Current lessons from an outdated book

2005, the year that YouTube was founded, Facebook was relatively unknown and Myspace dominated the social networking market. It was also the year that Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig published their book ‘Digital History: a guide to gathering, preserving, and presenting the past on the web’, an introduction to the internet for people working in historic fields who wish to produce online historical work. In the chapter ‘Collecting history online, they bring a guide on using the internet to gather information from the recent past. They say the internet is a two-way street; you can look things up that are interesting to you, but you can also ask people to contribute their knowledge or experiences. This concept is still the same, and even though the internet has changed in many ways, the instructions in this chapter still hold their ground.

 

For example, the paragraph concerning the ways by which you can connect to people and the types of information you can ask for, can still be applied today: by email, instant messaging, starting a blog or a forum, asking for texts or images (now of course also video). They advise you to use existing methods rather than reinventing the wheel, and those methods have only become plentiful and more accessible since the publication of their book.

The advice they give to attract visitors to your website is also still very usable today. The presentation of your website must be good, which can be achieved by having an active and current website with attractive content that triggers people to contribute. Reaching out is also very important; via mass marketing, social networking, or collaborating with other websites or institutions.

To make visitors start contributing to your collection, they must know that their information is treated carefully. Thus gaining the trust of the visitors is also a point of concern in the chapter. By affiliating yourselves with known entities in the real world and having clear legal policies, you can win that trust and start sharing your authority.

 

As current as these arguments are, the irony is that the chapter in general is now outdated. When you look at the websites that served as examples, only two are still active; the website about the original Macintosh, Folklore.org, and the website created by Roy Rosenzweig, 911digitalarchive.org. The Moving Here project seems to have been archived properly, but Voicesofcivilrights.org seems to be the website of a Japanese law firm now. With the help of the Internet Archive, you can see that the original website mentioned in the chapter of the book became some sort of German blog in the second half of 2010. Luckily, thanks to the Internet Archive again, the reactions can still be read. This is not the case for the memory book about Pearl Harbor. There is also no archived page of the memory book. The PDFs of webpages made by the authors to accompany the chapter, probably in case the original page went down, are also subject to disappearance. This raises questions about the life span of a website, the preservation of digital information, and the accessibility of it.

 

These are problems the authors are aware of. In a later part of the book, they talk about the costs and the maintenance involved in keeping a website running. Sometimes there is no money anymore and the website stops, other times the owner loses interest. They also mention the preservation of digital information. They show that technologies become obsolete and that it has been a struggle keeping information readable with new technologies. They however believe that it is viable to preserve everything for posterity. This is something I disagree with. With Belgian historian Fien Danniau’s article in mind, I argue that it is necessary to have some sort of qualitative selection to prevent filling databases with too much information that it becomes unusable. In order to preserve usable data in the future, we must trust archivists to use their knowledge to do their job. In addition to that, I think it is possible to maintain a broader offline archive with less priority on keeping it up-to-date.

A final point I would like to make is the lack of a finished product of these collections, with preserving the information in mind. In my opinion, it would be useful to make some sort of summary of the gathered information at some point, and publish it online, sending it to universities, archives and institutions you’re acquainted with. This way it gets in their systems and the information is hopefully still accessible if your site ever goes down.

 

This book was published ten years ago, but even now it offers points to follow and matters of discussion. As much as digital history is an addition, it’s still a learning process.

Toma Tsuruta

4 thoughts to “Current lessons from an outdated book”

  1. I found Cohen and Rosenzweig very (or better: too) optimistic about the possibilities of the Internet as an archive. Of course, it were the ‘early days’ and everything still seemed possible, but still. As you said, most of the websites don’t exist anymore, or are only accessible via the Internet Archive. Most of them (and their information) are forgotten and ironically enough, that’s exactly what the authors wanted to prevent.
    I completely agree with you that saving everything is impossible (plus it would be lunacy). I only don’t think archivists can predict which information historians of the future will find interesting, even with their expertise. So in the end, when it comes to saving, things won’t be much different than they are today 🙂

  2. I agree with you and Lars re: the need for preselection for any archive and the ironies of this piece. Excellent overview here Toma and great detective work using the Internet Archive to track down the outdated sites.

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