Preserving Records of the Past, Today

An interesting article from the most recent IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, Preserving Records of the Past, Today by James W. Cortada. In concerns the difficulty that scholars of the history of computing have in finding primary materials to work with, mostly in the form of documents.

Scholars examining the history of information technology run into many practical, nuts-and-bolts problems more frequently than historians in other fields that
have existed for considerable periods of time, such as diplomatic and political national history. Problems with the history of information technology center on the paucity of the tools historians rely on to do their work. This paucity includes insufficient finding aids
to archival collections and too few reference guides, bibliographies, and library collections adequately stocked with books and other publications. Of course,
the 800-pound guerrillas we all want in our intellectual spaces are large collections of archival materials needed to underpin our work. When compared to so many
other fields of history, we are long on demand and short on supply, mainly because our field is new. In time, all will be well in our part of history.

The author is kind enough to make a few suggestions to his fellow scholars about how they could improve conditions for themselves and coming generations of scholars.

Of course, the suggestions have a lot of applicability for librarians too, especially those (like me) who support historians of technology.

Let's take a look his suggestions. If you have access, it's well worth reading the whole article:

  • First, donate archival materials in whatever shape, form, or copy you acquire them to institutions of your choice so that future historians may consult them.
  • Second, collect and preserve all ephemera on your subject that you come across with the intention of donating it to a library or archive.
  • Third, write and publish bibliographic and historiographical articles describing materials and your research strategies.
  • Fourth, prepare annotated bibliographies and other research aids.

The first two, of course, seem the most directly applicable to libraries. There's a lot of pressure on space these days at libraries. On the one hand, we see ourselves as builders and promoters of excellent student spaces for study, relaxing and collaboration. On the other hand, economic pressures are forcing the closure of many dedicated subject libraries. Also, with technology books, magazines and other materials, the easy answer is that since the materials become technically obsolete fairly quickly, older versions can just be discarded. As well, with so much current material being online (both on the free web and in subscription ebook & periodical databases), there's also the impulse to just get rid of the stuff.

But, just as librarians in other disciplines are concerned with the histories of their fields, we must be careful about jettisoning the history of the disciplines that we support, we must be aware that our collections often serve more than what we think of as our core audience, but also historians, sociologists and anthropologists.

I would hope that Google and other book digitization programs will get around to a lot of that old material, but a lot of those old books, magazines and other ephemera will likely never be digitized by the commercial projects. I think there's lots of latitude here for special collections work, especially those that have off-site storage facililties or that can fund their own digitization projects for this type of material.

We live in interesting times, surrounded by rocks and hard places.


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Look at the transitions of media we've been through already. Anyone else still have a floppy drive on their computer? Is it 5.25" or 3.5", is it DSDD, or is it something else.

How about an MFM hard drive. Or IDE, or SATA? How long will that last.

A CD-ROM, actually that has stuck around for quite a while. But look at the lifespan of DVD, already being supplanted by the Blu-Ray.

When I worked at the Sec. State's office I was at the archives division one day and they were duplicating old Betamax tapes to DVD. The tapes were of the 1986 Rhode Island Constitutional Convention. I think they're critical because that's when our equal protection clause, Article 1 Section 2 was added to our Constitution.

Next time you are in England, hop on a train heading north to Bletchley.
A short walk from the station, you can visit the legendary Bletchley Park, home of the Enigma machine and birthplace of the working electronic computer.
In a seperate shed, they seem to have collected anything and everything related to personal computing - I don't think they have an exemplar of the world's very first commercial computer (The Manchester MkI), but they certainly have all the stuff I remember from the 70s and 80s.

By Vince Whirlwind (not verified) on 08 Sep 2009 #permalink

Vince, it's a deal. Unfortunately, I'm not sure when's the next time I'll be in the UK. If the London ScienceOnline happens again next year, that's probably my best chance.

Tony, I agree completely. Preservation plans for digital materials are just as important (if not more so) as for print or other materials.