With more than two trillion pages of information, the Internet has rapidly become the world’s biggest information archive. From a historian’s perspective, however, it presents several problems.
First, web sites come and go. Pages come and go. An active link today may yield a “file not found” error tomorrow.
Second, file formats change over time. I remember reading a story in the Smithsonian about twenty years ago. The magazine claimed at the time (just ten or fifteen years into the computer revolution), that librarians were worried about the ability to access information stored in file formats that were no longer popular. Prior to the last century, there were just two file formats in the whole of human history: rock and paper. Since the dawn of computers, there have been hundreds of thousands.
Imagine all the information lost for all time because the computing platform, operating system, and application it was created on are no longer commercially viable. The rate of innovation, while a boon to mankind on one hand, is a curse to historians on the other. But the news isn’t all bad.
Having said that, I had a personal experience recently that shows the positive side of the Internet when it comes to history. I published a series of documentary photographs that I took almost 40 years ago in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood on bobrehak.com, my photo blog. A blogger in Chicago who specializes in the history of Uptown, Joane Asala, found them and posted a link to them. They quickly went viral.
As a result, tens of thousands of people have gotten a glimpse into the past of a neighborhood that is quite different today. I had pretty good notes about where I took most of the pictures, but they were incomplete in places. So I invited readers to email me if they recognized people or places in any of the images. Numerous people emailed me about themselves or friends, and places in the images.
Yesterday, I received an email from a man who thought he recognized the architecture in a corner bar at Buena and Broadway. So I went to the street view in google maps. Bingo. The same building was still there. Everything around it had changed. Signs and trash that once littered the street were gone. They were replaced by trees. The contrast was striking. You can see it for yourself by going to the image and clicking on the link embedded in the caption.
Tools like Google Maps were intended primarily to help people navigate. But they have an unintended and quite positive consequence. They can be used to give people a wealth of information about then and now. They can be a boon to historians trying to explain the how and the why of change.