there are archives, and then there are archives

I’ve been thinking about writing a post on digital archives, commercialization, scholarship, teaching, and access, but Ray Rosenzweig, in “Digital Archives Are a Gift of Wisdom to Be Used Wisely” (Chronicle, sub req’d) has pretty much beaten me to it. Although Rosenzweig’s focus is on teaching, he brings up a central concern of mine, namely the cost of commercial offerings of digitized cultural heritage resources: if my university cannot afford to subscribe, then my scholarship and my teaching (i.e. my students’ education) are going to suffer.

Rosenzweig notes the number of massive archives that have come online since the mid-’90s and observes that their availability “is about as dramatic a development in access to cultural resources in a single decade as any of us are likely to see in our lifetimes” He expresses concern over the cost of some, however:

It is hard to remember that, but a decade ago, the Web was largely a noncommercial world. It was only in 1995 that dot-com domains came to dominate over dot-edu addresses. Commercialization has had its impact on what we call the History Web, the online repository of digital primary and secondary sources. In fact, some of the most interesting and exciting of those sources are commercial products, often very costly ones, from giant information conglomerates.

A university with 18,000 students can spend more than half a million dollars to acquire the full collection [of Eighteenth-Century Collections Online], depending on discounts it receives and other pricing factors. Another extraordinary digital collection, ProQuest Historical Newspapers, contains the full runs of a number of major newspapers…But a typical university will have to shell out the equivalent of an assistant professor’s salary each year to pay for those digital newspapers.

It seems churlish to complain about extraordinary resources that greatly enrich the possibilities for online research and teaching. Surely Thomson, ProQuest, and other businesses are entitled to recoup their multimillion-dollar investments in digitizing the past. But it still needs to be observed that not every college can pay the entry fee to this new digital world. Some may have to decide whether it is more important to have extraordinary digital resources or people to teach about them.

Roy Rosenzweig is a professor of history and new media at George Mason University and director of the university’s Center for History and New Media. He is co-author, with Daniel J. Cohen, of Digital History: A Guide to Preserving, Presenting, and Gathering the Past on the Web, scheduled to be published in the fall by the University of Pennsylvania Press.

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One thought on “there are archives, and then there are archives

  1. A timely post, as the English Department at Bath Spa University College is hosting an academic conference in September specifically on EEBO as a resource, which will include some debate on the cost issue.

    Thankfully, in the UK, we have JISC which has been able to negotiate reduced fees for UK universities for many of these digital resources, including EEBO, but presumably someone, somewhere, is still having to meet the shortfall. And, of course, the situation is even worse for ‘independent scholars’ as many of these resources don’t even offer ‘single-user’ access. (The Oxford DNB is a rare exception.)

    I’d be really interested to read more of Rosenzweig’s piece…

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