History: If it isn’t digital, it doesn’t exist

History: Digitized and Abridged. Not everything will get digitized. And the non-digital will be overlooked. This NYTimes article by Katie Haffner provides a fascinating (and sobering) twist on the trend toward digitality. [via Dave Winer, Scripting News] It’s very expensive to transfer all those archives of artifacts into digital form. Who will support the digitizing of historical artifacts? And how much stuff – and history– will get “lost” as an increasingly-digital-aware public overlooks the items that aren’t in digital form?

While the Internet boom has made information more accessible and widespread than ever, that very ubiquity also threatens records and artifacts that do not easily lend themselves to digitization — because of cost, but also because Web surfers and more devoted data hounds simply find it easier to go online than to travel far and wide to see tangible artifacts.

The article touches on matters of copyright. Copyright laws—which have extended the term of copyright from the original 7 years to over 90 years—does not touch on matters of digital preservation. An example of how things get mucked up as a result: A collection from Leonard Bernstein was donated to the Library of Congress. In the collection is a letter written by Jacqueline Kennedy right after the funeral of John F. Kennedy.

The letter is an extraordinary window into her grief: “Your music was everything in my heart, of peace and pain and such drowning beauty,” she wrote. But the library would need permission from the estate of Mrs. Onassis to digitize it.

When I read the book The Clock of the Long Now, by Stewart Brand, I was amazed by the idea that storing everything digitally means we’re losing more data at a faster rate than ever, thanks to obsolescence and proprietary formats. Wow. So true. But a decade and a half into my life lived digitally, here comes another twist as we—collectively—got used to Googlevenience. If we can’t find it in Google, we’re not going to go travel to a real archive to see the collection in person, and in artifact.

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on March 11, 2007 in • DigitalityHistoryLongevity
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