributions they receive. I agree with the thought that, although carefully selected content is necessary when one must manually search through the material, the large amount of digital content, if properly formatted when submitted (granted a large “if”), can be searched through digitally quite quickly. Sheila Brennen and Mills Kelly’s article on the “Hurricane Digital Memory Bank” also points to challenge of encouraging submissions while ensuring that those submissions are given enough meta-data to make the useful.

All of this points to the fact that storing and investigating digital material is a place of ongoing conversation and innovation. This is an area that is largely unknown, in large part because it is so new – we are just starting to do historical research from solely digital material and we are still unsure about the longevity of the storage solutions we currently have. This uncertainty does increase the risk in creating digital archives, as future preservation is not guaranteed. While I do think there are promising solutions to questions of preservation, it is still the case that digital-born content can very easily be lost or no longer accessible. It is an important consideration for those of us creating digital archives, resources, and the like.

(On a completely tangential note, does our obsession about saving everything strike anyone else as odd? While the large amount of data may be of interest to future historians and I appreciate the concern that the loss of twitter information would mean the loss of a large amount of cultural and social information, I find there to be something odd about our constant eye to future scholarship. Perhaps I am more comfortable with being forgotten by the historical record than I should be. That being said, the loss of all the digital content would be quite problematic, particularly since future thought and discovery builds upon the work of the past.)