I’m not sure if it’s in keeping with the hyperlinked, multi-conversational spirit of blogs, or mere parasitism, but: My post about the Kaplan piece in Slate has generated some interesting comments— on Invisible Adjunct. (Invisible? Ha. Anonymous, yes. Invisible, hardly.) A couple quotes that caught my eye:

E-mails are, however, backed up and indeed archived (John Bruce)

I work in an industry with strict oversight and I’m amazed how lax the official retention rules are. Add to that the non-trivial effort and care required when an organization changes platforms, and the risk of losing records is real. (Ogged)

What worries me more is the question of access. How many of us still have the word processing programs we were using even 10 years ago?… This, of course, presumes that one can actually load said programs onto the computing devices of the day, and doesn’t take into account the additional problem of physical media. If you were handed an old 5.5″ floppy, how many of us would be able to get at the information stored on it? [and a similar point here] (Rana)

These made me realize that there’s an important distinction between stuff not getting destroyed, and stuff getting archived. Archives don’t just exist because of an absence of destruction; they have to be brought into existence.

We can start to see this by disaggregating mail being backups on a server (or burning data on a CD), and archiving in the sense that Kaplan means. Backups (as I understand it) indeed are made regularly by most mail servers; and of course we’ve all had the experience of having something we posted to a discussion group still available years later on some unexpected site (Google groups, etc.). But that’s not the same as archiving, nor is it a sufficient substitute.

That’s because archiving isn’t just the continued existence of something; it’s a more active process of guaranteeing that it’ll actually be available and useable. It’s an additional investment of work to create metadata wrapped around the material (finding aids, cataloging, putting things in nice acid-free folders); to store things to protect them from decay, fire, etc.; and generally to make them available to future scholars. It doesn’t just happen when people don’t hit the “delete” button.

Now, do we still need to archive things in an age when Usenet posts from 7 years ago can still be found? I’d say yes. For one thing, while backups of e-mail sit on servers, those servers will eventually break down, be taken offline, and be replaced. Will those backup files be saved, in a manner that will make the accessible in the future? Who knows. With digital data as much as printed records, materiality matters: the fact that content exists in ones and zeros doesn’t obviate the need for that content to exist somewhere– on a CD, tape, hard drive, whatever. As I argue elsewhere, it’s easy to “see electronic media as perfectly malleable and moveable ones and zeros – content as a kind of frictionless superfluid;” but in some ways, “multimedia content is often more tightly connected to the material world of technology and software than the printed word is to the page.” What this means is that the preservation of digital content will not happen by itself; chances are that if things survive, it’s because someone made the choice to save them.

This relates to the issue of format and compatibility that Rana raised. Archivists indeed are already coming up against this problem– and not just archivists. There’s some great data that’s been gathered since the 1960s by NASA satellites on global forest cover, that would give us a great picture of how fast deforestation has occured in places like the Amazon and South Asia. The problem is, while NASA has that data, they no longer has the machines to read it: effectively, it’s lost. We can still read documents more than 5000 years old, but are in serious danger of losing the ability to read ones less than 50 years old.

But there’s also a social practice that’s been short-circuited. While all digital content suffers from the dangers of obsolescence, not all of it is treated with the casual disregard that e-mail is. My friend Rob Swigart and the Electronic Literature Organization is trying to preserve early hypertexts, because those (to the ELO anyway) have a status similiar to that of other literary works– and thus should be preserved. In contrast, we tend to think of e-mail as ephemeral in a way that doesn’t apply to printed correspondence.

What charmed me about the quote in my last post– about the carbons being made by a secretary, and someone from the national archives coming by to pick them up– is that it revealed something fundamental about archives: they don’t just happen by accident, but result from social practices, from an investment that certain people make at the time that history is being made, and from actions that happen afterwards. History isn’t preserved by itself; you have to make a choice to preserve it. What Kaplan was describing was the first step in that process, one from which we all benefit to a greater or lesser degree.