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History as it Happens: Rescuing the Historical Record in a Digital World

by NYU Libraries Communications on 2022-03-08T14:55:00-05:00 | Comments

By Sarah Binney

In ancient Egypt, papyrus was an abundant and versatile plant that was commonly turned into thick, paper-like sheets. Surviving rolls of papyrus filled with hieroglyphics and hieratics have allowed historians and scholars to uncover information about Ancient Egyptian civilization and culture that has been essential to understanding our world today.

Papyrus was abundant and relatively easy to produce, and its use as a writing material was widespread. But it broke down easily in cooler, wetter climates and as a result, pretty much the only surviving papyrus-based scholarship is from Egypt. Plenty more records, including all of Aristotle’s dialogues, were lost. The use of a fragile medium in ancient times means that roughly 95 percent of ancient scholarly output has since disappeared.

It’s an old tragedy that’s taking on new relevance now, as archivists are discovering that cutting-edge forms of digital media can be surprisingly difficult to preserve, too. With the pace of developing technologies—such as complex websites, multimedia, and interactive maps—outstripping our capacity to archive and preserve them, all kinds of important online publications are also at risk of being lost. Preservationists have long understood how to care for books and physical materials through special handling, climate-controlled facilities, pest management, commercial binding, and more. Less clear is how to ensure that materials published in today’s digital environment will survive for future generations.

For instance, complex digital scholarship like NYU professor Michael Ralph’s Treasury of Weary Souls—the world’s most comprehensive database of enslaved people who were insured during the antebellum period—offers insight into which financial firms continue to profit from slave insurance policies today. The website includes data, histograms, and maps built by engineers and coders. But what happens when websites, software, and computers evolve—and the technologies underpinning this work are no longer viable?

This troubling scenario is already becoming a reality for the journalism industry, which has recently produced innovative and illuminating works such as the Los Angeles Times’ “Old Oil Wells,” the Texas Tribune’s “Where Harvey’s effects were felt the most in Texas,” and ProPublica’s “Are Hospitals Near Me Ready for Coronavirus?” These custom-built, dynamic websites offer crucial insight into pressing social issues, but with data visualizations and maps populated by back-end databases disappearing, they are at serious risk of never making it into the historical record.

NYU librarians have received a series of grants from the Mellon Foundation, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to tackle this challenge head on. They recently published the first-ever guidelines to help scholars preserve their digital work over the long term, with many more projects underway. NYU News spoke to four librarians about how they’re collaborating with publishers, institutions, preservationists, and newsrooms to ensure that digital scholarship and data journalism is reliably archived for scholars and researchers to access in the future.

Read Sarah Binney's interviews with Vicky Rampin, Librarian for Research Data Management and Reproducibility; Katy Boss, Librarian for Journalism, Media, Culture, and Communication; Jonathan Greenberg, Digital Scholarly Publishing Specialist; and Deb Verhoff, Digital Collections Manager.

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