Lost along the way

Jeff Sypeck, for whom research is mother’s milk, wonders why the advent of the digital age, which makes research such a snap, also seems to be shrinking the pool of accessible knowledge:

Verily, I say unto you: Are you so positive that we’ll have several more decades of the stability and prosperity required to digitize “everything” that you’ll bet centuries of accumulated knowledge on it?

I fled grad school 13 years ago, but I’d love to be a budding medievalist now, when I can access online dictionaries for Latin, Old English, and Old Icelandic and browse the Monumenta Germaniae Historica without schlepping over to campus. I’m keenly aware of how much progress universities, government agencies, corporations, and museums have made in digitizing material that many dismiss as obscure.

And yet, two years ago, at the National Park Service archive, I glimpsed just how far we have to go. Around 2,000 of the best photos in their historic image collection are online, but their physical archive holds millions of objects, including posters, newsletters, snapshots, and un-photographed doodads like vintage ranger uniforms. The entire collection was overseen by just two employees. When they weren’t scrambling to fulfilling never-ending requests from commercial publishers and calendar makers, they occasionally found a moment to scan some old slides. At this rate, unless a legislator takes up their cause, most of their collection will languish forever in file drawers.

So if you’re a pundit, a historian, or a photo editor and you’re relying on digitized stuff to tell a story, you’re likely spinning the same yarn as everyone else. To tell a bigger story, to show or say something new, you’ll need to push away from the computer and patiently seek out an archive.

Unfortunately, those archives are also compromised. I recognize the overwhelming need to store data in the most efficient way possible, and stacks of newspapers, magazines, documents, and books are not efficient. But every iteration of storage technology — microfilm, for example — requires institutions to make choices about what to store immediately and what to store later. Sometimes “later” never happens. Worse yet, even when it does happen, it can be bungled.

I had my first flash of anger about this a few years ago, while I was researching my nonfiction book The Last Three Miles, which required me to spend so much time squinting at microfilm that I celebrated the book’s publication by getting bifocals. The problem was not so much the physical condition of the microfilm reels — the Jersey City and Newark public libraries had cared for them to the fullest extent possible — but the shockingly bad quality of the images themselves, the actual photographs of the newspaper pages.

In a word, many of the pages were garbage: hopelessly blurry, or left partly in shadow because of shoddy framing, or whatever process was involved in photographing the pages. Whoever was responsible for transferring the Jersey Journal and the Hudson Dispatch onto microfilm should be posthumously disgraced for such lousy work. I was looking for daily accounts of life under America’s greatest political boss, Frank Hague, but there was plenty of other information about everything from social mores to fashion to political strife, all rendered invisible by incompetence or malfeasance. I don’t know how many other libraries collect newspapers from Hudson County; I suspect not all that many. So we can assume that information is gone for good. Generations of reporters and editors gathered it to pass on for us, but we have dropped the ball.

My biggest beef with archival technology, even when it is done properly to render readable and useful results, is that it cuts down on opportunities for happy accidents. Paging through an actual newspaper, magazine, or book allows you to stumble across things you weren’t looking for, but will probably prove useful or illuminating. I was repeatedly appalled by the idle racism and sexism of newspaper headlines: references abounded to “pickaninnies” and “sambos,” even in tragic stories about deadly house fires — imagine how it must have felt to lose a son or daughter in a fire, then see the child casually slurred as something barely human by a white newspaper. One of the great pleasures of research is the happy accident, the tidbit of information that provides an unexpected insight or simply goes into the Well How About That file in the back of one’s brain, where eventually it may combine with other tidbits to form a new idea or illustrate another argument. Digital research allows for laser-beam focus, but that also narrows your perspective.

To answer one of Jeff’s questions up top: No, I don’t think we’re going to enjoy the kind of stability that will allow full or even substantial digitization of the existing knowledge base. Here in New Jersey, our governor is on a jihad against public education; colleges and universities are seeing drastic cuts in funding; academic priorities and opportunities are shrinking all around us. The self-lobotomization Jeff warns about — call it digamnesia — is only going to accelerate. Much will still be preserved, but far more will be abandoned, and we will probably never know how much knowledge was lost along the way. And that’s probably the saddest thing about this situation.

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