Collecting and Preserving History on the Web

Historian Ansley T. Erickson noted in her 2013 essay “Historical Research and the Problem of Categories” that “information management as a consequential aspect of historical research. How we organize and interact with information from our sources can affect what we discover in them.”1 While Erickson wrote this in the context of organizing one’s own primary sources in a software such as Zotero, this statement has implications far beyond the organizational methods of the individual researcher.

This week in class we focused on the process of attaching metadata to digital collections. The methods by which archival collections should be organized have long been subject to debate, but with the introduction of digital collections, the way sources are organized is less static. Instead of a physical file system organized by original order or subject matter, digital collections can be sorted by date, subject, or original order all by clicking different links. Metadata allows historians to view their primary sources in whichever configuration is most useful to them. This does present challenges too, however, because unless historians understand the standard language used for the metadata, they may miss entire bodies of sources by simply excluding certain search terms.

Erickson argued that graduate training programs in history “offer little explicit guidance on the mechanics involved” in research and using digital resources is one of the many fields overlooked.2 Many historians self-educate, but perhaps this could be made easier by placing further emphasis on the importance of archival methods and expertise. Such education might also increase the awareness and appreciation historians have for archival work—an appreciation that historian Roy Rosenzweig has argued is increasingly necessary.

In his 2003 article “Abundance or Scarcity,” Roy Rosenzweig argued that in a world that has an over-abundance of digital sources, methodologies used by historians “may need to change radically.” He insisted that historians should be involving themselves in conversations about the new challenges—practical, ethical, and methodological—presented by digital preservation, but lamented that in the early 2000s they were not doing so because they viewed it as the exclusive purview of archivists and librarians.3

This lack of concern from historians is a result, Rosenzweig argued, of the relatively recent disciplinary divide between archivists and historians—and it was seriously hindering the preservation of digital materials. If historians acknowledged their shared interest in preservation, he argued, they could take “joint action” with archivists in advocating for increased funding for digital preservation.4

Using digital resources for historical research offers the field a wide array of new opportunities. It also presents serious challenges, which may fundamentally change both archival and historical methodologies as they exist today. If we are to reap the benefits of new tools and opportunities presented by digital collections and digital preservation, historians need to abandon what Rosenzweig called their “hands-off approach” and be willing to join with archivists in shared advocacy for the funding and development of these resources.5

  1. Ansley T. Erickson, “Historical Research and the Problem of Categories: Reflections on 10,000 Digital Note Cards,” in Writing History in the Digital Age, ed. Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013)–writing-history-in-the-digital-ag e?g=dculture;rgn=div1;view=fulltext;xc=1#7. ↩︎
  2. Ibid. ↩︎
  3. Roy Rosenzweig, “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era,” American Historical Review 108, no. 3 (June 2003): 735-762. ↩︎
  4. Ibid. ↩︎
  5. Ibid. ↩︎

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