Dealing with the digital past

Historical Geography Reading Group 13/12/12

Session 4, Semester 1

In a recent radio broadcast, the writer Will Self admitted to a growing preference for the past over the present, suggesting that this may be because:

“the hard drive of my computer is overloaded with digital images of the places I’ve been and the people I’ve met, all of them timecoded to a tenth of a second…[I]n the past decade or so the half-life or our memories has become artificially extended. Instead of curling photographs and yellowing newspapers, we are possessed of a shiny and permanent now.”

What are the implications for historical geography of this digitisation of everything? Dr. David Beel[]’s] research speaks to this hefty question from a specific empirical example. In collaboration with computer scientists, Dave is helping local history groups in the Outer Hebrides to manage their digital collections. 

Apparently, local history is big in the Hebrides, at least for certain sectors of the population. A means by which Hebrideans come to understand their identities, local history archives are also seen as a source of tourist income, enabling a far-flung diaspora to track down and revisit ancestral roots. This results in what Dave described as a kind of ‘heritage from below’, with people from the Hebrides telling their own stories about themselves. As part of this, community history projects have digitised large quantities of material for access via the web – genealogies, oral histories, songs, folk tales and so forth [].

However, the systems used to date have been based on commercial software that is not easy for community groups to use or adapt, and does not interface well with the wider world of search engines and social media. The computer scientists think that the needs of Hebridean local history would be better served by systems based on open source software, open data and linked data. In vastly oversimplified terms, this means making databases compatible with each other, so that a single search can be run across several archives at the same time. The vision is unashamedly utopian: a future in which data is freely sharable, globally accessible and fully cross-compatible.

For Dave, all of this has raised some critical questions, which were taken up by the group for further discussion:

  •  The consequences of open data for local community ownership and control. How do people in the Hebrides feel about sharing their personal histories with anyone anywhere?
  • If data is free, who does the work of collecting it, who gets paid, and where does the money come from? The projects Dave described rely on volunteers and grant funding.
  •  Differences between physical and digital records. Digital records may be easier to store and access, but they are also easier to lose through accidental deletion. And there is a physicality to digital media that needs to be acknowledged, attending to the material spaces of devices, screens, hard drives, servers, against the notion of a virtual ‘cloud’.
  •   Issues of excess. Do we really want to hang onto everything? Are things becoming over-remembered? In a world of open data, might deletion, degradation and ruination of data offer possibilities for resistance or creativity?

Thanks to Dave for kicking off a really interesting discussion of these issues.


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