Posted by: soniahs | September 14, 2010

Exam reading: “Digital History”

Only two more readings to go on my core list! I suspect I’m not going to be as long-winded in my summaries when I move on to the next two lists, but we’ll see… These last few readings are all online texts. I will confess- I really dislike reading long works online. I don’t really have time to cite and elucidate why, but I don’t like doing it. Maybe that’s a topic for an actual post, when I have time.

Ever wanted to start your own amateur history website? (Memories of the Cape Coral Burrowing Owls? People who went to that one Phish concert that changed their lives? Those who mourn Geocities?) In “Digital History,” Cohen and Rosenzweig tell you how. I can see how this would be a very good resource for those wanting to start research or archival websites, and certainly not just for history:

Summary: The authors believe that electronic technologies can enhance historical work in several ways; this book is essentially a how-to manual for those wanting to start an online project. For example, large storage capacity allows us to expand the criteria for preservation of works (though extreme ephemerality of storage media & systems may mean that the possibility of preserving everything won’t be practical.) Online archives and sites expand access both to researchers and the public, sites can facilitate community participation (e.g., a community archive of the history of Town X), and database structures allow many different types of information to be linked & presented simultaneously. Some of the problems with online works include issues of quality and authenticity, durability, readability, corporate control of the medium, and the possibility that websites foster passivity in users (“interactivity” often boils down to “click through out TV-show tie-in site and then click here to buy”.) They offer suggestions for dealing with most of these issues. One of the main things they address is long-term preservation and archiving, the importance of using at least comment tags and update records, though preferably professional archive standards, and finding a permanent home for the site. They also address the importance of finding a good scope for the project, attracting visitors, and encouraging repeat visits. Another important issue is copyright- they advocate a Creative Commons approach (limited copyright on your work), and documenting attempts to secure rights if you’re not using public domain works.

Comments: A few chapters on technical considerations that I’m eliding, e.g., database vs. XML, digitization & data loss, design for usability by typical (i.e., commercial) WWW standards can oversimplify presentation. Considering archival issues is obviously a crucial issue for not just historians, though obviously they have a strong interest in this.

Links to: Lessig (Byzantine copyright laws); Burnard et al. (XML); McGann (example of online archive)

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