August 24, 2011
Commentary: Accessibility vs. access: How the rhetoric of “rare” is changing in the age of information abundance
"Over the past few years, the fledgling field of the digital humanities has made significant strides with a number of ambitious digitization projects bringing online rare cultural artifacts — manuscripts, canvases, celluloid, marginalia — that used to rot away in institutional archives. But while these efforts, both government-subsidized and privately initiated, may have made a wealth of information accessible, it’s an entirely different story to ask how many people these materials have reached — how many people have actually gained access to them — and it’s one that harks back to the shifting relationship between scarcity and value...Historically, the two main types of obstacles to information discovery have been barriers of awareness, which encompass all the information we can’t access because we simply don’t know about its existence in the first place, and barriers of accessibility, which refer to the information we do know is out there but remains outside of our practical, infrastructural or legal reach. What the digital convergence has done is solve the latter, by bringing much previously inaccessible information into the public domain, made the former worse in the process, by increasing the net amount of information available to us and thus creating a wealth of information we can’t humanly be aware of due to our cognitive and temporal limitations, and added a third barrier — a barrier of motivation."