The Fragility Of Evidence In The Digital Era

In 2006, Google quietly purchased Paper of Records, a digital archive of early newspapers, for its Google News Archive. Shortly after they took over management from the site’s founder Bob Huggins late last year, the archive vanished from the web.

Inside Higher Ed reports on the stir the archive’s disappearance aroused among scholars. While many were upset by the sudden interruption of their research, others raised a more troubling question–what does this incident say about the security and accessibility of resources that are controlled by a large, private company like Google?

Weighing in on the debate, Huggins observes that “there is no other entity on the planet that is Google.” He claims that it will be a hundred years before digitization projects supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and other organizations are useful to scholars. Meanwhile, Google sits alone in its ability to efficiently manage large-scale digitization efforts.

The danger, historian John F. DeFelice comments, is that whoever controls the sources controls history. “They control the paths to access and perhaps even filter which primary sources are available and which are not. Unlike real world archives, digital sources can be manipulated, altered, edited, re-translated, falsified, adulterated, and made to disappear forever at the touch of a key.” While no one is accusing Google of manipulating electronic information in this way, the fact that it is easily within their power to do so unsettles DeFelice enough to ask, “When the originals are recycled, what will be left?”

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