Historical Significance and the Internet

The increasing importance of the Internet as a publishing and communication medium poses many challenges for the institutional repositories entrusted with the arduous task of preserving and providing access to our digital heritage. But the challenges are not only in terms of creating the technical standards and tools for the preservation of online media, they are also in terms of determining what is historically significant in the first place. It is the notion of historical significance that is discounted in recent debates about preserving the Internet.


What is historical significance

Historical significance is an argument. It is an argument based on the somewhat commonsensical tenet that not everything is historically significant. Our society produces an enormous amount of everything, be it books, television programs, automobiles, and washing machines. Some of these things will become historically significant overtime, but most will not. A washing machine may become historically significant, say, if it represents a major shift in domestic technology during a key historical juncture and a book becomes historically significant if it impacts in an important way upon a particular field. Television footage may be historically significant if it records an historically significant event; such as the assassination of John.F.Kennedy or the first moon walk, and an automobile may become historically significant if it is representative of an era or is extremely rare or well engineered.

A culture of significance circulates in our society in various ways. The market determines significance through supply-and-demand and if an object is rare and highly sought after, it will fetch a high price at the auction houses. But historical significance in terms of the collecting arrangements of our institutional repositories, such as our libraries, museums, archives, and universities, is dependent upon a much broader set of factors.

These factors are partly dependent upon the charter of the collecting repository and the constituencies that they serve and partly dependent on broad debates on historical significance. The National Library of Australia, for instance, has a national collecting charter whilst our state repositories are entrusted with the task of collecting the working of state government. The workings of government are given unquestionable significance as this is where the memories of our governing institutions are stored.

Historical significance is thus contingent upon enduring institutional factors united with professional and community interpretations of the social, historic, aesthetic, and scientific values that an object or collection has for past or present or future generations. It is these issues that an historian, curator, or archivist must take into account when determining the usefulness of an object for storage, interpretation, or exhibition. As an Australian Museum On Line (AMOL) publication states:

Significance refers not just to the physical fabric or appearance of an object, rather it incorporates all the elements that contribute to an objects meaning, including its context, history, uses and its social and spiritual value.
Thus, determining the historical significance of an object is a complex debate that is far from politically neutral and is highly dependent upon the communities that imbue it with historical meaning.

What is Significant Online

Generally, there are two distinct historically significant applications of the Internet. The first is the use of the medium to provide greater access to a selection of the various important documents held in our archives, libraries, and museums. The other is the preservation of parts of the Internet itself and the publications on it. In terms of providing greater access to historical documents, the US Library of Congress, for instance, has digitised and provides access to documents that informed the writing of Declaration of Independence and in Australia the National Library of Australia provides access to the diaries of Captain James Cook and his first voyage in the Pacific.

The Declaration of Independence is published online in a narrative that informs a general audience about the coming into being of the document. The opening sketch begins with an image of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. The image is supported by text that invites the user to read the story of how the Declaration of Independence was drafted. The narrative contains hyperlinks to the digital facsimiles housed in the library.

The first document is a personal letter written by Jefferson setting out his vision for independence. The colour and stains on the document are quite evident as are the other signs of age and richness of the handwriting. Another link leads to a fragment of the earliest known draft of the Declaration written by Jefferson in June 1776, whist other links lead to subsequent drafts. One of the final images in the series is a digital facsimile of the etching La Destruction de la Statue Royale a Novelle, that depicts the destruction of the statue of King George III, following the reading of the final draft of the Declaration to the US Army on 9 July 1776.

Apart from making these documents available to a broad audience, the archive is able to present to that audience the evolution of the text whilst not privileging the final draft itself. The task of making a text public is usually entrusted to the conventional nature of the printed page, whilst private papers are relegated to the language of research. An online archive such as this one can grant status to the becoming of the text and the rough copy, draft, and jottings can reveal the links between the creative building site and the final text.

A creativity in action approach is one of the many ways that historically significant documents can be presented through the Internet. But the documents were already imbued with historical significance long before the arrival of the Internet. The Internet may be democratising access to the documents, but other archival projects have the difficult task of preserving the Internet itself.

Significance and Digital Repositories

It is the preservation of the actual technology and publications that constitute the Internet that proves the most problematic. Recent discussions of archiving the Internet generally concur that it is a significant medium, but detailed debates on why it is significant need to be further developed. Many individuals and institutions simply state that because the Internet is big and has lots of material on it then it deserves to be archived. This is a somewhat effortless application of the notion of historical significance that needs to be refined. What if we say, applied the same notion of significance to broadcast television Television is a far more significant medium in terms of political communication, news coverage, and even economic contribution but there are few serious debates about the need to archive television.

Numerous web archiving initiatives, like the Internet Archive in the US, and the Pandora archive in Australia, either take a selective approach to archiving the web or harvest a thin layer of it periodically. There are international organisations such as the Long Now Foundation with a focus upon the preservation of the technology and software of the Internet, and there is the International Internet Preservation Consortium that joins a number of the worlds major libraries in tackling the problems associated with preserving and providing access to Internet based material overtime. These organisations have taken a practical lead in developing tools and systems to preserve the Internet, however, I would argue that as the Internet becomes even more socially and culturally complex as a publishing and communication mechanism and even more difficult to selectively archive, debates about historical significance need to be seriously advanced.

What parts of the Internet are significant, why are they significant, and how are they significant within particular communities Some argue that intellectual effort constitutes historical significance in itself, but then again if we applied this notion to another human endeavour, say, architecture, then we would have perhaps kept every architecturally designed building ever built!

As the Internet becomes more pervasive, more complex and even more culturally idiosyncratic, then the debates on historical significance need to keep pace with its changing complexities. As the Internet grows, our repositories will have to display even more selectiveness and curatorial precision and they need to further develop an historical informed schema, derived from broad communities of interest, to justify their decisions.

It is welcome foresight that our institutional repositories have taken a lead in preserving our digital heritage, but this is not an end in itself. There is a methodological blind spot in terms of understanding how the material is being used or how it may be later used by historians and the general public. There needs to be far more research done on how people are using online material and its limitations in the provision of traces of our past. What communities are using the historical Internet and how are historians incorporating it in their research and what are the knowledge outcomes?

Conclusion

I draw on the wisdom of Mike Featherstone who claims:

We are entering a phase of our history in which the availability of recording devices to conserve and represent information about human beings, their culture and their external nature abound.

This, of course, has huge ramifications for historians who need to develop new methodologies and techniques to deal with this data. There are perhaps less than a dozen documents in existence that throw light on the period of the 5th Century of the dark ages, but in todays world, there is way too much data. The point is no longer to attend as many lectures as possible, see as many films as one can, have as many books as possible on the shelves. On the contrary; the overarching aim for educated individuals in the worlds rich countries must now be make the filtering of information the main priority. So, even if we kept everything we ever produced, would we be able to use it Filtering has always been part of the historical process.

Perhaps the only thing certain about the future is that some parts of the Internet will flourish whilst others fall into decay. The parts of the web tied to the fluctuation of global-market-based-capitalism will either rise or fall depending on the impulse of the market. Because of the many contributions from our institutional repositories, some parts of the Internet will last much longer than others. What we keep on the Internet and what we discard is a sign of how civilised we are.
However, institutional repositories need to think seriously about what this actually means in practical terms and engage more fully with the discourse on historical significance. This is like the communities in which we live; how do we recognise what is significant and balance this with what we keep and how we move forward Just like deregulated communities with little local control, a commercial global-based Internet free of historical memory can only move towards homogeneity and the obliteration of local idiosyncrasies. As the Internet becomes more pervasive in our communities, then debates over historical significance must broaden to include the values and meanings that our communities place on their digital heritage.

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