Roy Rosenzweig published “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era” in the June 2003 issue of The American Historical Review.  Rosenzweig was a long-time professor of history (1981-2007) and founding director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University (1994-2007).  He was a trailblazer in the arena of digital history.

Rosenzweig asserted that in the early 20th century, historians helped shoulder the “responsibility for preserving as well as researching the past” (738).  My attempt in this series of posts to alternate between the voices of archivists and those of historians will be difficult to maintain for the reason Rosenzweig identified:

“Archivists and librarians have intensely debated and discussed digitization and digital presentation for more than a decade.  They have written hundreds of articles and reports, undertaken research projects, and organized conferences and workshops.  Academic and teaching historians have taken almost no part in these conferences and have contributed almost nothing to this burgeoning literature” (758).

Rosenzweig suggested this lack of involvement by historians results both from the technical and seemingly future nature of the problems alongside the rift between archivists and historians that has led to a more narrow focus by academic historians.  But I’ll try to keep this alternation going as long as I can!

Rosenzweig’s title reflects two challenges that face historians:

  1. Digital documents are much more fragile than paper ones, which threatens a scarcity of historical documentation because of the complications of digital preservation.
  2. The explosion of born-digital documents could create the abundance of “an essentially complete historical record” (737).  Given the propensity of historians to feel compelled to investigate every source, the ability to research this quantity of data could be impossible.

Rosenzweig identified three challenges to historical goals and methods as a result of the rise of the Internet and other digital media:

  • Expanded access to scholarly materials has blurred the traditional sense of historians’ audience.
  • The rules and restrictions of the paper and ink world no longer make sense in the age of digital publishing.
  • “The simultaneous fragility and promiscuity of digital data requires yet more rethinking — about whether we should be trying to save everything, who is ‘responsible’ for preserving the past, and how we find and define historical evidence” (739).

As for the fragility of digital data, Rosenzweig acknowledged the issues created by the media, hardware, and software of digital records.  He suggested the “most vexing problems of digital media are the flipside of their greatest virtues” (742):

  • The “lingua franca” of bits can encapsulate much complexity, requires little physical storage space, and can easily be shared, but these bits retain no meaning without hardware and software to translate them.
  • While the complexity available in digital objects is useful, there are many complications to preserving dynamic, interactive objects.

Rosenzweig suggested the “social, economic, legal, and organizational problems” wrought by the growth of digital documents are even more ornery than these technical issues:

  • Authenticity is difficult to prove because digital information can so easily be changed and copied.
  • The system of developing trust in repositories of print materials can’t be replicated for digital repositories (though perhaps the work that went into the
    Trustworthy Repositories Audit & Certification documentation after the article was published is beginning to address this problem).
  • Copyright confers clear ownership of print materials, but many digital objects are either licensed or exist in a semi-published state on the Internet, thereby clouding ownership.  And many licensed products come with the armor of digital rights management that complicates their long-term preservation.
  • Analog documents have generally been preserved by one of four systems: research libraries, national/state/local archives, local historical societies/specialized archives/university special collections, and enthusiastic individuals with a penchant for collecting.  But without clear ownership of digital media, it is nearly impossible to assign who should be responsible for digital preservation.  And due to the aforementioned fragility of digital objects, this is not a decision that can be long postponed.

Rosenzweig summarized the common technical solutions for digital preservation:

  • conversion to analog media (i.e., paper or microfilm)
  • preservation of the original equipment
  • migration of data from one medium or format to a newer or more stable one
  • emulation of the original system

He concluded that there is not perfect solution, quoting Margaret Hedstrom and her wisdom in understanding that “‘the search for the Holy Grail of digital archiving is premature, unrealistic, and possibly counter-productive'” and should be set aside in favor of “‘appropriate, effective, affordable, and acceptable'” solutions (747).

Rosenzweig reflected on a couple of digital preservation efforts.  The first was the “Pitt Project” run out of the University of Pittsburgh School of Information and Library Studies from 1993-1996.  One of this projects key premises was that electronic records should be seen through the prism of evidence rather than information.  “Pitt Project” guru David Bearman explained that mere information is “‘non-archival and unworthy of the archivist’s attention'” (748).  While this project made strides in addressing issues of trust and authenticity, from the perspective of an historian, Rosenzweig questioned its narrow focus on digital records as evidence rather than information and pointed to Terry Cook for his analysis that this focus privileges the powerful over those typically living on the margins of society.

The second effort considered was Brewster Kahle’s Internet Archive, which began in 1996.  While it is a much more grass-roots approach to digital preservation, it is inherently limited by the vast arenas of the Internet that are not accessible to its crawlers that regularly harvest websites and by the websites that post “robots exclusion” files that prohibit such crawling.

The development of the Internet Archive together with what was in 2003 the nascent efforts of Google to capture digital content caused Rosenzweig to question the privatization of digital collections where the archival repositories of analog objects are predominantly in the public sector.  He suggested a number of reasons why government hasn’t taken the lead in digital preservation:

  • Digital objects are just as likely to challenge national boundaries as to engender nationalism, so the incentives for governmental involvement are limited.
  • The “anti-statist Reagan revolution of the 1980s” coincided with the emergence of the digital preservation crisis and hampered the allocation of resources to address these problems (753).
  • The Library of Congress was more focused on digitizing analog objects and placing them online (“American Memory”) than on preserving born digital objects.

Yet he didn’t rule out the possibility of appropriate support from government entities.  He pointed to successful efforts in Australia and Scandinavia as well as to work by the National Archives with the San Diego Supercomputing Center to develop “persistent object preservation” (POP).  He also pointed to the Library of Congress initiative launched in 2000, the National Digital Information Infrastructure Program (NDIIP).

Rosenzweig also quoted Kahle’s prediction that all information would be digitized and readily available, thereby “democratizing access to the historical record” (though Rosenzweig acknowledged in a footnote the privacy concerns that would be inherent in such indiscriminate preservation) (755).  Implicit in this plan of democratic access is “disintermediation,” or the removal of librarians, archivists, and historians from the process and instead providing people “direct contact with the documents and artifacts of the past” (756).  He polled his colleagues for feedback on these ideas, and the results were clear:

“Historians are not particularly hostile to new technology, but they are not ready to welcome fundamental changes to their cultural position or their modes of work.  Having lived our professional careers in a culture of scarcity, historians find that a world of abundance can be unsettling” (757).

Rosenzweig concluded that historians’ methodologies must change to incorporate digital media.  He suggested future history graduate programs would need to include courses in social-scientific and quantitative methods, “digital archaeology,” “digital diplomatics,” and data mining (758).  Having already acknowledged that archivists and librarians are devoting much time and resources to digital preservation, he contended historians can’t afford to abdicate their role in making decisions about systems and priorities.  Assuming historians will fret over the potential scarcity of records while archivists will question the necessity of perpetuating information abundance in an era of financial shortfalls, he challenged historians to take four steps:

  1. lobby “for adequate funding for both current historical work and preservation of future resources” (761)
  2. advocate for “the democratized access to the historical record that digital media make possible” (761)
  3. lobby for expanding copyright deposit of digital materials
  4. “embrace the culture of abundance made possible by digital media and expand the public space of scholarship” (762)

Rosenzweig asserted, “the stakes are too profound for historians to ignore the futures of the past” (739).  I hope that other historians will take up his call to arms.