Dangerous Digitization?

Our discussions last night really stoked alternative ideas  to cry of the “technical republic”:  digitize, digitize, digitize!  Comprehensive acts of digitizing without the thought of risks for the sake of facility or that lessor mentioned reason;  money, could cause significant intangable losses.  Losses such as provenance, intellectual curosity, and scholarship.  I had mentioned the archival term “provenance” or the original order and arrangement of the records.  There is an unspoken contract of sorts that researchers at the National Archives and probably most others, enter.  It is an agreement that what they had is what you get (WTHIWYG).  While researching in linearity has it faults, it provides structure for hardened scholarship and intellectual creativity.  For example, when a researcher phyiscally visits the National Archives and retrieves records of interest, that interest is metered out in small loads (nine cubic feet) at a time.  The provenance is naturally reinforced because the researcher can only have one folder, from one box, from one office within one agency at a time.  This acts a “force of gravity,” focusing the researcher to learn the filing scheme, organizational priorities, and choices of the agencies at a specific point in time without pushing down current realities into their hypothesis about the past.

Intellectual curosity could be substantially reduced due to comprehensive digitization.  Intellectual curosity or creativity of following leads throughout the documented event is at risk because digitization will naturally become more and more dependent on algorithms and the people programming them.  This puts more distance between the creator and reader and cast everything you see and analyze in light of sophisticated programs.  Besides, selling out your entire archives for “30 pieces of bits and bytes” it creates alienation and reduces the overall archives to just another data mart.  In my experience at the Archives, I have noticed an intangable activity which acts as a driving force for many researchers.  This force, for the lack of a better term is an intoxication with originality.  For example,  one of the most reproduced documents would be our charters of freedom documents, its found online within our site and many others in high-resolution.  But millions of visitors still come to view the original everyday, why?  In the same way many researchers want the experience of handling the original documents and that experience compels the researchers with a since of stewardship to expose errors, reveal truths,  illuminate injustice, and  to make differences within our future society.  Furthermore, researchers are reluctant to reveal their life’s passion to anyone online nor are they willing to go where everyone has been before.  Also, there are instrinic differences in the original documents from those digitized counterparts.  I will call these differences the element of freshness.  Many researchers can review let’s say 60 year documents and tell if anyone else has ever looked at them since its accession.  For example, you can see if the documents have received any conservation efforts, if the original staples have been removed, or whether the original rubber band or fastners are still intact.

I am not all doom and gloom over digitization, I believe all the finding aides or information about archives should be digitized to facilitate searching and accessibility.  Also, most requested documents should also be digitized.


~ by pencil on November 1, 2006.

3 Responses to “Dangerous Digitization?”

  1. Once again great points. Were really seeing how there will be much debate within the Archives on this issue. Hopefully good researchers will know that when conducting research they need to visit the Archives and look through the various to series to get a sense of filling schemes and organizational structure. Also, you can look at a document on-line, but how did the agency arrive at that point. You are completely right when it comes to the intrinsic value of records. Most individuals would rather hold or see the original instead of viewing a digital copy on-line.

    I actually also had a question about something you brought up last night and being in appraisal, you might know the answer. Is the gigantic rise in the cubic feet of textual records accessioned to the Archives over the last decade due to agencies relying on textual records more or because the change in the policies of the Record Centers? I believe they used to store records for free, but now they charge a fee, so agencies are sending them here quicker. I could be wrong about that.

  2. Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation 🙂 Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Airstrike!!

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