I want to start this post with a nod to Vannevar Bush. It’s astounding to see how prescient he was on the coming technological revolution. His appreciation for how data storage, photography, and computers would grow geometrically in sophistication is amazing. It is notable as well to point out that his musings on the impact of technology were written a month before the Hiroshima bomb was dropped. One wonders how this knowledge would have changed the obvious awe with which he pondered this revolution in technology.
The Cohen, Hockey, and Rosenzweig articles all deal with the various aspects of the history and future of the digital world. It is telling that Cohen, for instance, points out that the early history websites were initiated by amateur historians, not professionals. Thus, from the beginning, the debate in the historical field has swirled around “credentials” and who is or isn’t a “legitimate” source of information or commentary. Many of us have read Wikipedia entries, for instance, that are frustrating because they are either factually incorrect or thematically bland to avoid controversy. Regarding Cohen’s discussion of digitizing historical resources, however, I have to admit I could not have as quickly completed a master’s thesis based partly on the Official Records of the Civil War without the Making of America site digitizing and indexing this huge work. Susan Hockey also discusses this democratizing of historical resources. I agree with her that the wider dissemination of this vast cultural heritage will have far-reaching consequences.
Finally, the Rosenzweig article must be troubling for anyone interested in the topic of preserving the digital record for future generations. I really had not fully considered the import of not just changing forms of media (magnetic tape, cd’s), but also the loss of machines capable of reading them. I’ve been doing this long enough that essays I wrote on my Mac vintage late 1990s are now inaccessible to me. Granted, most of what I wrote was garbage, but you get the point. Advances in computer technologies give us a false sense of confidence that everything is being preserved, when, as Rosenzweig points out, much of this stored data has a shelf life of not much more than a few years. A sense of almost panic imbues Rosenzweig’s essay and rightly so. The irony that a paper copy of a document might survive centuries in a basement somewhere, whereas my Word document from a few years ago is inaccessible to me should not be lost on the historical community.