Digital archives, especially those that utilize an open model of submission, are in my opinion rather difficult to address in terms of historical importance. On the one hand, their value to the contemporary or future historians should not be dismissed, as the advantages they offer in terms of volume, detail, range, and personal value simply cannot be exaggerated. On the other hand, however, their very value risks burying recognition of the drawbacks and pitfalls inherent in the medium. Although the positives certainly outweigh the negatives, it is necessary to examine both sides of the coin in order to properly assess open digital archives as a historical tool.

One of the most dramatic changes of our time and place is the sheer volume of primary sources available to the modern historian. Not only are more and more documents preserved, but the high rate of literacy in the Western world allows a greater percentage of an already larger population to leave records of their experiences. As databases of pictures, personal accounts, and even videos of their respective focuses, the 9/11 Digital Archive, Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, and Occupy Archive are such vast repositories of information that to say that they dwarf the archives of the past would risk understatement. In addition to advantages of size, these archives give historians access to aspects of the events sometimes difficult to find in academic histories. These are records of the reactions of the people; not one person or institution, but many, highly varied both in terms of detail and in terms of contributors. Someone only loosely connected to the event in question might record their reactions on hearing of it on one page, while in another entry an eyewitness goes into detail about being part of the event. These many windows into the events in question give the historian both a myriad of angles through which to examine it and many accounts to utilize in the examination.

Although it is easy to overlook when discussing historical value, the value on an individual level of open archives like these should also be acknowledged. For those who lived through the events, the creation of a database of personal reactions can help in two key ways: helping to broaden the views of those not intimately connected to the events and to provide a launching point for the discussion of the events. Both of these are hugely beneficial from an educational standpoint, although they may not directly impact the disciple of history itself.

However, digital archives have several common negative aspects which should also be recognized. One of these is a lack of provenance, or common source material, which, although seemingly negligible, does have an impact of the shape of the archive. When an archive is organized around medium or theme, as in the case of the Hurricane Memory Bank and the Occupy Archive, the source material jumbles together to one degree or another, whereas provenance-focused databases like the 9/11 Archive offer a clearer view of where the material originated from. Because they are web based, digital archives also face challenges of clean design and accessibility. While all three are sponsored by George Mason University, the 9/11 archive has clearly been developed to a much greater degree, probably due to both the relative significance of the events covered and the support of the Library of Congress. In contrast, finding information in the Occupy Archive is highly difficult due to its rough nature. Finally, because of the open nature of each archive, they face the common problem of internet sources, namely reliability. While false information is of course possible to produce in all mediums, the nature of the internet makes it difficult to be sure how well stories are vetted before being posted.

These, however, are not the most worrisome aspects of the 3 digital archives. Rather, I am most concerned about the groupthink-style effect that is produced in these archives. Each of these archives has their own distinct tone which is manifest throughout the archive. When reading the recent “Houston” entry of the Hurricane Memory Bank, it is immediately clear that the entry, expressing a positive view of the experience, does not fit with the narrative of disruption and damage that permeate the other stories there, when in reality all such events impact people differently. Not all people have positive memories of the Occupy movement, and the impact on the personal level is not the totality of 9/11’s influence. Although all sources inevitably have some degree of bias, it is troubling to view not one, but three entire databases which are slanted towards one perspective.

Publicly compiled digital archives, therefore, have many positives to be utilized but also several negatives that must be acknowledged. When a user is careful not to let the skewed viewpoint cloud their understanding of the event in question, open digital archives are very useful tools, providing a view into the past for historians and alternative views on experiences for contributors.

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