Can We Save the Present for the Future?

Digital documents last forever – or five years, whichever comes first Jeff Rothenberg (cited p. 740 by Roy Rosenzweig)

It is a repulsive decision of the AHR not to make the forum essay (nor the invitation to an online debate!) free online the great essay by Roy Rosenzweig: Scarcity or Abundance. Preserving the Past in a Digital Era (AHR 108: 2003, 735-762). Scholars should, demands the author, expand the public space of scholarship (with reference to the BOAI in note 66). And: A vigourous public domain is a prerequisite for a healty historical record (p. 762).

Historians are dependent on archives. They constitute the basic building blocks of our scholarship. However, Roy Rosenzweig argues in this Forum Essay, in the future, scholars trying to understand our time will likely face a very troubling and indeed ironic prospect: the archival record of our era may be too scarce or too abundant. In either case, the basic scholarly mission of historians will be challenged in fundamental ways. Rosenzweig argues that historians today have a professional and ethical obligation to address this issue now. It is, he insists, at the core of our responsibilities as scholars as much as is the production of scholarship itself. Indeed, he contends that the connections between these twin responsibilities must be remade, because we have allowed them to wither over the years. This can be done, he maintains, by first understanding the complexities of the problem and then devising solutions that include reestablishing connections with potential allies such as archivists. His message is clear: The problem is dire, the need for action immediate. Rosenzweig invites responses to his plea for understanding and action. (Introduction).

A main topic is the question how to preserve the internet. The article is dealing oftly with Brewster Kahle’s Internet Archive.

With the author I regret the divorce of archival concerns of the historical profession, and I also support his statement: historians ignore the future of digital data at their own peril (p. 759).


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