One theme from Cohen and Rosenzweig that many of you picked up on in your response papers was that of accessibility, that they expected (rightly, it seems) that digitization would make history (and historical sources) more widely available to more people. Here are Sarah and Collin’s reflections on that theme. Did you resonate with their experiences as you perused other digital history projects? Do you see downsides to — or limits on — accessibility as Cohen and Rosenzweig describe it?
Upon examination of the various collections in Bethel’s digital library, the theme of accessibility continued to define my perception of the merits of the digital displays. Largely composed of primary sources instead of narrative secondary essays, many of the documents and images associated with Bethel’s history are now easily accessible, whereas a few decades earlier, one may not even know where to begin to find a particular publication or image. In the past, finding a particular primary source required a great deal of time and financial investment to travel to the one physical archive of interest (C&R). Despite claims of the new interactive, multilinear, and flexible nature of digital collections, the major peril of increasing passivity is epitomized by narrative attempts found on projects like the Bethel at War project. The nonlinear setup of this website may inhibit the reader’s understanding, as it lacks the opportunity the linear expositions give to truly gain access to the “thoughts and experiences of others” (C&R). The screen format where readers can move quickly from one page to the next of interactive displays tends to put more focus on what individual reader himself is experiencing (C&R). Although written over ten years ago, the majority of the promises and perils still apply today.
– Sarah Sauer
A simple search on the Bethel Archive for “Scandia Baptist Church” will give over one hundred results in the Bethel collection alone, ranging from pictures to the articles in the Clarion. Now anyone doing research can peruse private collections that only a privileged few had access to in the past. Sadly, these advancements in the storage and accessibility has also led to increase in ease of forgery. Programs like Photoshop can easily place someone into a photograph when they were never there. Then it is possible to upload that photo to a database and eventually it could be accepted as true. This seems to go in the opposite direction of idea of historical narratives. Cohen and Rosenzweig predicted a future where historians would have easy access to whatever they needed. As technology continues to develop this is true, but each advancement has its unique constraints.
– Collin Barrett