An Idea that came to me as I read Toni Weller’s History in the Digital Age (2013)

by Rebecca Stuhr

I’d like to talk about Weller’s introduction to History in the Digital Age and then an idea that came to me as I read it. Weller’s introduction is a gloss of the topics covered in the book as well as a brief description of the intended audience. Weller’s writes to historians who consider themselves to be “traditional historians” and  are unsure of what it means to practice digital history. Weller points out that most historians, whether they think of it as “digital” or not, are doing much of their work digitally by using email, searching the internet, working with scholarly databases, and participating in discussion lists. Weller makes the argument that scholars are failing to teach students conceptual issues related to working with digital resources and they therefore fail to apply “traditional historical methodologies to their everyday digital and online experiences.” What got me thinking was Weller’s discussion of the subjectivity of selection that has always been part of history (see Michael Grant’s Greek and Roman Historians: Information and Misinformation 1995). This has been true with printed documents–one civilization burns the documents of the civilization it defeats; power and social status have something to do with whose voices survive and are preserved. Although libraries and museums seek to be objective, they are also serving a particular community and the ephemera of ten or one hundred years ago that wasn’t considered important enough for preservation, is today’s coveted primary source. When we choose what to collect and preserve we are undertaking a selective act. This is true as we create databases of documents and decide what to mark up and code.

What born digital material should we preserve? What will represent this time and place? How will we represent the original experience of the use of the Web sites, blogs, emails and texts that we manage to save? Weller writes: “The potential black hole of source material for the future historian is every bit as compelling as the traditional discourses of the lost voices in history–the illiterate, women, the poor or other minority groups” (9). We are faced with finding a way to effectively preserve an abundance of data, broadly representative of all that is out there, but also of preserving aspects of the context of its original use, and the technology through which it was originally viewed and created.

I have an idea that came to me as I was reading this introduction. My idea doesn’t address preservation of the voice of the powerless, but it does address the community with whom I work. It also takes into account the user’s experience with the item and provides at least a minimal amount of context. I do not think that it would be easy to carry out and it would rely on voluntary participation.

We (the libraries) would give hard drives to members of the university community, including staff, faculty, and students, both graduate students and undergraduate students. We would ask them to download the Web sites, listservs, electronic journals and newsletters they visit, the blogs they visit, comment on, or write, the notes they take (digitally or on paper). Essentially, we would ask them to save all the work they do in the course of conducting research, preparing for classes (as instructor or student), or assisting students or colleagues. The libraries would periodically swap out the hard drives to download everything into a database or repository.  It would have to take the form of a dark archive for a certain period of time. Practically, you could only ask the participants to do this over a certain period of time and perhaps on designated days, or even one week out of every month for a set period of time. A participant’s relevant written documents could be scanned and added to the hard drive.  There would have to be an easy way developed for adding Web sites. Possibly, you could use a tool such as  the Zotero plugin to keep track of citations and Web pages and other documents and then import the day’s library into the hard drive. Selection would, of course, be taking place, and documents would be purposefully included and omitted. I think there is no way around that, unless you are an institution that archives everything that goes through its servers (i.e., the White House).

The archive would have to be dark to preserve the privacy of the individuals participating and also to preserve ownership of their research ideas. If we are preserving the experience and context as well as the data itself, while identity would not have to be associated with an individual’s collection, each individual collection would need to remain in tact or be able to be reconstituted through coding or metadata. At some point, the libraries would open the archive to the searching of raw data–research that allowed analysis while not revealing anything about the specific work of the participants. Eventually, the whole archive could be opened up–by this time it would have migrated several times,  been backed up in multiple places, coded and described so that historians of the future would have not only a database of digital objects, but an understanding of the time and circumstances under which the documents were used and the motivations behind why the preservation took place at all.

This idea is a research project in itself as well as a collection building project. It may be a good digital humanities project that would incorporate the skills of the scholar, the technologist, and the librarian.