Practicum 8: Abundance vs. Scarcity

Regarding the conflicts seen by a scarcity and abundance of cultural memories, abundance worries me more. Even though I understand the two concepts to be linked together symbiotically, with an abundance defining that deficiency concerning the space available, an abundance represents a flood of information and artifacts that do not organize efficiently. As a result, the flooding of a digital archive system is, in effect, costly and overwhelming for those attempting to organize and access the desired objects. And with cultural artifacts decaying at a higher rate and access becoming obsolete due to outdated technology, the abundance of material becomes more of a burden as time goes on. That burden can be seen once materials need to be “prioritized” for an archive running low on space, staff, or money.

While an abundance of artifacts may seem like a blessing, the burden felt by libraries to organize and archive them is an issue that would ultimately cause more concern and harm than good. This burden can especially be seen in understaffed and underfunded libraries that deal with historically significant archives, such as the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank. While the nature of a hurricane forces objects to become wet and damaged with decay, the archive becomes a benefit for those interested in studying those objects and their historical circumstances. However, since the HDMB deals with a group of artifacts that is continually growing (since hurricanes are frequently raging and creating artifacts), the attempt to archive each object, story, and photograph becomes increasingly difficult and expensive. As Roy Rosenzweig mentions, “the expense and difficulty of the protocols and procedures mean that less well funded and staffed archives and libraries often ignore them. Responding to presentations by advocates of standards at a conference, computer scientist Jim Miller warned that if archivists push for too much cataloging metadata ‘they might end up with none.'” And while the internet has an immense sense of digital space for an archive, the abundance of information needed to be recorded becomes a literal deluge (the HDMB archive is currently sitting at a whopping 1393 pages of archived material). The abundance of artifacts makes me wonder how long they can hold up the archiving process when there are more and more objects to be archived.

Even though an abundant or scarce object does not distinctly exist as a single concrete entity, the scarcity that ultimately derives from that abundance introduces the dilemma regarding relevance. Since there are so many artifacts and only so much time can actually be spent arguing over the archiving process, how is one supposed to sort out the importance of one object over another, especially some artifacts are more abundant than others? For example, let us compare the growing number of artifacts in the HDMB archive with the limited artifacts of the September 11 Digital Archive. Of course, both archives represent historically important and vital cultural information. However, when either archiving space, resources, staff, or funding become limited, and not all artifacts can be archived, specific cuts must be made to maintain a functioning archive. Who and how will a distinction be made to preserve the archives based on the retrospective size and “importance”? Regarding this conflict, I feel that an abundance of artifacts acts as the defining factor since an overwhelming amount of space is taken by that abundance. And if the abundance is not taken care of or handled efficiently, the scarce materials seem to be the most at risk.

With that conflict being said, I believe that the solution to that dilemma derives from the approach taken to archiving itself, particularly with the value given to certain objects over others. Sure, scarcity and abundance play important factors, but the archiving process, according to Rosenzweig, seems to be more biased towards a certain type of historicity that prioritizes one discipline over the other. Rosenzweig writes, “archivists and librarians have intensely debated and discussed digitization and digital presentation for more than a decade. They have written hundreds of articles and reports, undertaken research projects, and organized conferences and workshops. Academic and teaching historians have taken almost no part in these conferences and have contributed almost nothing to this burgeoning literature. Historical journals have published nothing on the topic.” I believe that giving a certain level of power and voice to more humanities oriented fields of academia, there can be a greater sense of value and importance towards historical objects  in need of archiving.