For this week’s assignment, I’m trying to think about the authenticity, accessibility, and reliability of the materials in these digital archives, and the archives themselves. As I understand the challenges that go along with digital collections, we’re mostly concerned with the reliability of the hardware (which could fail and lose data), the accessibility of the materials in the collection (either due to too much information, or the proper technology isn’t available to everyone, and the authenticity of the materials themselves, which often aren’t traceable or their origins aren’t transparent. These are the concerns that stuck with me from this week’s readings.
That said, I don’t share the caution that Cohen and Rosenweig seem to have towards digital history. I don’t think the problems that come with web-based preservation and research are fundamentally different older ways of doing history.
For example, my first observation, after looking at the 9/11 digital archive, was that the inclusion of emails and anonymous submissions gave a forum to the most casual of impressions, memories, and reflections. The first email I looked at described a dream that the person had and his interpretation of it and how it related to 9/11. A good amount of these materials might be more useful to literary scholars who want to say something about the cultural imagination than to historians. In this case, digital tools made it very easy to collect lots of material, even stuff that wasn’t exactly choice historical documentation. But I don’t think this is a fundamentally new problem with archives.
My second observation, in regard to the Hurricanes Katrina and Rita archive, is that the volume of information available can make it difficult to browse materials or find what you’re looking for; especially if the materials are not organized by an intuitive schema. I found the Katrina and Rita archive very hard to use. With 8,462 items organized into four very big categories (“stories,” “images,” “oral histories,” and “video”), it’s not easy to browse or search for something specific. Here digital tools allowed the archivists to source an incredible amount of materials, but they failed to build an intuitive system that would allow visitors to easily browse, search, and retrieve items.
The April 16 Archive suffers from both the problems I discussed above. It appears to be the most casual collection of materials ever, sorted only by several hundred tags. While this website is an extreme case, my impression is that these challenges are not specific to digital collections. As we saw at the UMass Special Collections last week, they collect a great many things. But they have an excellent system for dealing with the volume of the material and making it easily searchable. To me, this is the most important feature of digital collection—that the information is organized in an intuitive manner and it is made easily searchable. Doing this well will mitigate these challenges discussed above.