Technology’s Place in History

After reading articles by Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig that dealt with the advantages and disadvantage of the use of technology in the historical profession, it’s quite clear that the profession is on the brink of some serious methodological changes.  As more information moves into a digital format several aspects of historical research are fundamentally altered:

1) More people have more access to information thus forcing the historian to reconsider his or her audience.

2) There is way more information that can be preserved and accessed than ever before thus changing how a historian goes about his or her research and the questions that should be asked given the available resources.

3) With all this plethora of information, what should be saved?  Everything?  Just certain documents deemed historically relevant?  And who is to make those decisions?

While it is easy for historians, myself included, to get preoccupied investigating the past, Cohen and Rosenzweig illuminate the growing importance of also considering the present and future.  With the increase in technology, history is becoming much more accessible to both historians and the general public.  That comes with many advantages, especially to aspiring historians.  For me personally, I no longer have to worry as much about physically going to a library if I am in need of a specific resource.  With the wealth of databases and archives now available on the web, I usually have a good chance of finding what I need without having to leave the comfort of my apartment.  That example alone makes an excellent case for the advantages that accompany digital history.  More free access to more information readily available no matter how close to a library you are.  Even with this increase in availability, there are still instances when a trip to the Library of Congress is required of me.  Over the past few months I’ve spent numerous hours scrolling through reels of microfilm that unfortunately haven’t been converted to a more accessible format.

During the mind-numbing hours I spend staring at a screen looking for the newspaper article that addresses my research topic I can’t help but long for a better way to access the information I seek.  This is when data mining would come in quite handy.  Rather than tediously scrolling through reel after reel that takes hours at a time, I could simply type in a few key phrases or terms that would likely get me to the articles I’m looking for.  This would speed up the process immensely.  Having done a lot of research with collections that have been digitized it’s rather disheartening to go back to the practice of manually searching through microfilms.

Another thought that inevitably crosses my mind as image after image of a newspaper from Dallas in the 1980s rolls by is “wow, there is a ton of information here.”  Newspapers can get pretty detailed and some obviously are more comprehensive than others.  It’s almost breathtaking to think about how much information is out there, especially when I’m taken aback by the quantity of information I come across in just one newspaper.  While I love having access to this information, I can’t help but think about how much time and effort must go into the digitization projects that are currently ongoing.  Having done some volunteer cataloging of photos for a local historical society, I know how tedious the digitization of documents can be.  This raises the question of  whether or not everything should be preserved.  Ideally, yes.  But as Rosenzweig commented in his article, it costs time and lots of money to undertake such comprehensive projects, so it is understandable why many archivists and librarians encourage the question of what should be preserved and what shouldn’t.

The idea of a modern day Library of Alexandria is terrific, but the practicality of that is less than ideal.  There is just too much information everywhere, and it’s growing everyday.  This is where historians need to start giving some thought about the present and future of the historical profession.  Up to this point I’ve discussed some of the benefits that technology offers to historians to look into the past, but as important as these benefits are, one must also consider the best way to preserve today’s information for tomorrow’s historian.  Most significantly, one must think about how information that is born today will be preserved for tomorrow.  For history to continue as a professional field this question must be answered, or at least addressed seriously (which it may be at this point given that Rosenzweig’s article reflects the field in the early 2000s).  This question is one of the reasons why I decided to take a class about digital history.  I’m very interested in not only how I can use new technologies to better understand the past, but also how I can use these technologies to preserve the present for future research.

As if these questions weren’t enough, there is also the concern of the best way to preserve information.  Given the wildly fast increase in technology, there doesn’t seem to be a preservation practice as reliable as a simple paper copy.  So even if historians and archivists can determine what  should be preserved, they must then go through the gauntlet of considering how  to preserve it.  Although I’m not very familiar with digital storage practices, I can imagine how difficult it would be given the constant updating of software and storage technology.  I remember when the 3 and 1/2 floppy disk was the best way to save anything.  That was replaced quite quickly by the USB flash drive.  So even if I have a paper saved on that floppy disk, I certainly don’t have a computer (or even know of a computer) that would be able to access my paper.

Based on my reading of Rosenzweig’s article, it seems like this is the kind of issue that professional archivists are dealing with right now.  As soon as they digitize a set of information on one source, it becomes obsolete and must then be transferred to something else.   The idea of constantly transferring and re-saving the same information each time a new storage technology is developed seems ridiculous.  This is when one might wish to just go back to saving hard copies of everything.  But there’s no way that will happen, nor would anyone really want that.  The benefits of digitization are too impressive to even consider a reversion to earlier preservation practices.  Hopefully as we move forward the idea of preservation takes on more significance and we can find a way to make this access to information permanent for generations to come.

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