Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

June 22, 2009

Interpreting “Archive”

I try pretty hard not to pooh-pooh the New Media, to keep an open mind about The Fate Of The Book and Literacy These Days as all of bookdom gnaws at their fingernails and tears at their hair over changes to print culture.  But sometimes a news story comes up that really sets my nerves on edge.

The Library and Archives Canada has put a moratorium on buying paper documents and books for its collection. They cite the cost of buying printed materials, as well as some notion that digital materials might somehow be a more “efficient” expenditure of funds.  Annoyingly, though this isn’t what I want to talk about, this freeze on spending includes the buying of antiquarian books.

What troubles me about this move is that I question the value of an “archive” which is entirely digital.  I understand buying digital books for personal use – they are a cheaper and easier way to enjoy a casual reading experience, the kind where you don’t think back to the book after you’re done with it.  I understand, even, keeping digital texts for a research library or institutional library – they are easy to search, can be used by multiple users simultaneously and are pretty accessible.

But I don’t grasp how archiving a text digitally serves the aim of an archive.  From Library and Archives’ own website, “Library and Archives Canada collects and preserves Canada’s documentary heritage…” (emphasis mine).  From Wikipedia, “In general, archives consist of records which have been selected for permanent or long-term preservation…”  Other archives will state the same mandate.  You will see words like “heritage”, “preservation”, “primary sources” and “unique” pop up regularly.  Making records accessible is great, but is really the purview of the library: the task of an archive is to keep those records safe over a long period of time.  It is a form of cultural protection.

The protection of records is an ongoing archival problem.  Books deteriorate, are stolen, burnt or damaged.  Languages change and are sometimes lost.  Technologies upgrade and sometimes leave behind old, incompatable records.  Nevertheless archivists do what they can to repair, copy and upgrade their charges in order to see that they survive to greet the next generation. We have come to a point where we take digital storage processes for granted, as if all of civilization has been building up to this technology one logical step after another.  But it seems to me that instead it is one of the more precarious archival tools we’ve ever known.

To read a digital book, you need a program that can decode it.  You need hardware that can read it.  You need a device to run that program, and some means of displaying the results.  You need a power source to fuel all of the above and then you need to start the sticky business of dealing with the text.  Digital media is like taking a book, locking it in ten kinds of lock-boxes with different locks, disguising the whole thing as a rock and then burying it.  You and I might, today, know where to find that rock, we can tell that it isn’t a rock, but rather a piece of technology, and then we have the complicated tools required to unlock all the boxes.  But will we in a hundred years?  Five hundred years?  Two thousand years?

We have become very confident that our society today is the pinnacle of all former societies and, somehow, proof against all the pitfalls of other precariously balanced societies.  We think we’re fail-proof.  Information abundance has certainly perpetuated that belief; we think that if our political, social and communicative networks start to fail, that’s okay, because we’ve got so much junk around us to remind us who we are.

But this really is an illusion.  Technologically sound and literate societies have come before us and have gone, and from their ruins we’ve managed to pick out bits and pieces of cultural ephemera and from that, we’ve painted pictures of who they were.  Rock paintings, scrolls, disks, books give us evidence.  We’ve preserved some of their wisdom and learning this way.  Now can you imagine if, at the sacking of Alexandria, rather than being able to run off with what scrolls they could salvage, the librarians were stuck facing a server bank?  What would they take?   What would they save?

Now archiving isn’t just a safeguard against societal collapse and apocalypse, obviously.  But it is concerned with permanence.  The day of a blackout, or an electrical surge, a fire or an alien magnet or sun flare, is that digital technology available?  Can it even be said to exist anymore?  And what if future politicos cut the budget of the Archives, and render them incapable of the technology upgrades they need to continue accessing the technology?  Is that it, the end?  Nothing even to sell off in an auction?

Information integrity has been recently protected with redundance.  Big companies have server space all over the world, spreading themselves out geographically in order to minimize loss due to environmental disaster or political upheaval (say).  So, perhaps, Library and Archives intends to keep their archive (archives?) in multiple places in order to ensure that our cultural heritage isn’t nuked when a server reaches the end of its life.  After all, this is one of the big benefits of digital technology: its quick and easy multiplication.

But then, what is the archive?  The “original” document?  Do they own it, or simply display it?  Is the “copy” on Server Paris the same as the copy on Server Ottawa?  Are all the copies safe from change?  Who retains the record of what the document “should” look like, in case of deterioration, information loss, virus or vandalism?  Where is the authority of the archive?

This barely scratches the tip of my anxiety iceberg, let me tell you.  And how will this even save them money – are people suddenly giving etexts away for free?  Did I miss the information liberation?

Nothing about “buying” a digital “copy” in order to preserve it sounds like a good idea to me.  In fact, it’s a lot like buying nothing at all.  Like this bridge here I have to sell you.  I tell you if you wanted the real thing, it would cost you.  But I can sell you a virtual one, cheap!

2 thoughts on “Interpreting “Archive””

  1. danuv says:

    That’s incredibly sad!

    Back when the girls were babies the local mall Santa changed over to digital pictures. You had the option of a print out and/or having the the picture put on floppy disk. We, being stupid and enamored with the new technology, had it put on the floppy disk which of course is now completely obsolete. Several computers, drive crashes and reinstalls later we no longer have that picture on any of our computers and no longer own a disk drive to get the original copy off of the disk.

    And that’s just one fairly insignificant Santa picture taken only a few years back.

    I can’t imagine how they could think this is a good idea.

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