The most interesting aspect, for me, of this week’s readings is the negative side of the digitalization of sources. To some extent, this negative side is a reflection of the treatment of digitalized sources as the equivalent of their analog predecessors. As several of the articles we read point out, many digital scholars consider the medium to be intrinsic to the meaning and interpretation of digital records just as much as physical materials. Based on this, according to Marlene Manoff “if print and electronic versions are different objects, we should not treat them as if they are interchangeable.”
Unfortunately, that is how many people see them, with detrimental results. Manoff especially decries the tendency of libraries to view these different versions as interchangeable, resulting in such practices as the elimination of print holdings (especially of periodicals) once digital versions are available, as well as the cancelation of current print subscriptions.
This view of digital and print as interchangeable, in addition to the rather abstract concepts of the materiality of digital collections, has more concrete results on scholarship in the digital age. Specifically, as pointed out by Ian Milligan (as well as in our class discussion last week), scholars are increasingly tending to access journals and other sources through online databases while continuing to cite the hard copies. Beyond simply representing a misleading practice, this practice conceals a reliance on databases and key word searches that may miss key sources. As Milligan points out using the example of the artistic woodwork strike of 1973, key word searches can overlook some entries due to the lack of 100% accuracy in OCR renditions of print sources, resulting in “false negatives.”
More broadly, the increasing prevalence of key word searches, while vastly opening up the available sources and the scope of research available to the average scholar, has to a large, and mostly unremarked extent, sacrificed context. This sacrifice is further concealed by the continuing prevalence of citing sources as if the hard copy was consulted. By navigating via key word only to those article directly dealing with the topic at hand rather than combing through an entire date range of coverage, there is much less of an ability to get a feeling of the context of the times and perhaps critical tangential coverage (not to mention the occurrence of “archival serendipity”). This almost by definition makes it more difficult for the historian to interpret the vastly more numerous but much more narrowly selected sources made available by digitalization and key word search ability.
While is unlikely that even the most tradition bound historian would choose to completely ignore the vastly increased research capability provided by digitalization, it also seems incumbent upon the profession to mitigate the negative consequences of the primacy of digital searches, many of which seem to be little acknowledged today (certainly no historian to my knowledge has yet been called to the carpet for citing hard copies after reading the article on JSTOR).