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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Infinite Archive: Making me infinitely further behind

I am worried; not because I think that books are going to go by the wayside, not because I think that the internet is taking away our personal connections with the materials we study, and not because I think that the profession of historian is in peril. I am worried, quite frankly, that I am not going to cut it in the age of abundance. In last week's Digital History class I brought up that I was worried that the way I conduct research will no longer be sufficient for publication. That fear has gone nowhere. It is one thing to have longtime professors refute you because they have read that one crucial article you haven't, it is another to be subjected to wide scrutiny because everyone on the internet has read something that you haven't; that is just embarrassing.

How, in this 'Age of Abundance' does one possibly keep up with the scholarship. Not only are there a great number of websites being created all the time, but John Batelle points out that we are leaving unintentional traces on the internet which are additional sources of information. It is even too much with just the tenured professors having the ability to be instantly published. You usually have that buffer zone between presentation and print so that you as the researcher can catch up on the appropriate material. With even just the traditional historians publishing instantaneously I am just worried about keeping up to date.

And there is clearly an abundance of new historical sources being added to the internet continuously. Roy Rozensweig and Daniel J. Cohen recorded 32,959 history sites listed by Yahoo in their work Digital History: A Guide to Gathering Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web in 2005. In a separate article in 2003 Rosenzweig noted that "by February 2002, the Internet Archive (IA) had gathered a monumental collection of more than 100 terabytes of web data." However, it may be argued that the research that is proliferating on the internet may make it harder to keep up with the new opinions and scholarly discussions, but it may make the investigation of primary sources vastly easier. There is certainly more access to local archives from non-local locales. There is also less time searching through archival material for relevant references because the texts are more searchable. However, there is also no excuse for missing a reference anymore. Nor is it expected that the age of the archive is over, but that now we have the reference that allows us to perhaps approach archival work more effectively. And this does placate me somewhat.

And yet, that 100 terrabytes of information from 2002 refers to primary source material. While I don't have to go to the places I would otherwise have had to truck to, the internet, with its capacity to hold vast quantities of information, does present us with an overwhelming amount even of primary source material. For class, we read about one individual, Gordon Bell, who has made it his mission to digitize everything that he possibly can, creating an abundance also of primary source material. Now imagine you were going to do a thesis about Gordon Bell. How do we even start to approach that information.

But this is what is expected now of the historian. And despite the internet, historians will continue to publish books and print journal articles, at least for the foreseeable future. However, the internet is already a powerful tool containing access to all kinds of information. Professor Turkel aptly pointed out in our first Digital History class, if historians are not part of the process of making history accessible through the internet then it will be done by someone else and we will have no say.

Because there is this material on the web, and it is being consumed en masse, we have an obligation to be a presence on the internet if we too are to remain relevant. This will probably not help in my struggle to keep up to date. What we have less control over now are the sources that are available for public consumption. Without the lag time between thought and publication we now have no control over what is published, and less control than we did have over what people see as history. Some suggest that this 'democratization' of history is dangerous because if anyone can freely contribute to our global and national sense of 'history' then will it be scholarly, and will it try and consider its own biases, and how caught up in the romantic notion of heritage will it be. But how devoid is scholarly research of those elements. Perhaps it is good also to take the history making out of the hands of the elites, so to say, if they ever really had it.

About this I am not worried. No doubt the role of the historian is going to change as we compete with Bob's history website, but our value as researchers is unlikely to be forgotten, as long as we participate in the same medium as Bob does. Nor is it wrong that Bob should have a site reflecting his own interests, especially as he is not really threatening our job as historians. But as we are obliged to be present in the online community, if Bob's site should gain popularity we should be online to note that, and it should also be our duty to deliver the occasional evaluation of Bob's facts and fact finding techniques.

One of the solutions we posited in class to this overwhelming abundance was the increasing specialization of the historian, so that they might concentrate on a narrow strip of the available information and scholarship. However, the more likely solution is that I, along with the majority of my colleagues are going to have to change the way that we write history and think about history because we have more than just ourselves to compete with now. We will probably still write our history, one that rivals Bob's, but allow ourselves to build on our own research as we find out more, as opposed to waiting until we find out all before we write. I am not sure why I thought I was going to find out it all anyway, that seems like a rather lofty goal, but I was certainly going to try. Now I think I am going to try something else.

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