It would seem that the acts of curating data, or as Flanders and Munoz put it, the “protection”, of data and the process of preserving it for future use and scholarship could potentially be used interchangeably? The act of aggregating, or collecting, data and information is nothing new. According to the article by Anthony Grafton, humans have, since the inception of the written word, sought to organize the vast amounts of information available to them in a comprehensive and useful way. The act of collecting, preserving, and presenting data in the digital age is merely the next iteration in the information journey humans have been on for millennia. The challenges in the early era were more physical (i.e. floods, fires, deterioration of paper products, etc…), but the digital era presents its own challenges.
First, and perhaps most importantly, what is to be collected and preserved? Merely the act of curating, or selecting which information is to be preserved and disseminated is, in itself a subjective endeavor. One way around this is to truly collect everything, much like a library, or to collect everything from a time period that has survived, or everything written by a single person that can be found. Many sites have attempted to do this, the sites on Sir Isaac Newton and the correspondence from and between writers of the Enlightenment, for example, but a comprehensive collection of all human knowledge seems so impossible as to almost become laughable. So, to create a digital archive requires a knowledge of not just the hardware and software needed to make the best use of the information, but also an academic expertise needed to discern which pieces are essential and which ones can easily be left behind. This is why the Digital Humanities, of which Digital History is an integral part, is such a hybrid, interdisciplinary practice. The days of academics and practitioners working separately and in isolation are a thing of the past.
The second challenge unique to the modern and digital ages is the idea that when someone creates a work of art or a piece of writing, that person has the right to say how it can be used. In layman’s terms, it becomes their intellectual property and is often copyrighted and protected by laws. What is a scholar to do? Does society simply lose access to essential information because it is under copyright or because the author has not released it for dissemination? The short answer is, yes. The more nuanced explanation is that there are ways around this problem. Google and Microsoft, according to Anthony Grafton in “Future Reading”, have been able to digitally access, collect, preserve, and circulate hundreds of thousands of books that have fallen out of copyright because of their advanced age. While it does not solve the problem of access, it does mitigate the damages of lack of access to information.
Perhaps the most poignant and deeply touching aspect of digitizing articles that would otherwise be lost to the ages, is the very human component of history and historical moments. The archive of the James Family, put together by the patriarch to commemorate his family’s history provides the most affecting example of the true capability of digital archives, by placing a single family into the narrative. One striking example of this is the section of the archive pertaining to Mr. James’ brother, Bob, who died in a Japanese POW camp in WWII. Mr. James scanned and archived all the documents pertaining to his brother and put them in one place. Thus, one can see the trajectory of a life from infancy to death, laid out in pictures, letters, cards, and official correspondence. Because the viewer can see Bob’s life from childhood, through his teen years, the death announcement from the War Department allows one to truly appreciate the grief of his family, more so than simply reading a newspaper article about Bob’s internment and death.
This archive of a single family makes what could be considered mundane, important. Watching the unfolding of a familial story across generations, or even centuries depending on the sources available, truly allows a scholar to appreciate the very human impact on the study of history. My own family archive would be extensive to say the least. I have in my past immigrations from Europe and Asia, participants in wars both foreign and domestic, disease epidemics, and migrations across the continental United States, all of which could be read about in a textbook, but, when viewed through the prism of an individual or family, take on a richness and nuance previously unattainable.
“Even the best search procedures depend on the databases they explore” -Anthony Grafton “Future Reading”
“Poverty, in other words, is embodied in lack of print as well as in lack of food.” -Anthony Grafton “Future Reading”