History, Digitized and Abridged

Katie Hafner has a great piece in today’s New York Times about the fact that documents that are offline are becoming invisible. From the article:

“There’s an illusion being created that all the world’s knowledge is on the Web, but we haven’t begun to glimpse what is out there in local archives and libraries,” said Edward L. Ayers, a historian and dean of the college and graduate school of arts and sciences at the University of Virginia. “Material that is not digitized risks being neglected as it would not have been in the past, virtually lost to the great majority of potential users.”

To be sure, digitization efforts over the last 10 years have been ambitious and far-reaching. For many institutions, putting collections online, for both preservation and accessibility, is a priority. Yet for every letter from Abraham Lincoln to William Seward that can be found online, millions of documents bearing fine-grained witness to the Civil War will never be digitized. And for every CD re-release of Bessie Smith singing “Gimme a Pigfoot,” the work of hundreds of lesser-known musicians from the early 20th century are unlikely to be converted to digital form. Money, technology and copyright complications are huge impediments.

Digitization is costly; hence only currently valuable works tend to be digitized, leaving older material in the dark. Copyright status of many older works is unclear, so even when money is available, there are problems in making the work available. This is why people concerned about digital preservation should be on Google’s side of their dispute with the AAP and the Author’s Guild. An “opt out” policy for books scanned from library collections is far more preservation-friendly than one that is based on “opt in”, as the publishers request.

(Katie also has a related piece called Analog Memories in a Digital World that is more personal, and very much drives the same point home.)