A Historian At Work: Verification and Digital Sources

In my previous post, a reader asked if a blog could be a source. The answer is "yes," and I discussed the issue in my reply. But there is another problem that historians face when it comes to digital sources: Permanence. Or, more accurately, lack thereof. What happens if that digital source vanishes? A little background: Historians "document" their sources for their work. Here's an example: This is from my most recent First Draft Follies blog entry

August Busch and Anheuser-Busch, Johnson said, constituted a "selfish" interest that had "openly and without shame . . . prostituted and exploited" the national pastime by making it the "handmaiden and adjunct of the brewing business." (*18)

I documented the source of that quote like this:

*18: Senate Subcommittee on the Judiciary, Subjecting Professional Baseball Clubs to the Antitrust Laws, 83d Cong., 2d sess., 1954, 71.

The "source" here is testimony from a congressional hearing held the second session of the 83rd Congress. The testimony was published, and this particular quote is on p. 71 of that published document. With that information, anyone can find the "source," and read it for themselves. (By the way, this is an example of a primary source.) What happens if a historian wants to use someone's blog as a source? No problem: They name the blog, the date of the entry, and provide the url. Like this:

Maureen Ogle, "First Draft Follies: Budweiser, Baseball, and . . . Communism," February 23, 2009, http://maureenogle.com/2009/02/first-draft-follies-budweiser-baseball-and-com...

All well and good. Unless . . . that link goes "dead" somehow. Doesn't matter how: I remove my blog and its contents, the host vanishes, some hacker destroys my site. Whatever.

Point is if a historian used this "document" as a source, and then the source disappeared or was destroyed -- well, no one else can verify that he or she ever found it. For all we the readers know, he/she made up the source. (*1)

If I had printed a paper copy of that blog entry, then a historian would have what amounts to a back-up.

The historian would use the same citation, but add something like "From the collection of Maureen Ogle; Special Collections, Iowa State University Library." (I'm totally making that up, by the way; there is no "Maureen Ogle archive" at Iowa State University.)

I've noticed in the past few years, that writers who are citing e-sources often include the entire url, no matter how clunky or long it is, along with the date on which they accessed that web page. Presumably, this is to "document" their document.

But again, that document could vanish, in which case no one can prove (or disprove) that the historian actually accessed that page. How will this play out in the next few decades? I dunno. I'm guessing various historian-geniuses are contemplating the problem.

Me? For now, I'm trusting myself, being honest, and hoping that my readers will therefore trust me, too. But it's definitely going to be an issue in the years to come.


*1: I hasten to add that this can happen with conventional, non-digital sources, too. There was an infamous case a decade or so ago of a historian making up sources to suit his needs.