Blog Post

Delete or Save?

Last week, I heard an NPR interview with Viktor Mayer-Schonberger author of Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age.  Anyone else catch the story or read the book? Mayer-Schonberger argues that because digital storage is inexpensive we are holding onto too many artifacts of our presents and pasts, but that we need to learn to let go.

I tend to cringe when I hear the word "delete" not only because I have carelessly deleted something that I later found to be important, but because like many historians my instinct is to save and preserve. Someone may need those resources later. While there certainly is an abundance of materials there is also a great danger of losing many other digital materials that disappear as quickly as they appear       (Rosenzweig, "Scarity or Abundance: Preserving the Past in the Digital Era"). We all juggle with achieving that balance.

As I continued to listen to the interview, it sounded like Mayer-Shonberger talked more about the importance of managing one's personal web presence--deleting that drunken photo of yourself from college that is posted on Facebook-- than actually tackling the problems scarity and abundance. This review from also addresses this issue.

<digression>I'm very curious to see if the book addresses some of the issues brought up by Lev Manovich in 2001 about the potential dangers when individuals publish information about their personal lives and histories on the very public web. Manovich's experience growing up in the Soviet Union influenced his position, as he saw potential for a state to use publicly available information to control and dominate its population.</digression>

This book and the disappearance of once-popular website hosting services like Geocities also gets me thinking about the constant struggle of digital preservation. If a commercial social media network dies in the next year or so, any content we've uploaded will be gone. And the ways in which they were displayed and received are also gone. Is forgetting Facebook a good thing for historians of the early 21st century? My answer would be no.

That also brings me to another concern I share with many digital humanists: how do we ensure the long-term preservation of our digital resources that are currently in the care of cultural heritage institutions and universities? There are so many ways now for institutions lacking large budgets to share their materials online and to engage visitors, but there aren't many low-budget preservation solutions yet. Exactly how will the Flickr Commons be saved if Yahoo cuts Flickr?

What non-profit or state preservation initiatives are available to help smaller libraries and museums who can't afford These are important questions that many DH folks are pondering and working through, especially as funding agencies begin to demand that their grantees address digital preservation issues. Here is one case study from a museum that set up a low-cost Digital Assset Management System. Open-source solutions are definitely the way to go, but those often require a savvy technical staff on hand who can manage it all. I'm waiting to see who out there might be looking out for the little guys.

Until then, keep pondering the never-simple question of whether to save or delete.



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