“Against Forgetting”: Historians’ Role in Digital Preservation

“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting” -Milan Kundera

This is now the fourth time that I have been assigned to read Roy Rosenzweig’s seminal article, “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era.”  The first time that I read the article, I was an undergraduate historian struggling to understand how this technical problem could really affect me or my future career.

Now I am a public history graduate student, deeply interested in digital history, and interning at the National Archives where I am part of a team working to preserve the Archives’ in-house photographs that are not scheduled to be accessioned as permanent government records. While my own perspective has changed drastically over the years, each time that I read this article, I am able to find new insights and inspiration from the work.

Despite the fact that the article is now over a decade old, the problems that Rosenzweig outlines are still of very much concern for historians today. The digital era has created an abundance of sources; from email, to electronic records, to tweets, digital content is exploding rapidly. Yet, at the same time, the digital era also poses the threat of “a future of record scarcity”; rapidly changing technology and the ephemeral nature of the internet pose problems to preserving born-digital records. Floppy disks and computer tapes might not be readable by future technology and all of the vibrant user-generated content that exists on the internet could be lost when websites shutdown or companies fail. In the years since Rosenzweig published this article, no one has made a radical breakthrough towards solving this problem. In fact, the advent of cloud computing and the continued growth of electronic records has only complicated the situation even further.

At one point in the article, Rosenzweig mentions the National Archives and Record Administration’s Electronic Records Archive as a possible solution to the preservation crisis. The ERA was an ambitious program that, in the words of former archivist John W. Carlin, “will be able to preserve any kind of electronic record, free it from the format in which it was created, retain it indefinitely, and enable requesters to read it on computer systems now in use and coming in the future.”

Unfortunately, development on the ERA stopped in 2011 with many of its larger goals unmet: most ERA content is not available to the public through the Online Public Access system, there is no function for content-based search of electronic records, and most disappointingly, the electronic preservation processing function does not allow records to converted from one format to another. By these measures, the ERA project could be considered a failure.

Yet, part of the beauty of Rosenzweig’s call to action is that he rejects any “perfect” solutions. Perhaps the original goals for the ERA were merely too lofty. As the National Archives is quick to point out, the ERA provides, “safe storage of the original bits, and the capture of technical, provenance and event history metadata.” That is a start. As Rosenzweig eloquently puts it, “We have never preserved everything; we need to start preserving something.

Historians need to do their part by thinking actively about preservation of their own work, of their sources, and of the public goods that they manage. We may not have “the” solution to this problem, but we need to start experimenting with finding “a” solution. And maybe that is enough.

For now.

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4 thoughts on ““Against Forgetting”: Historians’ Role in Digital Preservation

  1. Kate Burns says:

    Great post, Julie. Although this was my first time reading this piece, I also remember feeling that the issues related to digital history were not going to be an issue in my career. I assumed that as digital records became the norm, archives would develop standards for how to collect and keep records. However, this was before I understood how these technologies worked, how quickly digital formats would change, and how different they really are from each other. It seems that large organizations and professional networks have failed to keep up with technology and have failed to develop new standard archival procedures. What solutions have you imagined the National Archives or individual historians should take? While interning for the archives, have any archivists or historians suggested various methods for preserving digital records beyond the ERA?

    • jmboser says:

      Thanks Kate! The National Archives has accession schedules and rules to determine which government documents become official archival records. One of the most interesting challenges facing the National Archives history department is how we can preserve documents and photographs that are not scheduled to be accessioned into the Archives as permanent records. I am involved in a photo project right now to create a searchable database of archives photos from 1993-2013. If this project is successful, it could become a model for other government agencies.

  2. JJ says:

    I think there’s more content to preserve in the world now, because people have more tools to communicate. But the total sum of what we are preserving is probably greater than that of the past. So perhaps now we are only preserving a smaller percentage of the total content?

  3. sydneyrhodes says:

    I enjoyed your post, Julie! Ultimately, as we are all discussing by means of our own blogs, I believe it is going to fall to us to start preserving the things we really find important. If we spend our time worrying over what to preserve or the best way to do so, we are losing time. It is very scary that even though we are trying to make strides in the world of digital preservation the technology quickly becomes obsolete, but we need to start so that it is at least digitized for someone to see it! As long as it exists online we can find ways to continually update its format. It’s a lot of work but it will be worth it in the long run!

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