Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Selective History

We automatically assume that the digital vacuum cleaners will hoover all archives before them and we will capture history in its entirety. This may be the case with certain collections but unfortunately not the case with many. We found a recent New York Times article http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/10/business/yourmoney/11archive.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&th&emc=th very thought provoking and timely. It covers the question of selection and whether by only digitalising what is the minority of archives, the future loses out on the richness of the contextual picture that exists in the physical form today. True, the physical archives aren’t going to suddenly disappear, but their richness may be lost as we see the past selectively in the future.

The Library of Congress can afford to digitise everything or in some cases all of a particular collection. Often the things that are hardest to digitise will be left behind. In the case of John Steinbeck, the National Steinbeck Centre in California are only planning to digitise a fraction of film clippings, letters, photos that give a rounded picture of the man and his writings. Only 10% of the Library of Congress’s 132 million items are planned to be digitised. The link below demonstrates some of the digital dilemmas archivists face.
Although we now seem to wish to store every email, picture and event that happens today and often in triplicate, capturing yesterday’s costs money and time. Much of yesterday’s content has already been lost and even large media organisations, such as the BBC, have ‘lost for ever’ priceless footage. Who is responsible for archiving and ensuring that the digital archives are able to be read into the future ? Will we in the future look back at history based on what we find in wikipedia and Google?
In the age of the ‘long tail’ how many publishers have access to all their material (developed rights) and can promote these and make them available on demand? Selective digitisation sadly impacts everyone and we clearly still live in the world of forgotten back lists, back orders and selective reprints?