Born Digital Primary Sources for History: A Partial List

Historians refer to records and artifacts that record or register traces of the past on them primary sources. For a very long time, those sources have been analog things. Physical objects and artifacts made up of atoms. The artifacts historians tend to work with (letters, photographs, diaries, notebooks, newspapers, blueprints, etc) are increasingly being replaced in our lives by digital things (bits encoded on various storage media). I often find people working with historical sources lack an expansive imagination of how diverse the universe of born digital primary sources are.

So I thought it might be useful to start enumerating some examples of the broad array of things that fall into the category of born digital primary sources. I’ve really enjoyed Ian Bogost’s lists in Alien Phenomology. He has this great riff about how important lists are in Bruno Latour’s work. Lists can do a great job at communicating the diversity that exists within a category of objects.

So here we go, born digital primary sources for history include but are not limited to:

  • photos on flickr
  • presidential emails
  • lolcats
  • the stuxnet virus
  • COBOL, Java, and Python
  • sensor data
  • a ROM of Super Mario Brothers
  • the source code of Ninja Gaiden 2
  • images collected by the curiosity rover
  • the software on the curiosity rover
  • instagram’s interface
  • a digital image of the declaration of independence
  • yelp reviews of the Statue of Liberty
  • punch cards from the 1890 census
  • the plug board of an enigma machine
  • Windows 95
  • The Google homepage as it appeared on February 21st, 2002 at noon GMT
  • The drudge report
  • Amazon’s recommendation engine
  • Git, Github & Github’s blog
  • Benoit Mandelbrot’s 8-inch floppy disks
  • MARC records

What would you add?

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5 Responses to Born Digital Primary Sources for History: A Partial List

  1. Ben Schmidt says:

    Do you know if the punchcards from the 1890 census are actually still extant, or if they were lost in the fire or earlier? Not asking as a gotcha, I’m curious whether anybody saved them.

    • tjowens says:

      Good catch! I think you’re right. There is a good chance that not a single card remains. I’d actually be curious to know how many places are actually keeping punch cards around. Often when you see pictures of old ones they are either of replicas or pictures of the cards that ran in magazines.

      There are some collections like this out there.

      • Ben Schmidt says:

        I have no knowledge of this, but I bet punch cards were rarely saved–either the data made it onto the next storage medium (I’ve been looking at ship’s logs, which were punched but shifted to tape in the 60s-70s, I think) or it was just tossed. (I spent a while several years ago looking through old Education Department stats, and there was a line around 1966 before which all the data–which had clearly been punchcarded at least as far back as ’46 or so–had never been transferred. There were two or three years where the text fields were in EBCDIC, not ASCII, which might suggest they scanned in a few years of old cards…)

        I’m trying to imagine how much space 61 million punch cards would take up. Going by dimensions I’m finding online, it would about 150 cubic meters of space for the cards alone; it’s easy to imagine they dumped them out after each census.

        It’s too bad–it would be an interesting case if we had all the data from the 1890 census somewhere except for the names, which don’t seem to have been on the cards but are the only thing most people are interested in.

        Oh, and one good link I stumbled on a while ago.

  2. tjowens says:

    Oh, and I shouldn’t talk about punch cards with out mentioning Steve Lubar’s gem of a paper “Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate”:
    A Cultural History of the Punch Card
    .

  3. Pingback: 6 Digital Historiography and Strategy Grad Seminars I’d Love to Teach | Trevor Owens

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