Digital collections and the problem of too much….?

The readings for class this week centered around the possibility, the promise, and the perils of digital archives.  The reading that intrigued me the most was the Brennan and Kelly article “Why Collecting History Online is Web 1.5,” and the notion of the limitations of collecting materials for an archive.  We have been conditioned to believe in the unlimited power of computers, and specifically in relation to history, the avenues opened to historical inquiry because of digital archives.  Yet this almost seemingly all-encompassing power leads to some very significant questions.  Take for example, the sheer amount of information being generated from places like facebook and twitter, how will we possibly be able to sift through all this material, let alone establish any sort of discipline wide criteria for doing so?

Interestingly, this may lead to quite of problem for future historians.  What will happen, if for example social media provides the only “voice” for people in place such as Iran or North Korea?  How are historians supposed to judge the authenticity or the accuracy of a “status update?” Is it even really possible to develop an acceptable discipline wide protocol for doing so?  The article touched upon a related issue when it talked about the screening a materials coming into CHNM, but I guess in my mind it is a little bit of a different issue because for some strange reason, I trust a persons typed story or digital photo over a tweet.

I wonder if perhaps my concern is, at least partly, rooted in my area of study as a historian.  As everyone never tires of pointing out, Civil War historians are rarely at a loss for source material, and I wonder if my hesitancy towards social media stems from a simple case of source snobbery, or is it warranted caution on the part of a historian in training?  I should also add, that my hesitancy in this matter does extend beyond the possible use of social media as source material, to some of the more general concerns Meghan and Andy expressed about managing large quantities of source material.  The article, however, simply started a train of thought that lead me to add source evaluation into the equation, and then become quite alarmed when I kept going back and forth as to how I would deal with social media (in terms of both amount and reliability) if I was a historian who was forced to rely on that material to supplement an evidentiary base.

Thoughts? Comments?





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One response to “Digital collections and the problem of too much….?

  1. Disclaimer: my period of study ends ca. 1830. There aren’t many tweets for that time period.

    I’ve been using twitter for while, but hadn’t thought about it as a historical source until reading your post. My first reaction was “Well, there are verified accounts” – but those are only for celebrities, as a way of protecting a brand. I think if I were a historian 50 years from now trying to understand something like the Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street, I’d look at hashtags more than individual tweets (unless I knew the veracity of one specific account I wanted to track). Because hashtags relate to a specific topic, you can get a sense of what a group of people think/feel/want to express about it. The best 18th century equivalent I can think of is listening to a conversation in a coffeehouse on a particular subject (although those conversations aren’t recorded in any way). I feel that if you had a large group of voices, you can see what the dominant trend is, at least. Not authoritative, but still useful?

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