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.

Digital Humanities

I have spoken previously about how technology is changing education and I have to say I think we are headed in a very exciting direction in relation to the humanities. Digital humanities is the study of how we can use computers and technology for arts and humanities research. It is a rapidly growing area and this is important for us as information professionals because there are gaps in this area that we are very capable of filling. Digital humanities is essentially all about engagement with information in a digital form. It is about allowing people to engage with a topic in a deeper way, creating visuals or stories that are interesting and interactive. Simon Tanner gave a very interesting talk on the subject at the A&SL Seminar in March, you can find it here. The talk was entitled, “To educate, enlighten and entertain – If you build it will they come and help?” I think this title outlines some of the important factors in digital humanities and why the area is so important for the future.

1. To educate – digital humanities provide us with the opportunity to educate in a way that wasn’t possible in the past. Imagine a architecture enthusiast being able to view digital renderings of some of the world’s most famous buildings for example, perhaps a history buff being able to view the maps around the building to see how the town had changed or maybe an artist being able to study the frescos inside without them ever having to leave their seats by a laptop. These things are all possible within the digital arts and humanities scope.

2. To enlighten – Although many could say that this is similar to education, I can see this going further; perhaps explaining parts of the past that we may not have understood before, teaching us things about ourselves, allowing for insight into the future even. Read this article about Gettysburg for example where spatial humanities and technology have combined to allow us to understand the ‘why’ of the situation.

3. To entertain – The interest people have in their own histories has been well documented in recent years with exponential growth in the genealogy sector. As a personal hobby people are looking into the past to find information about themselves, their families and little nuggets of history that tug on the heart-strings or inspire them. Take a look at The Diary of Mary Martin, although entertaining may not exactly be the right word, the diary is fascinating, whether you are studying Irish soldier’s in the First World War, or the 1916 Rising, or whether you just happen upon it and are caught up in this extraordinary story.

The thing I especially love about this area is that allows people to learn things they may not even have thought about; it allows people to see things in places they’ll never visit and go back through history; maybe even be inspired to learn more, write, create art etc. I also like how there is so much scope for people and communities to get involved. Crowd-sourcing is a hot topic here and I think it provides us with an excellent opportunity because we can see from projects like the Bentham Project that people are interested in helping and getting involved.

So if people can get involved and do the crowd-sourcing part, what are the opportunities for us? Well, we need to do the digitization, we need to think about digital preservation, how do people find your project, do the items contain relevant metadata, how is the crowd-sourced information edited and verified? There are plenty of areas that need a trained information professional.

For those interested in this area in Ireland there are PhDs available in Cork, Dublin, Galway and Maynooth. See here for more info. There are many more opportunities worldwide.