Archives & Manuscripts

Archival Research in the Digital Age

Response to this article about archival research in the digital age

It’s interesting to note the continuities in historians’ approaches to increasingly digital archives. The questions they must ask of the archives, Milligan notes, remain basically the same: “Why were these records created? Who created or preserved them? And, what wasn’t preserved?” The need to keep up with changing technology is also a continuation of the historian’s condition. The biggest shift, a blessing and a curse, is in the sheer volume of digital materials entering the record. What’s more concerning to me, though, is the deepfake.

Deepfakes–what Milligan calls “products of artificial intelligence that can alter images or video clips”–are already pervasive on the internet. “You Won’t Believe What Obama Says in This Video“, a video posted by BuzzFeed featuring Jordan Peele impersonating Barack Obama, was designed to alert the public to just how convincing these fakes could be. Future historians will not only have to be trained in navigating their way through terabyte after terabyte of material, but also in recognizing the subtle markers of digital forgery.

It also occurs to me that specializations in history must only get narrower and narrower as the total volume of the archives reaches insurmountable heights. How will historians of social media, for example, narrow their focus from the vast expanse of tweets, videos, posts, reposts, messages, viral sensations, etc., down into dissertation-able chunks?

Finally, it’s important to consider the weaknesses of digital storage. It’s easy, I think, for those of us who don’t know much about the tech behind our tech, to see digital material as immortal, invincible, perhaps only subject to death by accidental delete (but even then, is it really gone?). But digital storage deteriorates just like paper file folders do, even if it takes a little longer. What’s the digital equivalent of the fire at the Library of Alexandria?

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