Archeiophobia digitalis: My Fear of Archives in the Digital Age

September 25, 2011 - 11:58am

For a long time I resisted the temptation to blog. Behind all of the ordinary reasons one might shun blogging, from privacy to time pressures, lurked a basic fear of the internet revolution. I am afraid for the historian of the future who will have to wade through googolplexes of personal blogs to reconstruct the history of our era. 

 Blogs! So many, so different, and yet all so eerily familiar with their endless recycling of current affairs and pop culture lore. It is yet another Eliotic wilderness of mirrors. 

 Let's assume that all of these blogs will wind up in a digital archive as grist for dissertations. How will historians cope with the abundance of material? Will they write books on picayune phenomena that produced a massive amount of documentation - The Charlie Sheen Affair - or will they prefer more digested material, such as the contemporary histories of journalists such as Bob Woodward? Or will historians of the digital age use digital tools, statistical sampling and network mapping, to transform the torrent of personal trivia into usable data? 

These concerns have fueled a certain disgust in me at the explosion of "content," as techies refer to the user-input in sites like Facebook, Blogger, or Twitter. But in the end, I realize that historians will act as they have always acted: they will read enough to make persuasive arguments; they will dip into sampling or mapping as necessary; and they will find a kaleidoscope of uses for blogs as for other sources. 

More Eliot:

"After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now

History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors,

And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,

Guides us by vanities." 

What spurred me to start blogging, however, was not an intellectual epiphany about the resilience of historians in the face of mammoth quantities of information, but my departure (PhD in hand!) from Stanford University. I miss my old intellectual community even as I am very excited to join a new one at the University of Chicago. The CMEMS blogs promise to transfer an existing but transient community from the arcades of Stanford University to the web - and in so doing, may achieve a greater degree of permanence and solidity for the community.

Tomorrow I begin teaching my first course as a fully-fledged historian: Euro Civ at the University of Chicago. This blog will reflect on my experiences as a first time teacher as well as my thoughts (much in mind lately) on the development of European civilization. And it will serve something as my ghost at Stanford, lingering among the eucalyptus and live oak after I have departed.

~Corey Tazzara