Sunday, September 23, 2007

Annalee Newitz on Digitization, Part II

In addition to her dismantling of the “universal digital library” myth, Annalee Newitz recently addressed the concept and viability of “paperless archives” in her AlterNet column. In outlining her current position as an archivist for the nonprofit organization Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, Newitz again finds that the issue of “scale” severely hamstrings the desirability of an all-digital archive, but also identifies “redundancy” as an equally important factor: “I love online archives as much as the next geek, but what happens when the servers blow out? When we stop having enough power to run data storage centers for progressive nonprofits?”

Redundancy certainly doesn’t sound all that exciting when we consider just how much library technology (and correspondingly, the role of libraries in general) has shifted in the past fifteen to twenty years. I have a personal reminder of this whenever I attend to our library’s microfilm and microfiche collection. Both seemingly scream out for digitization: they require heavy cabinets that take up precious space, and their machines are not only cumbersome and sometimes temperamental, but also fail to provide the kind of benefits (such as instant gratification and image quality) that characterize digitized documents. Nevertheless, our microfilms and microfiche collections contain document records that are not—and may never be—digitized, thus fulfilling a crucial historical role. Moreover, while those particular technologies have remained more or less the same since their inception, they also are cheap, relatively easy to store, and provide an impressive amount of information for their size—all without requiring virtually any upkeep for the microfilm rolls and microfiche themselves.

Newitz’s claim that “even if digital disasters don't strike, history is preserved through redundancy” offers a practical guideline of sorts that calls for integrating digital technology with—as opposed to displacing—traditional methods. The Internet, virtual storage methods, and scanning equipment may leave us with a sense of wonder about their potential uses, and as someone who remembers spending my childhood and adolescence leaning about the card catalog system, I think that type of reaction is understandable. Yet no technology is perfect, and while paper, microfilm/microfiche, and older recording methods lack a certain “wow” factor, they remain indispensable for not only the retention of history, but also for patron research that ranges from casual interest to academic books. Forgoing either “new” or “old” technologies for the other guarantees a lack of proper perspective, and ultimately compromises the core of what libraries and archives have been and continue to be about.

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