An Interesting Question of Context: (or Did “They” Ever Update the Blasted Thing or is That Woodrow Wilson’s Web Site?)

December 26, 2009

I was searching the other day for information I needed to get my name off the graduate students of history e-mail list. I still had the instructions I had been given when I subscribed some years ago. I had not tried to get off the list for some years while I fought battles with various forces, both within and outside the academy, to finalize my thesis. I had remained connected, even though my coursework and thesis research had long been completed, but after the thesis was done I tried to remove my name. I did so, however, to no avail. It seems the instructions I used to get on the list did not work to get off the list, as they sent me to the address of a server that has not existed at the school for some time.

I contacted one of the officers of the organization and all she knew about it (other than that she had no idea who I happen to be,) was that she got on the list by giving her name to someone, she didn’t recall who, when she went through orientation. This, she believed, was still the case for new additions and she did not know how students got off the list. (As an aside, I recognize enough comments from students who had been at the school since before I started that I am not really sure that anyone does get off the list.) She asked around and came up with the same set of instructions I had used with no effect. I had e-mailed the department head, the head of grad students for the department, the student list sponsor, my former thesis committee and the head of my concentration within my discipline, but I received no response. I figured I could contact the school IT department and get things taken care of, but decided instead to search the Web site for more information. I was astounded (well, mildly surprised. Okay, having been a student in the department for several years, “had my suspicions confirmed” might be the appropriate thing to say,) to find that following links to the various graduate student resources brought me not only the instructions for contacting the formerly-existing-now-nonexistent server as the way to get on and off the list, but that I could also find information that suggested that this group of students was involved with a professor who is now (God rest his Soul; I mean that) dead! There were officers that were listed as current even though they had not been officers, or to my knowledge students, for 4 and 5 years. There was nothing on the Web pages to suggest the date that they had been updated. I am left to assume that either there are few ways to verify the current validity of some of the data on the site, or that time travel has been both discovered and implemented at my Alma Mater. (This last would either revolutionize or destroy the history professions, depending on your point of view, but either way, it would be some trick!)

Now, I am poking a bit of fun at my fellow travelers in the history education boat, passengers, crew, or what-have-you, and this might cost me if I ever seek employment there or decide to work on another degree. The real issue I have here, though, is the importance of context. When someone gains access to information on the Internet, which is quite mutable, what is the context of its creation? Sure, those with access to enough of the codes and metadata could probably get an idea when the data was created, particularly if that metadata came from the machine on which it was created. When we cite something from the Net we cite the site (I love saying that, “cite the site,”) as well as when we obtained access, but we don’t always have the ability to determine if the data is original, (whatever that means today,) altered in some way, or contains errors. Context of data will become more vital and more elusive as technology frees it to be created, used, disseminated and stored by more and more people in more and more ways. Preserving that context will also get trickier.

Anyone who is familiar with Biblical textual criticism or just good old fashioned genealogy can attest to the difficulty in evaluating sources when one does not know for certain their age. Information from different sources gets mixed, so that some sources seem older than they are because they contain older information copied from older sources. The age of a document does not necessarily equate to the age of the information found in that document. A digital example might be that of following a link from a news aggregator site. One might read an interesting subject line and follow the link. The story is quite interesting and the URL of the site suggests that the site is that of a newspaper, but Franklin, or Johnsonville, or just the Daily News, tells one little about where that paper is located, and therefore little about where the story occurred. (“Just south of here” helps some, but in reality only technically eliminates the South Pole.) If the article says “yesterday” but does not give the date, one still has to guess since the articles in the edition of the “paper” and of the aggregator have no specific expiration date. In short, one has to guess about when and where the source is in the space-time continuum. (This really gets tricky when one wishes to by something online as well, as one can stumble on an item on sale from a company that has not existed for a few years.) If, as has happened, I find research presented by the same individual that varies, one source from the other, I cannot always determine which source is most up to date. Heck, I even found that I had the wrong time setting on one of my blogs the other day, so the graph of visits showed different shapes when I changed the date and some visits were recorded on different days than they had previously been recorded.

What does this have to do with archives? A lot. Nothing. Who knows? I think it bears keeping in mind when those of us in the archives/history/religious-version-of-either professions are involved with either the creation of records, interpretation of research, or as we struggle to devise new ways of preserving context of record creation. Remember, the format of the records will continue to change, as the methods and importance of different aspects of our profession will, yet we still will need to find out all we can about the records in our care, who created them, how they were created and used, and find a way to make this available to others for them to have historical value.

I do know that I am more conscious of making notes and annotations about when I change things in my own notes, publications, or other created data . I encourage those I advise to be meticulous about placing information about creation and change, or maybe other items that might otherwise be considered hidden metadata, where it may be read and cited by researchers. And I will try to point these things out to researchers using digital sources so they may be better able to interpret the validity of sources. It might be as effective a process as trying to explain to one of my grandmother’s cousins that Jesus did not likely speak 17th century English just because there are red letters in the King James version of the Bible, or explaining to the lady who comes in with a family Bible with 200 years of records all written in the same ink and handwriting (and with an edition date in the front that is 60 years old) that all the records of births and marriages were not necessarily written down at the time they occurred., Alas, such is the world of historical debate and archival reference services. Is it not?

In the meantime, I must contact IT and see if the correct server handling the e-mail list is still HAL 9000.

The Heretic

The Heretic is the nom du plume of a historian and archivist who works with the public and in religious institutions. He has been accused by others in his professional world of “heresy” as a historian, archivist and Christian (not formally, of course.) He does not zealously guard his identity, but on occasion voices opinions that he feels might embarrass others. It is out of respect for those persons that he uses the pseudonym. When he is convinced that it no longer serves a purpose, he will discard it. It is really just in fun, anyway. Most people who know him recognize the source of his words, or so he believes.

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