When it comes to preservation of cultural heritage is technology friend or foe?

Last week I hated technology! Those that know me might be surprised because I usually have my phone permanently attached to my right hand, but having spent a holiday in Africa with limited access I’m becoming more and more interested in powering off from time to time and I’m far more easily irritated by all things ‘IT’. I was having a moment, my computer wouldn’t let me do what I wanted, and I didn’t want to see (or wait around for) any more emails. I wanted to go back to a simpler time, a time of letters, a time of less urgency about everything, back to when librarians were all about the printed word, bound volumes that smell like book mould. Ah, the romance of it all. But then on my walk home – reading from my smartphone (isn’t it ironic! don’t ya think?) I had a change of heart. I read about the ancient scrolls charred in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that are now being deciphered due to new X-ray imaging techniques. Technology can do wonderful, wonderful things. Amazing, right? I was back on the technology bandwagon – there’s so much opportunity. And we’re only really beginning.

Then this week I chose to forgo lunch to attend a public lecture in Trinity’s Long Room Hub. The lecture was entitled ‘Stewardship and Preservation of Collections in the Digital Age’ and was delivered by Cliff Lynch from the Coalition for Networked Information. Cliff was introduced by Trinity’s new Librarian, Helen Shenton and began by acknowledging that we are currently coping with increasingly unmanageable amounts of cultural records but then made us feel all warm and fuzzy about technology by explaining that it really can create amazing digital objects from physical things. So much so that the age-old skepticism of ‘there’s no substitute for the real thing’ may no longer be 100% true. Yes, physical objects that have been around for centuries are important and interesting but is it the object itself that is of interest? Or is it what that object can tell us? For those who browse museums, archives and libraries just to amble and casually cast an eye over one thing or the other then the physical probably is the important thing but for scholars, academics etc. the object itself is maybe not the important thing but actually what it can say – especially when we can date it, zoom into it and now link it to other collections worldwide. At the end of the day digitisation makes things more accessible while helping to protect and preserve these wonderful objects for the future.

But, (and of course there has to be a but) while we’re doing great things for the cultural heritage of past generations, what are we doing for the future historian that wants to study the goings-on of our generation. The problem with digital objects is that someone has to start making an intentional effort to preserve these. Physical objects have lasted hundreds of years, some with no help at all, others thanks to collectors and institutions that have taken it upon themselves to act as stewards and custodians of the past. Digital objects will not last in the same way. Technology is moving quickly, for many things decay will occur in the digital world far more quickly than in the physical.

Letters have become tweets, texts, posts and emails. How do we know what to keep? Video games, for example, are a relatively new phenomenon that need to be documented. Journalism which documents the political, environmental and entertainment landscapes, to name a few, may move away from print media. Music, books and images are being born digital. While this is innovation and progress at work – what happens to this born digital material in the future? And because these things are being born into the digital world the fact is it is far easier to restrict access and ownership. Licensing issues etc. mean that there will be no hand-me-downs, there won’t be ownership unless you are the company that effectively rents the items to the users. What does that mean for the future?

We need to ask ourselves – what constitutes cultural memory? What will remain of us? Technology lets us do amazing things right now but is the price that we will leave nothing of us behind for the future generations? I don’t have the answer and my feelings about technology are now even more conflicted, but as I like to ponder and contemplate the world around me that’s probably a good thing as it gives me plenty to think about.