For as long as I can, I intend to alternate between the voices of archivists and historians, so this week I turn to historian Daniel J. Cohen.  He taught for a few years at Yale University, having also earned his Ph.D. there in 1999.  From 2001-13 he taught at George Mason University, with appointments both in the Department of History and Art History and at the Center for History and New Media.  In 2013, Cohen became the founding executive director of the Digital Public Library of America, and since 2015, he has also been a professor of history at Northeastern University.

Cohen wrote “The Future of Preserving the Past” in the Summer 2005 issue of the CRM Journal.  He began by comparing the efforts to preserve the events of December 7, 1941, and September 11, 2001.

December 7, 1941

  • National Archives: military photographs, communications, damage assessments, reactions of government officials through public announcements and private correspondence
  • Office of Naval Records and Library: names of those killed or wounded
  • Library of Congress: acquired typescripts of NBC’s breaking news account
  • National Park Service: USS Arizona Memorial preserves underwater remains of the ship
  • Library of Congress’ Archive of American Folk Song: folklorist Alan Lomax entreated colleagues to record interviews with the American people

September 11, 2001

  • Columbia University Oral History Research Office and the Institute for Social and Economic Research Policy: September 11, 2001 Oral History Narrative and Memory Project conducted 300+ interviews
  • Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center: asked folklorists to record thoughts of average Americans
  • Library of Congress’ September 11, 2001 Documentary Project: video interviews, written narratives, drawings, photographs
  • Library of Congress + Internet Archive + + Pew Internet and American Life Project: archived 30,000 websites from September 11 – December 1, 2001
  • Center for History and New Media at George Mason University: September 11 Digital Archive captured personal stories, emails, photographs and works of art, instant messages, pager communications, etc. — accessioned by the Library of Congress fall 2003

Cohen acknowledged that digital sources are crucial to providing an adequate documentary history of the present but also outlined a number of concerns about digital collections, which he described as a “mutating record” (9):

  • involve complicated hardware and software
  • may not adequately represent the voices of the older, less educated, or economically disadvantaged
  • have an unclear preservation path (as compared to the well-established preservation for stable formats such as paper)
  • present questions regarding provenance and selection criteria
  • may create an “inverse relationship between the quantity of digital artifacts gathered and the general quality of those artifacts” (10)
  • tend to be “less organized and more capricious in what they cover” (10)

Despite these reservations, Cohen also expounded on the positive benefits of digital collections vs. traditional archives, suggesting they are not only larger and more diverse but also incorporate more perspectives and “marginalized constituencies” (10).  With their larger quantity of data, digital collections can be more easily mined for patterns.  And their digital nature allows for easy searching.

Cohen advocated for the active online solicitation of digital materials, pointing out that these interactions are both economical and, unlike oral histories, result in accessions that are easily searched.  But he also acknowledged the enduring value of oral histories and suggested Internet sources can best complement other methods of acquiring sources.  He included a quotation from oral historian Linda Shopes that highlights the irreplaceable qualities of a good interviewer:

“‘“the cultivation of rapport and … lengthy, in-depth narratives through intense
face-to-face contact; the use of subtle paralinguistic cues as an aid to moving
the conversation along; the talent of responding to a particular comment, in
the moment, with the breakthrough question, the probe that gets underneath a
narrator’s words'” (11).

Cohen identified a number of online technologies that can be used to capture the historical record:

  • Atomic Veterans History Project collected emails from veterans who participated in nuclear testing during the Cold War
  • blogs, which can allow multiple contributors and can include images and multimedia as well as text
  • instant messaging software

Yet he also pinpointed what makes so many archivists and historians wary of digital collections:

“What will remain in the foreground are the qualitative concerns, especially the
question of provenance raised by the solicitation of historical materials from
unseen contributors. Given the slippery character of digital materials, how can
we ensure that what we receive over the Internet is authentic, or that historical
narratives we receive really are from the people they say they are?” (12)

He then attempted to rebut these concerns:

  • He termed the falsification of digital historical documents a “phantom problem” (13) because most people enter valid information on websites.  (I confess, I find myself wondering if this is still the case a decade hence.)
  • Those submitting to online historical archives will most likely “share a cultural institution’s or dedicated researcher’s goals and interest in creating an accurate historical record” (13).
  • Following up on submissions, either through tracking IP addresses or through email or phone conversations, can validate submissions.
  • “Historians will have to continue to look for evidence of internal consistency and weigh them against other sources.  In any media, new or old, solid research is the basis of sound scholarship” (13).

Cohen provided a number of examples of existing digital collections (none of which, 11 years later, is still accessible at the URL noted in Cohen’s article!):

  • Moving Here: immigration to the UK (archived October 2013)
  • WW2 People’s War: Britain’s WWII vets and survivors of the London Blitz (collected by the BBC June 2003 – January 2006)
  • Rosie the Riveter/Word War II Home Front — though they are still collecting stories, I can’t find that they are made available online
  • Remembering Pearl Harbor: National Geographic Society, so it has a cool interactive map
  • Voices of Civil Rights: Library of Congress + AARP + Leadership Conference on Civil Rights

Cohen ended on a more technical note, focusing on the difficulties of preserving digital sources:

  • digital media are “profoundly unstable” (14)
  • digital objects can be rendered entirely unusable with any sort of corruption (whereas paper documents and photographs can still reveal some insights even if they have been damaged)
  • hardware, operating system, and software are required to read digital data

He pointed out that many digital sources are ephemeral, so rather than focusing on how to preserve digital materials permanently, Cohen challenged readers first to acquire the artifacts and then to figure out how to preserve them adequately.  He concluded, “ways will need to be found to capture digital documents, messages, images, audio, and video before they are altered or erased if our descendants are to understand how we lived” (16).