It is only natural for preservationists and historians to be skeptical of projects which are “born digital” and never make a transition to analog resources. It presents a drastic shift in how historians think about resources and what it means to preserve information and objects. It also comes with a number of significant drawbacks and challenges, first and foremost the manipulation of data which can take place in online formats that are not sufficiently protected or maintained. However, there are some online archive projects which I believe demonstrate just how useful and worthwhile “born digital” content can be.
The April 16th Archive is a project organized by the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, and preserves the memory of the “Virginia Tech Massacre,” which took place on their campus in 2007. The site is filled with primarily images but also some text sources which relate to the event itself but primarily memorials and memory of the event. The site if frankly not very well constructed. Powered by Omeka, many of the entries do not contain any actual items, text or images and entries are too frequently riddled with random strings of gibberish that presumably are files someone tried to import but which were not translated. The website stands as a testament to “born digital archives” not in execution but in theory. This site stands as a testament to community-oriented and immediate collection of resources for preservation. Especially in emergency situations and the immediate aftermath, preservation of materials is difficult to do. By creating what is effectively a crowd-sourced archive that affords community members – those who have the most stock in the preservation of memory concerning the shooting – the opportunity to contribute and aid historians. Things which would otherwise not be preserved – primarily signs and the ever-ephemeral impromptu memorial – live on at least in photographs through archiving projects of this nature. The major drawback in this regard is quality – quantity may not be lacking, but the people taking these photographs do not have high resolution cameras not the intent to preserve, for example, the name of every last person written on a memorial wall. Therefore, information is still lost and the archive is still insufficient compared to a coordinated archiving project with the necessary equipment and skills.
The Hurricane Digital Memory Bank suffers from similar issues. The website contains many useful images, but oral histories and videos simply redirect the viewer to other sites and are not available directly. This website does something differently from the April 16 Archives, which is in my opinion neither good nor bad but different. Where the community gets to comment on and preserve the tragedy indirectly by donating what is important to them in the former, the latter provides the opportunity for contributors to directly comment on and provide personal accounts on submitted objects. While in most archives no such personal account would be directly attached to the resource, the purpose of the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank is, as the name suggests, to preserve memory: that is, not only scenes from the natural disaster but how it and the aftermath was experienced by those directly affected and those who came to aid. Again, this project would be nearly impossible to organized on such a scale without the use of crowd-sourced, born-digital content creation.