Great article by Katie Hafner in today's New York Times about the big challenges historians and librarians face in digitizing historical records. Main issue? Expense. Consequence: our understanding of the past may forever be biased and skewed around the information that can be digitized.
"If researchers conclude that the only valuable records they need are those that are online they will be missing major parts of the story," said James J. Hastings, director of access programs at the National Archives. "And in some cases they will miss the story altogether."
Three things to think about:
*The social-media revolution has greatly extended our intellectual reach across various disciplines. I believe that it will also extend our reach backwards into history, and forward, into the future. The future is tough, but historical records are all around us. History may become the next big thing.
*Hafner notes that the expense of digitizing the past is overwhelming, even with the help of corporate benefactors like Google. But what if a group of organizations teamed up to recruit citizens around the globe to do their part? Only a few days ago, I complained about the naivete of citizen-based projects. But a project like this might work because the stakes are so high, and people might be motivated. There is civic -- not corporate -- value here. In the meantime, an enterprising technologist might want to think about teaming up with leaders in the OpenCourseWare and local-history movements.
*If ever something like this were to happen, it might open the doors to new kinds of digital intelligence. Think "H.I." -- historical intelligence, like "BI," business intelligence. A great, distributed database of historical text, sound and image would provide the foundation for applications that might help us not only to understand the past, but perhaps even peer into the future. As the old saw goes, "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" (George Santayana). But those who deeply understand the past may help point the way.