This week both the September 11 Digital Archive and the NYPL What’s on the Menu? project had me thinking like a librarian–about collection and preservation. Stephen Brier and Joshua Brown write in their description of the creation of the September 11 Digital Archive:
At the meeting, the Sloan Foundation staff challenged us to think about what historians fifty years from now would want to know about the September 11 events and what data they would want to have access to in order to construct a full historical narrative of what transpired (102).
This call to think ahead to future historians also seems to be at the center of the NYPL menus project, and it is something that drives my own work to collect objects that many might dismiss as ephemeral (zines) at my own library.
One of the most amazing aspects of the NYPL menu project is the anomalous nature of the collection: not many libraries or archives have added menus to their collections (due in large part to the amount of work it would require in an age of austerity and severe library budget cuts today, but going back in time to more fiscally secure times this was also true). Yet these “ephemeral” objects say so much about local culture: they speak to economics, ethnicity, community and neighborhoods, food politics and distribution, trends in diet and health and so much more. If each local library collected a copy of its local menus, we would have a wealth of information on which to look at the development and makeup of American cities and communities (through the location of restaurants and kinds of foods served therein–I imagine a completely fascinating study of cities like Detroit could be made had these materials been preserved on a large scale over time). Hopefully the NYPL project’s success is inspiring other libraries to take part in the collection and preservation of these objects–especially with the popularity of the crowdsourced transcription.
The September 11 Digital Archive seems to take at its heart the fact that much of today’s history is built through communication that seems ephemeral and would be difficult to donate to an archive or museum–email, digital photographs, digital animations and other objects made up of the 1’s and 0’s of the digital humanities. In my own work as a librarian, I am interested in the objects that don’t make it into the library or the archive, and the narratives that aren’t reified as objects (oral histories, etc.). I wonder how the digital humanities can speak to this concept of archiving and preserving what would otherwise be lost or ignored but that we know we experienced and lived within particular moments–whether DH is involved in this process of capturing our experiences of events as historically huge as 9/11, or as mundane as what and where New Yorkers liked to eat when they went out in in 2012?
Is this process of capturing information and narratives for future historians at the heart of DH, and if so, how does this process relate (or not) to the history of libraries and archives? Is DH the home of digital libraries and archives of the future, or a fellow traveler working alongside and collaborating with these older institutions?
You raise an extremely important question in your post: what should be archived and preserved and made accessible. With major events be they happy or traumatic, just like with major figures in politics, literature, arts, humanities, science and so on, the answer so far has been simple. Biographers choose to write about them because the public is aware of their contributions and would want to read about them (sometimes this implies gossip, or dirt). It’s always fun to read about the struggles and challenges of those who seem perfect. It’s hard at present to choose to write the biography of someone who is not well-known or not known at all because, like everything else, publishing is affected the demand and supply game of the market. If there is no market for it, then no publisher will be willing to take the risk of publishing the book. With the digital archives, as you ask eloquently, the question is phrased differently. Should we still discriminate about the events that get into the digital archives, or should we try to capture what Woolf calls the cottonwool of everyday life, without judging or validating it. I’m reminded of Pepes’ diary and how sometimes those little moments (seeds) of no significance might carry bigger sprouts in them. I’d be interested to hear what Steve’s perspective is on this as a historian.