A Response to the Class Readings

This week’s blog is a response to the class readings for last week. They consist of an article by Daniel J. Cohen, two chapters (“Collecting History Online” and “Preserving Digital History”) from a book by Roy Rosenzweig and Daniel Cohen (the same guy that wrote the aforementioned article) and a short article by Robert Townsend about Google Books. Cohen’s article deal’s with the use of digital technologies to preserve the past, particularly how the internet was used to preserve information about  the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Among the more interesting things that he discusses are ways for historians who have a historically themed website to be able to get visitors to these sites to contribute and share their experiences of a certain historic event (e.g. 9/11). Among the ways that Cohen mentions that historians could use to solicit submissions to their sites are e-mail and instant messaging (IM). He also mentions that there are many challenges to saving digital sources, such as changes in software and hardware that may make some sources unreadable on newer technology (he gives the example of http code having changed so much that some websites from the 1990s are no longer readable).

The chapter “Collecting History Online” is pretty much an expanded version of the article. It mostly covers the same topics and even uses some of the same paragraphs, with a few minor word changes.  The chapter does contain some information about attracting visitors to one’s website which could come in handy for those with a website.  The chapter “Preserving Digital History” focuses on, well, how to preserve digital files (in other words how to digitally preserve sources). This chapter starts by noting how quickly digital files can degrade and become unreadable, stating that a good number “audio CDs” (I’m guessing mostly music, but maybe also speeches and stuff) from the 1980s are already degrading, with the Library of Congress estimating that between 1 and 10 percent (that is quite a gap in my opinion though) of 1980s CDs in their collection already has “serious data errors”. The chapter goes on to give various tips for preserving digital sources, including reminding people to back up their files frequently and telling web programmers to use shorter relative urls when possible rather than fuller urls (i.e. http://www.website.com/filename instead of http://www.website.com/superfolder/folder/subfolder/section/filename) so that changes to the website don’t make it harder to access files. The chapter also mentions how older forms of storage media have fallen or were/are in the process of falling into disuse, mentioning that Dell no longer includes floppy disk drives as a standard feature to their computers (though while the floppy disk may not be commonly used anymore, the disk’s legacy lives on as many programs, like WordPerfect and Adobe Reader, use a floppy disk shaped icon as the button you click on to save a file) and recommend that historians save their files on newer “optical” media like CDs or DVDs. Given how quick technology changes, I personally would recommend having some hard copies as well (e.g. printing out a webpage or a picture).

Finally there is Townsend’s article “Google Books: What’s not to like” where the author gives some examples of flaws with Google Books. The first two flaws he mentions are “poor scan quality” and “faulty metadata”. In my opinion those two things could be improved over time, particularly the scan quality, if Google wishes to invest the money, man-hours and technology to do so. The other flaw Townsend criticizes Google books for is a “truncated public domain” in which post-1923 government documents are treated as if they were copyrighted even though they are really public domain sources. I am not sure why Google does that or if they have since rectified that since Townsend’s 2007 article. Hopefully Google has, or will, rectify that issue. Despite its flaws (and any site will have flaws), Google Books is a site that is useful to many people. Indeed I would say the site’s use vastly outweighs its flaws.

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