As this blog is approaching its thirteenth birthday , I thought that it was about time that I purged some of the fluffy, ephemeral posts that really don’t need to travel with me any longer. The problem with much online media is that a post or comment, that possibly took ten seconds to write, may follow you for many years, perhaps preserved through an historian’s anxiety to not let anything go just in case it may become significant some time in the future.
So I went through the 1350 posts feeling quite dismal because most of them weren’t significant at all! There were lots of pre-Twitted aggregation posts, lots of Conference Calls for eye-watering dull gatherings, that have since been forgotten, and too many rants about politics or Web 2 or the digital humanities that possibly don’t need to be aired for eternity. Painstakingly flipping through all the posts, with an historian’s paint brush and surgeon’s scalpel, I deleted 500, or more than a third, wondering why that particular post had seen the light of day in the first place.
But whilst hitting the delete button I stumbled upon a disturbing theme. The particular robust deletion policy that I employed was if the resource I linked to was no longer available, and the post was chiefly about that resource, I would delete the post. The problem was that many of the posts weren’t simply about ephemeral matters such as a new ‘Web 2’ company (that has since gone broke) or a new tool or ill-conceived project within the digital humanities or eResearch. Many of the posts were links (broken) to significant reports, tools or services or even complete centres whose very mission it was to preserve digital data, but had long disappeared.
Where did they go?
I checked many of the links, but couldn’t find where the particular digital-preservation resource, centre, tool or report had gone to. It has simply vanished, forgotten, perhaps only existing as a line in a Resume or argument in a new funding application. So not only are we forgetting the significant projects and people that helped build the ‘digital humanities’ and the broader digital culture and economy, but we are also forgetting the very institutions, tools, and services that were actually tasked with preserving them, but failed. The problem is one of institutional failure, not of technical failure. It is funding models that don’t work, it is ineptitude, and it is a lack of historical vision to keep what is significant and ditch what is fluffy. The digital archive is the bread and butter of much future research and without it, emerging digital research will be replaced by an emerging digital alchemy.