Archives, digital and analog

In the digital age, it’s easy to forget that even records have bias.

A few years ago, I took a class on archives. It was half practical training for archival research, half theoretical examination of the concept of the archive. One topic that came up week after week was how our work as historians would change with digitization. Was digitization going to save deteriorating paper and make remote libraries accessible to all? Would historians of this era have anything to study if everything is saved or, conversely, drown in too much knowledge? This is a question that even non-historians ask me – would there be anything to study if you knew everything about the past?

The answer to that is an easy no, because history isn’t about figuring out the facts of what happened, but instead about finding meaning or making sense of what we know. But it’s hard to wrap our minds around that idea, because as we get farther from events we both know less about them and understand less about what we know. L.P. Hartley said “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” In that way, we can know information about the past but find that we have no context to understand it. But unlike, say, France, there’s no one around from the past to defend it and tell us our understanding of it is wrong. So we can go on theorizing about the past without any correction, and until we start to criticize our own perspectives or the nature of our sources, this is how things go.

A lot of ideological movements have popped up in academic history over the last 50 years in an attempt to complicate and criticize modern historians in this way – mostly in the vein of social history and post-modernism. But these criticisms often have a reputation as being overly concerned with “feelings” – the bleeding heart liberals of academia – and the people who need these lessons the most are the ones who ignore them. Because the past is the past, why do we need to impose our modern values on it? Men were men and people were stupider and things were simpler back then. So when our modern institutions and especially our recording methods are proven to be just as fragile and fallible as those of the past, I savor this moment as a lesson to anyone who thinks the past really was less complicated than the present and that all our problems can be solved with technology.

The fact that someone can delete an entire website from the internet archive and really have it gone for good shows just how much the past is not passive. Rather than books getting dusty in an attic, we see intentional collecting. Internet Archive, the Wayback Machine, and the Library of Congress observed that digitization made it harder to permanently delete material than (uninformed) people originally thought, and so they created systems to intentionally preserve materials their creators had already forgotten about.

So, when we see people intentionally removing their records from these collecting mechanisms, our understanding of the archive switches from answering the question “why did nothing else survive?” to “why was this saved?” We have to assume that people who record their activities want to record them, that it’s not just a reflex of the technology. But we should also assume that most people’s use for their own work only lasts into the near future – a note you write yourself to remember, a letter to a friend, a journal you might want to look back on in a few months or a year. You don’t save these things unless you start to have a sense of constructing your own history, creating a narrative of your life as you live it. So, you (or, more likely, your mom) saved your report cards and childhood drawings, your college essays and pictures of your wedding – the socially-established milestones. You don’t save dirty notes you passed in class or that one passive-aggressive flyer you posted in your building. You might find that you saved them unintentionally, left them in a box and forgot about them. But then you move or die and someone comes to throw out those things. In this way, the written records of our lives tend to have sharp expiration dates.

As we have acclimated to digitization, our digital lives also begin to expire. What used to seem like an endless amount of digital storage space is now clearly limited. We live more of our lives online and so more data is stored. The Library of Congress no longer saves every tweet. In this climate, preservation becomes more intentional. And it’s a logical next step that as time passes people become more ashamed of what they’ve said in the past, feeling they’ve outgrown it. We no longer think every blog post is precious, and so at this stage in the internet’s life, we’re realizing that we would be perfectly happy to delete material that its creator no longer wants around. So, the internet starts to develop a record as incomplete as the paper record. And we start to see how a combination of bias (intentional removal) and impartiality (lack of concern for whether something is saved or not) creates an imperfect record of something we have the capacity to save perfectly. Because preservation isn’t about can it’s about will. Someone with the power to preserve has to want to do so, has to see a use for this material in the future. And, after all, as we get farther from mundane events, they start to matter less.