Born Digital

The April 16 archive, the Hurricane Digital Memory Banks, the September 11 Digital Archive and the Flickr Commons, are very interesting digital resources. The first three websites are crowd-sourced collections of documents, photos and stories about three tragedies in American history. The Flickr website is a database of photographs, paintings and documents from museums all over the world.  The tragedy websites, although not the most attractive to look at, do a lot of things well.

The April 16 archive states the contributor on every item. This creates transparency and trust between the creators of the website and the user because it establishes the criteria that one needs in order to contribute. Overall, the April 16 website is disorganized. The items are not broken down into smaller collections and not all of the tags are descriptive. Unless you know specifically what you are looking for, you need to wade through a giant list of items to find anything.

The Hurricane Digital archive is better as it breaks their items down into collections including collections created by organizations such as the Smithsonian.

The most comprehensive website of this group, the September 11 Digital Archive website includes a full list of partners, staff and an FAQ page about 9/11. Their partners include the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian and the American ed Cross in addition to technology companies that assist in the technological aspects of the site. The website has organized their materials into collections and is still allowing visitors to contribute. To contribute you must fill out a form specifying what kind of item you are submitting (a story, photo, video, etc.), a title, and an explanation on how your life has changed because of 9/11. To contribute you must agree to the Terms and Conditions, which are identical to what is found on the April 16 website. Again it is specified that not all contributions will be used. This indicates that materials will be vetted for accuracy.

Flickr commons, although occasionally infiltrated by adds, has the highest quality scans of photos. This makes sense as all contributions are by well established museums and institutions. Flickr is also a well established company.  The majority of the items are not born digital which may explain the quality. A photo scanned in 2014 will be of a much better quality than a photo taken with a digital camera in 2001. This website is a good way to explore collections of museums that you may not be able to visit, and some of these items are not on display anyway. The other three websites keeps many first-hand accounts and items in their original forms. Occasionally the tops or bottoms of the photos are cut off, sometimes cutting off words.

Historians have a lot to consider regarding items that are born digital. The internet is only getting larger, digital technologies are only improving, and it will be impossible for historians to preserve and analyze all of it. Historians will need to set priorities to determine what they want to preserve and how. As technology is always changing and some means of preservation could become obsolete almost as soon as they are created. Due to password protection and changing technologies, it is not possible to access everything that one may want to on the web. There is also the concern of who gets a say what gets preserved. The September 11 Digital Archive is 3517 pages of contributed material that is still growing. Digital archives that chronicle events that happened in 2018, for example, when digital technology, internet connection is more widely available and of a better quality, could run the risk of being millions of pages long. Someday there will certainly be digital archives devoted to 2016 presidential election, how will one capture all of the headlines, press releases, videos, memes, text-messages, Reddit posts and personal stories? How will one decide which ones are the most important?

4 thoughts on “Born Digital

  1. That’s a really good point. How will we someday be able to say what the feeling of the 2016 election was? I have a sense of it, based on my Facebook feed, various news headlines, and the anecdotal reactions of the people around me. But as a scholar, how do you even begin to select a representative sample of Twitter posts, news articles, commentary? And as a digital historian, how do you deal with the volume of everything that’s out there and create an archive that’s useful and usable? I feel like I need to know more about other fields, like communications, sociology, and cultural studies to come up with a real answer.

  2. Your point about memes is actually really interesting. They’re incredibly important to how people on social media think and formulate opinions, and yet they are also transient by nature. Future historians are going to have to look back on 2016 and try to recover all the most important shitposts from facebook and twitter.

    1. Going off the idea of memes being incredibly important yet transient by nature– I think that digital history is currently better captured by non-history sites than by historians. That’s probably not controversial, because of course popular sites have an edge. But sites like urban dictionary or knowyourmeme, for all their problems, will be explaining words, images, copypastas, and specific emoji combinations to befuddled historians for a long time. These sites also track the history of use in each post.

  3. I like your point that technology has improved and helped crowd sourced projects like these a lot. With high enough quality pictures from your phone, historians could read text on activist’s shirts or memorials with ease compared to the grainy pictures which were also less frequently taken of even 10 years ago.

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