Digital Memory

Memory has been part of the discourse about archives for a long time, but, as Abby Smith Rumsey suggests in her new book, When We Are No More: How Digital Memory is Shaping Our Future (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2016), this is more complicated than it might seem. As she states at the very beginning, “The carrying capacity of our memory system is falling dramatically behind our capacity to generate information” (p. 3) – and it is this carrying capacity that is one of the responsibilities of archivists (with others such as librarians and museum curators). And the challenge is one long known to archivists, that digital memory is very fragile. Given that everyone with access to a computer can generate lots of information, Rumsey believes that one of the main questions facing us is “what can we afford to lose?” (p. 7). Her book’s purpose is “to deepen our understanding of memory’s role in creating the future and to expand the imaginative possibilities for rebuilding memory systems for the digital age” (p. 13). In fact, Rumsey writes with a sense of urgency: “With every innovation in information technology that produces greater efficiency by further compressing data, librarians and archivists begin a frantic race against time to save the new media, inevitably more ephemeral” (p. 46). Such a sense of urgency has been in place, in reality, for at least three decades.

One of the strengths of this book is that Rumsey does not consider the rapid growth of information as merely a technical issue of the late twentieth century, with the advent of the computer, but extends it well back into the early nineteenth century. This kind of historical context is something often missing in books on this topic. Indeed, she revisits the past even farther back, to the advent of writing, the origin of libraries, printing, and the rise of science and philosophy. In this historical assessment this scholar focuses on the continuing proliferation of information with every new phase of technology, reminding us that the concern about what and how much we can remember is an old one. She also reflects the growing complexity of scholarship on memory, such as “We must be as adept at forgetting what is no longer true or useful as we are at remembering what is valuable and necessary” (p. 11). Again, this strikes close to the heart of the archival mission and work. Indeed, there is much in the book that closely aligns with what archivists do, such as, “The culture of knowledge in America has been a servant of democratic governance. This instrumental view of knowledge meant that three principles would be become fundamental to American-style democracy: The press must be free, the government must be open and accountable to the people, and the education of the citizenry must be a right and responsibility of the governed and their representatives” (p. 67). This kind of description ought to sound familiar to most American archivists (and it is particularly relevant today).

In her analysis, Rumsey considers both the strengths and weaknesses of the developing digital information technologies. At one point, she notes that all these technologies are only truly useful if they preserve the context that they are created and exist in. She also describes the differences in managing things and the virtual. As she considers the notion of the universal library and private libraries, Rumsey raises the specter of how easily breached the online versions of these can be. She is particularly adept at demonstrating how the growth in use of information technologies has given rise to libraries, archives, and museums and new specialized staffs and mechanism for managing their holdings. Yet, with the increasing sophistication of these technologies and their capacities has come a loss in our ability to retain digital memory. Now analog formats look more substantial – “They can be slow and imprecise, but infinitely rich in subtlety and nuance for perception” (p. 116). In analyzing all the problems posed by digital information technologies Rumsey cautions that we will not be able to solve them in one or two generations (indeed, archivists now have three generations of professionals who have grappled with these problems). Memory now looks different: “The new paradigm of memory is more like growing a garden. Everything that we entrust to digital code needs regular tending, refreshing, and periodic migration to make sure that it is still alive, whether we intend to use it in a year, one hundred years, or maybe never, We simply cannot be sure now what will have value in the future. We need to keep as much as we can as cheaply as possible” (p. 148). Even with a growing array of digital historians, librarians, and archivists, we still have a long way to go in having any certainty about how well we are preserving digital memory (and personally, I do not believe that that uncertainty will ever dissipate). Why? Because “nothing we have invented so far is as fragile as digital data” (p. 162).

This is a thought-provoking book.


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