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Wednesday, November 13, Forgot your password? Get help. But critics of emulation tellingly note that it is only a theoretical solution. Probably the best strategy is to reject the all-or-nothing, magic-bullet approaches implicit in the proposals of the most passionate advocates of any particular strategy—whether creating hard copies, preserving old equipment, migrating formats, or emulating hardware and software.
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But even the most calibrated mix of technical solutions will not save the past for the future because, as we have seen, the problems are much more than technical and involve difficult social, political, and organizational questions of authenticity, ownership, and responsibility. Multiple experiments and practices are under way—more than can be discussed here. But I want to focus on some widely discussed approaches or experiments as illustrative of some of the possibilities and continuing problems. But for historians and for some archivists , the focus on records as evidence rather than records as sources of information, history, or memory seems disappointingly narrow.
While the Pitt Project emphasizes archival professionalism, a narrowing of the definition of recordkeeping, a rejection of the custodial tradition in archives, and planning for more careful collecting in the future rather than action in the present, the Internet Archive has taken precisely the opposite approach.
It represents a grass-roots, immediate, enthusiast response to the crisis of digital preservation that both expands and further centralizes archival responsibility in ways that were previously unimaginable. Although in part a philanthropic venture funded by Kahle, the Internet Archive also has a commercial side. By February , the Internet Archive IA had gathered a monumental collection of more than terabytes of web data—about 10 billion web pages or five times all the books in the Library of Congress—and was gobbling up 12 terabytes more each month.
Peabody in the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons of the s. Despite Deja. Both IA and Google Groups are libraries organized on principles that are more familiar to computer scientists than to librarians, as Peter Lyman, who knows both worlds as the head of the University of California at Berkeley library and as a member of the IA board, points out.
Projects designed by librarians and archivists generally have the advantages of precision and standardization. But the expense and difficulty of the protocols and procedures mean that less well funded and staffed archives and libraries often ignore them. The Internet Archive, which is the child of the search engines and the computer scientists, is an extraordinarily valuable resource. Most historians will not be interested now, but in twenty-five or fifty years they will delight in searching it. A typical college history assignment in might be to compare web depictions of Muslim Americans in and But any appreciation of the IA must acknowledge its limitations.
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Multimedia files—streaming media and flash—also do not seem to be captured. Some pages are missing for legal and economic as well as technical reasons. And many ungated sites also discourage the crawlers.
Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era
The New York Times allows free access to its current contents, but charges for articles more than one week old. To avoid trouble, the IA simply purges the pages of anyone who complains. Thus the Internet Archive is very far from the complete solution to the problem of digital preservation. It does not deal with the digital records that vex the National Archives and other repositories because they lack the public accessibility and minimal standardization in HTML of web pages.
Nor does it include much formally published literature—e-books and journals—which is sold and hence gated from view. And even for what it has gathered, it has not yet hatched a long-term preservation plan, which would have to incorporate a strategy for continuing access to digital data that are in particular and time-bound formats.
Even more troubling, it has no plan for how it will sustain itself into the future. Will Kahle continue to fund it indefinitely? At least so far, our most important, and most imaginatively constructed, digital collections are in private hands. One reason is that at least some key aspects of the digital present—the Bert story, for example—do not follow national boundaries and, indeed, erode them.
If national archives were part of the projects of state-building and nationalism, then why should states support post-national digital archives? The declining significance of state-based national archives may mirror the decline of the contemporary national state.
So far, the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress have worked with the Internet Archive only where they needed its help in documenting some particularly national stories—the elections of and and the September 11th attacks. Another reason for the limited government role is that the digital preservation crisis emerged most dramatically during the anti-statist Reagan revolution of the s.
In the s, for example, the electronic records program of the National Archives made a modest, promising start. But, as archivist Thomas E. Things began to improve in the early s, but, after , the electronic records program suffered from further cutbacks in the federal work force.
An underfunded and understaffed National Archives was hardly in a position to develop a solution to the daunting and mounting problem of electronic federal records. The Library of Congress also initially eschewed a leading role in preserving digital materials, as the National Research Council later complained. Here, too, one could detect the weakening influence of the state. Not coincidentally, American Memory was a project that could attract large numbers of private and corporate donors, who often saw sponsorship as good advertising and who paid for three-quarters of the project.
Better developed state-centered approaches to digital preservation have, not surprisingly, emerged outside the United States—in Australia and Scandinavia, for example. Norway requires that digital materials be legally deposited with the national library in return for copyright protection.
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Nevertheless, the National Archives and the Library of Congress have very recently begun—prodded by outside critics and supported belatedly by Congress—to take a more aggressive approach on digital preservation. The computer scientists maintain that records in this format will last for three hundred to four hundred years. Even this massive and important federal initiative bore the marks of the anti-statist, privatization politics of the s. Although the future of the digital present remains perilous, these recent initiatives suggest some encouraging strategies for preserving the range of digital materials.
A combination of technical and organizational approaches promises the greatest chance of success, but privatization poses grave dangers for the future of the past. Advocates of digital preservation need to mobilize state funding and state power such as the assertion of eminent domain over copyright materials but infuse it with the experimental and ad hoc spirit of the Internet Archive.
And we need to recognize that, for many digital materials especially the web , the imperfect computer-science paradigm probably has more to recommend it than the more careful and systematic approach of the librarians and archivists. Given the enormous barriers to saving digital records and information, it comes as something of a surprise that many continue to insist that a perfect plan—or at least a pretty good plan—will eventually emerge.
Techno-optimists such as Brewster Kahle dream most vividly of the perfect plan and its startling consequences. But, whatever our degree of skepticism, it is still worth thinking seriously about what a world in which everything was saved might look like. Most obviously, archives, libraries, and other record repositories would suddenly be freed from the tyranny of shelf space that has always shadowed their work.
Digitization also removes other long-term scourges of historical memory such as fire and war. The fire that destroyed the census records provided a crucial spark that finally led to the creation of the National Archives. But what if there had been multiple copies of the census? The ease—almost inevitability—of the copying of digital files means that it is considerably less likely today that things exist in only a single copy.
What would a new, virtual, and universal Alexandria library look like?
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Kahle and his colleagues have forcefully articulated an expansive democratic vision of a past that includes all voices and is open to all. The interesting, the picayune and the profane. Previously, few had the opportunity to come to Washington to watch early Thomas Edison films at the Library of Congress.
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