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Scholarly Sustainability and Use on the Digital Platform


February 1, 2015 by kdaly3

I find that Rosenzweig’s Clio Wired asked more questions about the future of scholarship and libraries as a result of the possibilities of the digital age than did Cohen and Rosenzweig’s Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web. It also discusses ways in which students and historians/teachers interact with web-based materials that expands upon our previous reading of History in the Digital Age, by Toni Weller. I particularly appreciated the discussion of how, as historians and archivists, we face a constant battle of a proliferation of information and the possibility of a future of scarcity of information. At one point, the text discusses potential solutions of how libraries can reduce costs of journal access; one of these methods was through the production of electronic-only copies of these journals by publishers to save on costs of postage and paper. While this can be a good solution for libraries, I think that publishers still need to produce at least some hard copies of these materials in case someday the technology they used to produce or read these materials becomes obsolete. This is important to consider for all web-based materials; we should consider what websites might be historically significant enough to keep for future perusal before they disappear from the web altogether. Also, what format do you put these on so that they will be readable fifty years from now? At what point are we keeping too much or too little? How do the global social and legal rules interact with each other in such a diverse international platform? And who has the authority to make these decisions?

One must also consider the sustainability of these sites from a historical perspective. Most website producers do not realize that their sites may be needed for both posterity and research purposes, so, of course, they do not take this into consideration if the site needs to be shut down. Why would they? Their main concern is visibility of their information at the present moment to gain more viewership, not preservation for historians. However, who then does the responsibility fall to? Archives would perhaps be the most obvious answer, but there is also a question of the availability to technologies that can hold this data and training within a repository to take on digital information and web pages. If they do have these technologies, how do they choose to save and store them for preservation? Put the site into hard copies or PDF documents? There is then the question of taking information and sources out of their context and onto a platform that will provide differences in interpretation. Even with scholarly journals, historians are traditionally trained to write and publish for journals even though they could put their articles online (though this has its own array of potential legal issues) and open themselves up to a much wider audience. However, as we have previously discussed, there is a question of the credibility of information put onto the internet, and scholars are often uncomfortable with the web as a scholarly platform and how to use it without writing as if they would for a journal. Also, historians may be faced with a learning curve of historical method in their writing; they may not necessarily know how to write to accommodate a broader audience. Instead, stick with the traditional print versions of their scholarly, peer-reviewed journals because it is what they know to be reliable and they are keenly aware of the audience they are reaching out to.


  1. chuber1 says:

    Kate- I feel that you definitely hit on some major issues facing the academic community as it grapples with the shifts to the traditional academic paradigm brought on by the shift from analog to digital media. Shifting to digital only publishing solves some problems and creates others that you mentioned. The one that deeply concerns me is the fact that electronic journals are licensed to libraries and not owned by them. This feeds into your question of who should be responsible to archive digital media. Why should libraries, one of the more traditional places to archive, spend limited time and resources on preserving copies of things that they don’t own? How can we find ways to ensure the preservation of digital media in the shift from predominately publicly funded archives to privately funded and owned archives?

  2. Susan Prillaman says:

    In 1998, Terry Sanders addressed the issue of digital preservation in his film Into the Future: On the Preservation of Knowledge in the Electronic Age, discussed in this AHA article by Pillarisetti Sudhir ( and mentioned by Rozensweig in his essay titled “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past.”

    You don’t have to look far to find clips of the film on YouTube and Dailymotion ( That the film is dated seems to help make the argument that technology is advancing faster than our ability to compensate for its impact on preservation.

    As an aside, before posting a link to the Dailymotion website, I checked the link to its copyright notification which falls in line with last week’s discussion. Indeed, it goes a half-step further and provides an online “Send a copyright notification” form.

  3. jjackson39 says:

    As an archivist myself it’s interesting to see different opinions on how to proceed with preservation in the digital realm as there is no strong consensus as to how to sustainably do so, short of storing and maintaining period-specific hardware for every digital record that you store in a physical format. The complicated answer may lie in letting some ‘cabal’ of archivist decide upon a definitive format for each era and sticking to this one format and media. Since this seems unlikely we should plan for more headaches in years to come as we try to access a floppy drive in 2025.

  4. Julie says:

    What I think is sad is that many historians generally do not consider the historical content published online (whether by a historian or not) as actual academic scholarly work. I think we as a field have to have a shift in mentality about what it means to publish one’s work online. But in order to legitimize digital publications, we run into the same difficulties regarding the reliability and authenticity of content found in the digital world. It seems that we may be a long way from finding a compromise to this issue.

  5. jeldredge1 says:

    This aspect of digital archiving has really made me think and scared me a bit, even when it comes to my own files. I had been led to believe that digital archiving was the best way to preserve future documents. I even bought a picture and negative converter to scan and store old family photos, in case of a fire or other disaster. But in 10+ years, will I be able to open those files? I realized that I still have floppy disks somewhere with files on them, do I still have a tower that can read a floppy? I am also heading a project for my GRA to create a digital database to store foundation records; I’ll definitely have to ask our outside vendor about their plans (if any) to keep this platform accessible long term. I guess this means that such projects won’t be a one and done thing, we’ll have to keep upgrading and converting our files repeatedly as formats change. Makes this ‘revolutionary’ data platform seem a little more like a millstone round all our necks, doesn’t it?

  6. Adina Langer says:

    Kate, you’ve definitely hit upon a key question pertaining to the future of digital history. Who should be responsible for archiving our digital present? In the past, archives have often arisen from institutions or have been created thematically. This is probably still appropriate in the present day, but you are correct that this requires a new attention to digital tools and some challenges in overcoming technological hurdles in preserving digital content. Should a public institution take on the role played by the Internet Archive? Is “crawling” the answer here? How else do we deal with the constantly changing nature of Web content?

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