Wednesday, July 7, 2010

What happens when digital archives disappear?

In looking at the website of historian Richard J. Salvucci, I came across links to the disappearance of an important digital archive of historical Mexican newspapers. The archive, called "Paper of Record," is an important source for historians of Mexico. Two years ago, Google secretly purchased the archive from its owner, and then they took it down. Historians who used it regularly lost access. After some protest, the archive was restored by its original owner, with a high access fee. Presumably Google will start hosting the archive at some point in the future (perhaps with a big fat fee).

The episode is described in these 2009 posts:

                "Digital Archives that Disappear"
                "Who The Hell is Google" (Librarian April 2009)

 For a later, more comprehensive treatment of the disappearance of digital archives in Miller-McCune, see:

       "Digital Disappearance" (Melinda Burns)

This paper compares "digital disappearance" to the "rectification" of the Records Department in Orwell's book Nineteen Eighty-Four. Salvucci (who was a regular user of Paper of Record) is quoted in the paper:

"With what I know right now, every time I hear somebody is going to digitize something for posterity, I think to myself, 'Good luck.' Because if you can digitize it, you can vaporize it. This is not just a vision of some crazed social democrat in Britain" he said, in a reference to Orwell. " This is no joke. This is happening."

Pretty scary. I have had a digital archive sort of disappear. I had some collections of Toluca Valley Postclassic pottery, in the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History, posted on my website at my former university (similar to the pot shown here, which is from Calixtlahuaca). When I moved to ASU and switched my websites over, I assumed that everything would work well, and with some minor adjustments that was the case. But the site with the pottery photos does not work anymore. The museums had imposed strict requirements that required hand-editing the html in several hundred files (the galleries were generated automatically by a program called Arles, but then the html had to be edited by hand, by a kind student, to satisfy the museums). I'm not sure I have the skill to re-edit the html files, so my digital archive has effectively disappeared until I can figure out how to fix it.

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