What will future historians do?
The other day I was looking for something in the Washington Post and, not finding it, went looking for it on the paper’s website. I discovered that there was a good deal more information, gathered by their reporters and by others, than is in the print-edition. This made me wonder what happens to the web-version of this and other newspapers with similar services.
I’ve done a lot of work in nineteenth-century NYC newspapers. Some times discovering how an event unfolded depends on learning when people became aware of something when the chief medium for disseminating information was the newspaper. Some of the papers had morning and evening editions. These newspapers still exist, at least in microfilm, and provide the physical traces of the past that historians use in their reconstructions. Often enough written traces are all that remains. Now, of course, fewer and fewer traces are being left on paper. I once heard the story that Cardinal Spellman, having read John Tracy Ellis’s biography of Cardinal Gibbons, said, “They’ll never be able to do that with me. I do everything by telephone.”
I’ve been wondering what future historians will have to work with. How much of what a newspaper, especially a “paper of record,” is content to put on its website but not in its print-edition is being preserved at all? How will it be possible to know, for example, how much information on a particular person or event was publicly available, or when it became available? When a newspaper changes what is available on its website, what happens to the previous version? Is there any record of when things were posted on a website?
The questions could be multiplied, of course, with regard to all those other sources of information now available, trustworthy or not. When a journal of opinion ceases its print-edition and goes all-net, what trace of it survives?
It strikes me that future historians may have far fewer traces of the past to work with. I was wondering what historians might have to say about this.