Digitisation is the death of history – July 2013

Digitisation is the death of history, or, On cats and fish (and rubber chickens)


Recently, I participated in the History Council of WA’s great debate, “That digitisation is the death of history”, held at Curtin University and sponsored by the School of Information Studies on Monday 29 August.  The topic had originally been proposed by Councillor Andrew Gill.  I knew that we would need a big draw card, and Curtin were able to organise that in the person of David Fricker, Director General of the National Archives, who agreed to speak in the negative, supporting digitisation.  We paired David with Andrew S. Bowman, who has been active in the digital social media sphere through his work with the Carnamah Historical Society, and more recently with the State Library of WA Foundation. Andrew has written about the debate on his blog – http://andrew-s-bowman.blogspot.com.au/2013/07/so-what-does-digitisation-mean-for.html

I knew from the start that finding speakers for the affirmative would be no sinecure, so I put myself up for it, and then strong armed my friend and colleague, Meg Travers. Meg and I had worked on some digitisation projects and standards, and we’ve wrestled with digital archives for some time. Meg is currently studying at Edith Cowan University looking at the longevity of electronic music forms, and has worked with the Museum and State Library on their digital content and catalogues.  And I? I’ve been involved with the internet since the early 1980s, ever since my archives course at the University of New South Wales introduced me to RIQS and bulletin boards.  I also currently teach conservation and preservation of digital information materials at Curtin University.

The evening was rounded out by Kathryn Greenhill, from the School of Information Studies, as mistress of ceremonies, while Bobbie Oliver, also from Curtin but from the History discipline, kindly agreed to adjudicate.

What follows is the basis for my speech, more or less.

I’d recently been to the WA Museum to see the display on ‘Secrets of the Afterlife’, featuring beautiful calligraphy and stories from the tombs of the Egyptians. The clarity of the writing and artwork was extraordinary – carbon inks, linen bandages and papyrus papers all standing the test of 3,500 years of history. Because of these materials, and the way they had been stored, we have a very clear idea of Egyptian life and beliefs, and of their fondness for cats.  Sadly, while we too appear to have a fondness for cats in our online lives (http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2013/may/17/top-10-internet-lolcats) , the chances are that in another 3,500 years we will still know more about Egyptian cats than about internet memes.  And this is due to a number of factors, of which the ‘digital black hole’ and the ‘digital deluge’ are not insignificant: the one does not counteract the other.

As speakers for the affirmative, it was up to us to come up with definitions, and we wanted to make sure that they were fairly broad. Digitisation, we decided, was the transformation of information from analogue to digital format, whether through a scanning or other process, or through the change in the way we do things, from snail mail to email, diaries to blogs, and handwritten letters to word processing and beyond.  History, we decided, was both the actions and activities of the past, but also the practice of writing about and studying history,  and where better to turn for a definition than to G.R. Elton (or rather, a review about him by Richard Brown – http://richardjohnbr.blogspot.com.au/2012/10/elton-and-practice-of-history.html). History is

the reconstruction of a real past peopled by real individuals who did things that actually happened … and the veracity of such reconstructions should be assessed and judged against all the known evidence, not just that which is presented in a particular account.

E.H. Carr said

History consists of a corpus of ascertained facts. The facts are … like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use – these two factors being, of course, determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch…

In looking at digitisation, and in particular the role of institutions in transforming and making available the documents and evidence of a particular event or time or institution, it becomes apparent that digitisation is changing, not just the ocean in which the historian fishes, but also the number and nature of the fish they can catch.  We are being encouraged to fish from particular shores and with specific bait.

Bill Cronon, until recently President of the American Historical Association, sees the transformation of the practice of history from analogue to digital as both an exciting challenge, but also as a risk strategy for one of the major forms of historical expression – the monograph. He alludes to the fact that more and more of us read blogs, and brief articles, rather than the long 500 page text (reading Harry Potter or Game of Thrones does not compare).  More than that, many of us are losing the ability to read handwriting, which has its own risks for the historian of the future.  http://archivesoutside.records.nsw.gov.au/director-alan-ventress-discusses-the-disappearing-skill-of-reading-handwriting/  While it may be argued that digitisation will solve that problem as more and more material is both digitised and transcribed, the reality is somewhat different.

The Google library scheme is one demonstration of that: although Google and other major digitisation programs suggest that they are out to digitise everything, the reality is quite different.  Google identifies books that are in the public domain, that are physically capable of being copied (by which they are disbound, fed through a fast scanner and then rebound, to greater or lesser standard). While the result is indeed many more digital texts being made available, the iceberg of undigitised works remains hidden and unexplored. Indeed, the very success of the digital medium may be leading to less identification of other works, and the subsequent loss of those fish from the historian’s ocean.  If it is not on Trove or Google, does it exist?

Similarly, in making decisions about digitisation, libraries and archives are very much driven by the concept of ‘low hanging fruit’.  Material needs to be in a suitable format for digitisation with no observable copyright issues, and must be suitable for a large, or rather, a specifically targeted audience.  The amount of digitisation that is being carried out is tiny when compared with the reality of the collections from which the works are copied. [It’s interesting though – when the National Archives of Australia announced that reading rooms would be shut down for certain days each week to enable more digitisation, there was barely a whimper.  When Libraries and Archives Canada announced that they would do the same thing, archivists and historians marched on Ontario. http://www.savelibraryarchives.ca/ ]

The majority of works digitised to date tend to be photographs, often with minimal metadata and context, which are then resent as twitter, tumblr and flickr images into the great unknown, with less and less metadata; or name rich content suitable for the genealogist and family historian. The number of fish has multiplied but they are all the same, possibly unknown, species, while the number of beaches from which we can fish is being limited too.

Not only is the practice of history at risk, but history itself may be in trouble.  The rise of digital information, and an innumerable range of digital formats presents its own challenges. We may be starving in the midst of plenty, as the essential fragility of digital information becomes apparent.  As more and more content is being created, less and less of it is capable of being preserved. Future historians face a surfeit of ‘big data’, unstructured data with minimal context.

And at this point, Kathryn squeaked her rubber chicken.

The rules of the debate had been set earlier.  We would each have ten minutes to speak, with a warning bell at nine minutes and the rubber chicken squawk at ten.  I had been so caught up in the debate that I missed the nine minutes, and it took some time for my brain to recognise the chicken sound as the end of my speech rather than a one minute warning (That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it). As a consequence, I did not get to go on with the rest of my speech.

David Fricker followed on from me, saying that history was like a soup and then Meg responded to him with a speech about the fragility of digital formats and the security implications of some digital networks.  Her responses raised real questions about the evidential value of digital materials – the real evidence of real people that Carr put so much emphasis on.  Not just the practice of history, but history itself is at risk.  Andrew Bowman then presented his paean to the wonders of digital access.

If history is a soup, then we need to make sure that we have access to more than bouillabaisse. And we need to make sure that we know both what fish are in the bouillabaisse we are eating, and whether we can get different species.  The increase of digital information and the transformation of ways of communicating information mean that we are standing on a shore line where the oceans have changed and the sea level is rising. Of the four of us standing at the podium that night, only one of us, David Fricker, has a boat, and it is small and undermanned. Not only that, but it’s started to rain.

[If digitisation is truly not to be the death of history, then we need to ensure that we create good records, in the digital equivalent of carbon ink on linen or papyrus, and then we need to store them properly. Otherwise, Grumpy Cat will be lost to the aeons.]


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