Saturday, January 20, 2007

Technology's Effects on Historical Studies

The Lost Art of the Letter: Although this article raises it in a science history context, the author raises a point that academics involved in all areas of historical study will have to face at some point.

Electronic formatting and communication make things more capturable (in the sense that IM conversations, for instance, can be so easily saved). But as I've mentioned before on this blog, they also make them more fragile, in the sense that hard drives crash and people regularly delete and overwrite electronic drafts of things they're working on--or letters they've written.

This article raises the difficulties for science historians this process creates, and the same is true, if not magnified, in other historical disciplines such as literary studies, where drafts of work as well as correspondence are often key to disentangling the "authoritative edition" of a literary work.

As the author notes, the quickness of electronic media is a boon for collaboration, for quick capture of creative ideas, and for an author/scientist keeping track of the latest edition of a work. But with the author I hesitate to fully embrace this medium without thinking about the potential limitations electronic media places on future historians' processes and potential discoveries.

There have always been large gaps in the historical record, but the move to largely electronic storage for documents--and our corresponding shift to a more casual approach to destroying them--is something more people interested in history (of all types) should be concerned about. It's a problem librarians have been working on for years, but it's a big enough problem that they shouldn't have to shoulder the burden alone.

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