Roy Rosenzweig – Clio Wired
21 November, 2021 - examPrep
- 6 – Thus historians need to be thinking simultaneously about how to research, write, and teach in a world of unheard-of historical abundance and how to avoid a future of record scarcity. Although these prospects have occasioned enormous commentary among librarians, archivists, and computer scientists, historians have almost entirely ignored them. In part, our detachment stems from the assumption that these are “technical” problems, which are outside the purview of scholars in the humanities and social sciences.Yet the more important and difficult issues about digital preservation are social, cultural, economic, political, and legal—issues that humanists should excel at.
- Ironically, the disruption to historical practice (to what Thomas Kuhn called “normal science”) brought by digital technology may lead us “back to the future.” The struggle to incorporate the possibilities of new technology into the ancient practice of history has led, most importantly, to questioning the basic goals and methods of our craft.
- 7 – We are forced, as a result, to rethink who our audiences really are. Similarly, the capaciousness of digital media means that the page limits of scholarly journals are no longer fixed by paper and ink costs. As a result, we are led to question the nature and purpose of these journals—why do they publish articles with particular lengths and structures? Why do they publish particular types of articles? 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.
- Historians, in fact, may be facing a fundamental paradigm shift from a culture of scarcity to a culture of abundance. Not so long ago, we worried about the small numbers of people we could reach, pages of scholarship we could publish, primary sources we could introduce to our students, and documents that had survived from the past. At least potentially, digital technology has removed many of these limits: over the Internet, it costs no more to deliver the American Historical Review to 15 million people than 15,000 people; it costs less for our students to have access to literally millions of primary sources than a handful in a published anthology. And we may be able to both save and quickly search through all of the products of our culture. But will abundance bring better or more thoughtful history?
- 13 – This uncertainty and disarray would not be so serious if we could assume that it could be simply sorted out in another thirty years. But if we hope to preserve the present for the future, then the technical problems facing digital preservation as well as the social and political questions about authenticity, ownership, and preservation policy need to be confronted now.
- 23 – If historians are to set themselves “against forgetting” (in Milan Kundera’s resonant phrase), then they may need to figure out new ways to sort their way through the potentially overwhelming digital record of the past. Contemporary historians are already groaning under the weight of their sources. Robert Caro has spent twenty-six years working his way through just the documents on Lyndon B. Johnson’s pre-vice-presidential years—including 2,082 boxes of Senate papers. Surely, the injunction of traditional historians to look at “everything” cannot survive in a digital era in which “everything” has survived.