There’s a lot of talk, amongst historians, of digital history. I’ll certainly be writing quite a bit on the subject. Mostly the discussion seems to be centred on how to teach history in an electronic medium. I, however, am struck by a different question. Is making something digital always necessary? Is Digital always better?
This is very much an opinion piece.
Something can be said for digital preservation. Aging and damaged documents, scanned and saved into a computer’s hard drive can be copied, disseminated and altered at will, without any harm coming to the original. Ancient, faded documents can be restored through the electronic manipulation of ink traces too faint for human eyes. There is, however, a cost. Those electronic ‘saves’ are, in reality, far more fragile than the paper they were copied from. medieval manuscripts, placed in online galleries can be seen, studied and admired by millions, but a power surge at a server farm will destroy that electronic copy completely. Meanwhile, the original, written on parchment and stored in a monastery, will survive forever. The Book of Kells, as an example, is more that twelve hundred years old, and has survived (among other things) Vikings, Revolutions and Reformations. Despite all that, its beauty remains with us.
Even modern, printed books will last for decades, though their cheap paper and glue bindings will betray them eventually (I happen to own a number of new books made with sewn bindings and acid-free paper. They come with guarantees for very long periods of time, although of course they were not cheap!). Most electronic files will not last that long, if only due to technological change. The digitization of files has gone one for quite some time. What happens when one wants to look at something digitized in the 1980s? You better have a computer with a floppy drive, and some emulators prepared to run long forgotten word processors. Electronic files degrade, and do so with surprising speed. Interestingly, the older a storage medium is, the longer it stores information usefully.
The impermanence of digital data is bad enough. What’s worse is a little more ephemeral in nature.
We go to museums to see things. For many, that’s what history is- the remains of the past (the dedicated history may attempt to explain that everything is indeed the remains of the past- but you get alot of funny looks trying to explain how Western culture came about). I believe that digital repositories lose something in the transference. Now, it’s true that digital exhibits and galleries have many good points- no crowds, no waiting, no hours of operation, and often I can stare at the artefact from many angles and in better lighting conditions than can usually hope for. All of these are good things, and I am glad for them. The Internet has made me aware of many things that I would never have none otherwise, and I think myself the better for it. Still, visiting an actual museum- making a pilgrimage to the Smithsonian or the British Museum are far grander experiences than simply touring their collections on line.
Digital facsimiles will never- and should never- replace the real artefact. Digital galleries and exhibits exist to draw people in, to excite them and inspire them to see the real exhibits. Art is better in person and so is history.
Switching to Acid-Free paper,
Scott W. E. Dickinson