This week’s readings were three essays on the recent development of web based tools for historians to use. Dan Cohen’s articles, “History and the Second Decade of the Web,” and “The Future of Preserving the Past,” focus on digital archives on the web and the advantages and disadvantages of this new resource. Digital archives have the advantage of holding a vast amount of materials from written documents (including new formats such as e-mail and instant messages), to film and sound recordings as well. Not only can a digital archive hold more sources, but it also does not take up the space that the physical documents require in an actual archive. Cohen also discusses the perks digital media offers such as database searches that search several archives from across the country and world, an extensive and time consuming feat to be done physically but can now be done at the press of a button. Of course this new format isn’t without its drawbacks. Technology is constantly evolving and rendering past “state of the art” advances obsolete in most cases. Also, digital formats for storage are not indestructible and in a sense are more fragile than the physical documents themselves. As Cohen points out, a simple scratch on a CD/DVD can render it unreadable, and hard drives crash more often then not; and heaven forbid somehow a magnetic force got too close and completely wiped out the system altogether. Cohen goes on to remind us that although a technical glitch can wipe out an entire source, physical documents can still be interpreted despite the mild damage that comes with age. Documents on the web can also be scanned quickly for keywords to help the researcher analyze a document more quickly and proficiently which reminds me of what the Boca Raton Historical Society has done recently. In the last year or so the archivist at BRHS has digitized all of the early issues of the first newspaper in Boca Raton (the name escapes me at the moment), but not only can you read these scans of the paper, but you can have the computer search the text for keywords so you don’t have to waste time trying to skim every article for what you need. I’ll never forget how excited Sue (Sue Gillis the archivist at BRHS) was when they finally completed this and had it available to the public through their website. And it was exciting to see a small organization such as them have this new digital resource available for anyone interested.
Joshua Brown’s article, “History and the Web, From the Illustrated Newspaper to Cyberspace: Visual Technologies and Interaction in the Nineteenth and Twenty-First Centuries,” also discusses web based media (including CD-ROMs), but also looks more at early illustrated newspapers. I was amused to read how, “nineteenth-century pundits predicted a decline in cultural standards caused by this proliferation of cheap pictures.” I know Brown compared this to the current pessimistic view some have of the internet, but I can’t help but think of how true their sentiments were because I immediately thought of supermarket tabloid magazines and similar media to that effect. If those old pundits were still around I have no doubt they would be shaking their fists at us saying, “I told you so!” Despite the somewhat tawdry and cheap avenue that has developed since its inception, it was enlightening to read about the interactivity that these early illustrated papers had with their readers and how these papers often included conflicting points of view on a subject as a means to please everyone. Brown also discusses his work on CD-ROM technology, as an educational supplement and as a form of entertainment. However, the “game” prototype wasn’t successful due to its inability to get the user to think critically for themselves in order to actually learn from the game. CD-ROMs as an educational supplement are a great idea however and are successful in furthering a student’s knowledge in the subject.
While these new developments in technology certainly make historical research more accessible and convenient, it cannot be wholly relied upon entirely. Books and other physical documents will always be the norm when it comes to the bulk of research, in my opinion. Web related material is too easily manipulated and not entirely reliable, although as historians we know that the same can be said for printed material as well. The new technology being used for historical collections and research is new and exciting and it will be interesting to see how it continues to develop over the years. Will digital media eventually develop into the norm, or as the one and only means for researching and collections management? I truly doubt that, at least in my own time; maybe in a thousand years or so when we’re living like The Jetsons, but we’ll just have to wait and see until then.
PWG Bridal Show- February 8, 2009
8 years ago