Slate has a good piece on how e-mail is wrecking our national archive. As someone who’s spent a lot of time in archives– indeed, who’s spent some of the happiest times of his life in archives– it’s a depressing prospect. I found this bit particularly illuminating:
In the old days, before the mid-to-late 1980s, Cabinet officials and their assistants and deputy assistants wrote memos on paper, then handed them to a secretary in a typing pool. The secretary would type it on a sheet of paper backed by two or three carbon sheets, then file the carbons. Periodically, someone from the national archive would stop by with a cart and haul away the carbons for posterity.
That was then. But:
The new, paperless world has encouraged a general carelessness in official record-keeping.
It’s no coincidence that the institutions of the national archive and national library date from the post-French Revolution: they coincide with the growth of state bureaucracies in the 19th century, and the development of new tools– surveys, censuses, and the like– for measuring the state.
Now, the insight that digital records don’t keep as well as printed ones isn’t new: it’s been around for a few years, and it’s inspired some pretty out-there projects– from Brewster Kahle’s Internet Archive, to Stewart Brand’s Long Now Foundation. But Fred Kaplan’s Slate article points to something slightly different, namely a behavioral change: the fact that people– especially busy people– rely on e-mail far more than print for rapid communication, but they neither take the attitude that electronic communication should be preserved, nor do they produce those messages in an infrastructure that guaranteed that copies would be preserved for posterity. (That’s what charmed me about that quote above.)
Similar processes and technologies made possible virtually every archive I’ve worked in. My eclipses book relied heavily on the archives of the Royal Astronomical Society and Royal Society, both of which are essentially in the business of being institutional memories; Greenwich under George Airy was fastidious about record-keeping to a fault (God bless them for it). It’s possible to write about Bucky Fuller because he was obsessed (not in a pathological way) with his Chronofile, and by the time of his death had saved two tractor-trailers full of papers, tape recordings, photographs, video, and artifacts. It’s becoming a commonplace among futurists that we’re going to have gigantic problems of information searching and retrieval in the future, and that every person will be able to record his or her life at a level of detail that would put presidental records to shame. But no one is worried about preserving any of this vast flow of material. Obviously we should.