Archival Uneasiness with the Digital World


More than thirty years ago, the archival profession (my community) was struggling to cope with the growing presence of digital stuff. Amidst handwringing and great angst, some archivists declared that we were losing our history or, more dramatically, our memory. Archivists were depicted as, or confessed to, laboring on procedures based on the old paper paradigm, and they were uneasy about their ability or resources to contend with the emerging digital culture. Archivists have calmed down quite a bit since then, even if all the programs and projects in digital stewardship have not solved any more than a small portion of the challenges we face; one does not need to scratch too deeply below the surface to discover that there is still a lot of concern about how well we are dealing with digital sources, the World Wide Web, and anything else relying on computers to create and sustain various information and evidence systems.

Increasingly, we are witnessing interesting messages in new publications bearing on our cyberculture and about the archival sources residing in that world. We are reading more comforting messages about the persistence of digital materials that might make us wonder what all the fuss was back in the 1970s and 1980s. More amusingly, books are appearing providing an almost nostalgic sense of the old paper archive. While the archivists who contribute to the professional literature tend to be writing about case studies, techniques and methodologies, and other micro-views of their practice, scholars and pundits outside of the profession are providing macro-perspectives of the care and feeding of archives. The former (microanalysis) tends not to lead to either optimistic or pessimistic notions, but the latter (macroanalysis) definitely might lead to false hopes and misguided attitudes. At the least, these newer perspectives suggest that the allure of old documents tends to be both strong and persistent, one key to understanding why we value archives today and, perhaps, for the very distant future.

A couple of Google administrators have written an extraordinarily optimistic assessment of the role of digital information technologies in our society (why should we be surprised by this?). Taking a polar opposite view from that of earlier archivists (or most archivists even today), Eric Schmidt and Janet Cohen forecast that this is an era of “near-permanent data storage.” “This will be the first generation of humans to have an indelible record,” they contend (Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, The New Digital Age Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013], 55). This account is tempered with statements that seek to assert that technology is both powerful and neutral, that problems arise only from people’s misuse of the technology (computers don’t kill history, people do). There is also the optimistic perspective about how the ubiquitous digital information technologies make it harder for dictatorships to stay in control and for democratic regimes not to be accountable to the people: “Permanent digital evidence will also help shape transitional justice after a conflict has ended. Truth-and-reconciliation committees in the future will feature a trove of digital records, satellite surveillance, amateur videos and photos, autopsy reports and testimonials. . . . Again, the fear of being held accountable will be a sufficient deterrent for some would-be aggressors; at the very least they might dial back the level of violence” (Schmidt and Cohen, 200). “Technology is an equal opportunity enabler” (Schmidt and Cohen, 151) and we should be grateful for it and its role in our lives. While we need to be diligent about the potential erosion of personal privacy or security, we also need to be aware of the advantages these new technologies offer to improve our lives in innumerable ways.

It is just such a perspective that Evgeny Morozov warns us to be cautious about, or at least critical about its relevance or utility (Evgeny Morozov, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism [New York: PublicAffairs, 2013]). Morozov critiques the idea that the Internet is a revolutionary catalyst, a kind of new printing press, stressing that we celebrate rather than analyze the Internet, idealizing it and accepting all the claims for what these technologies will do for us. He also contends that openness and transparency are more complicated than they seem, especially since we tend to ignore issues of ethics, morality, political economy and other messy topics that reveal what we are up against. Morozov is challenging the belief that technology will help us solve every problem; we need to be aware of what this might do to us. It is what he terms “technological solutionism,” the use of technology to fix the problems caused by technology.

Both scholars and societal pundits worry about what they perceive to be lasting, ubiquitous, and negative influences of the digital on language, texts, and documentation (not unlike how archivists of the past two generations have stressed about the potential damage of digital systems to our documentary universe). Literary scholar and poet Kenneth Goldsmith provides an example of such concerns: “In today’s digital world, language has become a provisional space, temporary and debased, mere material to be shoveled, reshaped, hoarded, and molded into whatever form is convenient, only to be discarded just as quickly. Because words today are cheap and infinitely produced, they are detritus, signifying little, meaning less. Disorientation by replication and spam is the norm. Notations of the authentic or original are increasingly untraceable.” (Kenneth Goldsmith, Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age [New York: Columbia University Press, 2011], 218). Many archivists would agree with such an assessment, especially as Goldsmith is not alone in such assessments.

Poet, essayist, and scholar Andrei Codrescu gives us a rambling reflection on both his personal archives and the future of books in the digital era. Codrescu provides lots of observations about the nature of archives, some insightful and some confused — but all worth some consideration. His argument is not easy to summarize, composed in a kind of stream-of-consciousness style, but some example quotations will give a sense of his ideas. “Storing my archive in an Archives was a comforting thought but hardly the cure for the bad (good?) luck of being born at such a momentous time of transition between flesh and machine. Would any archive survive so much archiving? It remains to be seen” (Andrei Codrescu, Bibliodeath: My Archives with Life in Footnotes [n.p.: Antibook Club, 2012], 89). Codrescu writes with some cynicism: “After outsourcing our memories to the machines, the only mental possession we will be allowed to possess is an individual Password” (Codrescu, Bibliodeath, 93). He makes sharp distinctions between the physical, traditional archives and that of the virtual, noting, “Archivists are angels in charge of an author’s afterlife: a flick of the wing and they can either disperse it to the winds or whoosh it into the right hands; they stand with feathers, not matches, between an author and the vultures who want the author’s remains” (Codrescu, Bibliodeath, 112). And — “The physical Archives inhabits a world that exists in parallel (but only physically) with an unarchives repository, the Unarchive, the Negative Archive. This Unarchive contains all this omitted, deliberately or unknowingly, from the Archives. . . . Every document recorded, or realized and stored, is accompanied by an undocumented, unrecorded, unrealized version that was aborted at some point” (Codrescu, Bibliodeath, 126-127). I am not sure how I would use this book, except that it does provide a unique perspective on how we are increasingly seeing personal archives, empowered by new digital technologies promising to allow us to store, organize, and retrieve just about everything. The ambiguities of Codresu’s message reflects the mixed feelings many, including archivists, possess about the position of archives in a society transitioning from analog to digital.

We still have lots to mull over.


One thought on “Archival Uneasiness with the Digital World

  1. I wonder if the uneasiness caused by the transition from analog to digital more greatly affects archivists dealing with personal papers and manuscripts rather than institutional records. As a university archivist, I’ve been quite surprised with how much business the university still conducts in paper. It’s like people use the digital for the convenience but the analog for the more official, file-worthy records. I’ve heard other university archivists say similar things about their institutions. That said, I’ve taken initiative to set up an electronic records preservation program and it has been challenging but fun. I think the biggest challenge for universities is email preservation, which is my institution struggles with because it is an unfunded mandate. And I’ve found educating the stakeholders about what I do and what I can offer to be a bigger challenge than expected.


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