¡Preservationistas! Online Communities, Activist Preservation, and Born-Digital Archives

These are the slides and notes from my presentation with Thomas Padilla at the Archives and Activism symposium put on by the Archivist Round Table of Metropolitan New York at The New School in NYC on Friday, October 12, 2012.

I guess I could post these to Slideshare or something, but I always found the whole Slideshare thing kind of lacking, since I’m just as interested as hearing a person speak as I am in seeing their slides. Actually more so, since I imagine people put as much time into their slides as I generally do (i.e. very little). Plus, minimalist slides usually seem to work best, but of course those are least useful on Slideshare. Anyway, enough about Slideshare.

Being a poor extemporaneous speaker, I mostly stuck to this script, but hopefully I had a bit more animism than some monotone speaking robotI believe the event was videotaped, but isn’t posted yet and I probably won’t bother to link to it once it is, so there you go. I’ll link to Thomas’ slides and/or portion of the talk if it goes online (update: he posted about the conference; update numero dos: he posted his Slideshare slides, clearly ignoring my Slideshare opinions!  (Just joking, T!); his slides are great so check them out). Also, the script was written to be heard, not read, so if it reads funny or the grammar is all whack, that’s the reason. Lastly, looking through them here, I realize some of bullet-points in the slides got axed from the script b/c I was way over my 10 minutes when rehearsing. Oh well. Embrace the mystery.

This slide is pretty self-explanatory.

  • So I want to start with the French Revolution for two reasons. First, because the Storming of the Bastille seen here and the post-Revolution years featured the widespread destruction of archival documents. The archives were seen largely as instantiations of the feudalism and subjugation of the Old Regime and I think this speaks to the symbolic power of the archival record and how that symbolism is often contested and disputed and that even back then archives were seen as an emblems of social memory and meaning.

  • And the second reason is because the French Revolution is responsible for many of the archival principals we consider fundamental today. Especially respect des fonds, which is the theory that archives should be grouped according to the entity that created them, and that such arrangements provide important contextual details.
  • However, respect des fonds was largely born of the unique historical moment of the post-Revolution years. Inconsistent methods of archival arrangement, largely based on topical and subject classification, changing regard for the pre-Revolutionary archives, and the growing number of archivists due to the formation of training institutes – all these led to wildly different means of managing archives.
  • Respect des fonds then, emerged as a simple, practical method for novice archivists to manage collections. And I think it is important to remember how historically constructed this theory was even if it seem axiomatic to us today.

  • From France, I want to jump to Persia, specifically Prince of Persia. Prince of Persia was a 1989 video game that led to innumerable sequels and a film franchise and all sorts of other offshoots. But it turns out the game’s creator, Jordan Mechner, lost the original source code some time in the early 1990s.
  • Then earlier this year, Mechner’s father found a box of disks in a closet and on one was that lost source code. Mechner then teamed with two computer enthusiasts to rescue the code off obsolete media and preserve it.
  • But what’s interesting is how this cultural artifact was still in a personal collection and on obsolescent storage media that was previously thought lost or discarded.

  • And here is the original code posted to GitHub after it was made publicly available.
  • What struck me about this story was that here was the great narrative of discovering a lost artifact, recovering it off of old media, managing and migrating it, and making it publicly available, and that these all felt like very “archival moments.” And yet the whole saga took place outside the archive, with the help from a few motivated, tech-savvy enthusiasts and without the presence or intervention of any archivists.

  • So from Persia, I want to jump to Geocities. Geocities, as many no doubt remember, was one of the first large-scale online communities. Started in the mid-1990s, in 1999 it was the third-most visited website on the web. It was later bought by Yahoo and eventually taken offline, with little warning, in 2009. Prior to being taken offline, it had 38 million user-built pages and 177 million user visits per year.
  • It seems unquestionable that GeoCities played an important role in the history of the internet and online culture and was very much a community, and yet at the same time it had no preservation plan and no archival appraisal.

  • Here again, it turns out that due to the activism of enthusiasts groups, most notably by the ArchiveTeam and Jason Scott, large portions of the site were download prior to GeoCities being taken offline.
  • On screen here is The Deleted City, a great project, a “digital archaeology” of a lost online community and a great example of reuse and re-imagining of an archival artifact.
  • This story of GeoCities, again, is one of a preemptive action by a self-organized group occurring far outside the boundaries of the archival profession or archival principals; and their actions managed to preserve this record of historical and cultural value.

  • So we can debate whether online communities are communities, but I think most of us would acknowledge that we spend an inordinate amount of time in these online spaces and form meaningful personal, social relationships through them. And they have value in documenting social and historical memory.
  • Yes these online communities have dependencies — corporate, custodial, technological – and these dependencies make the difficult to preserve and preservation might upset traditional archival principals or modes of acquisition and require an immediacy of action that archives themselves cannot always bring to bear.
  • Taken together, these three stories draw out a number of themes:
  • That our theories and practices are sometimes historically constructed yet often outlive the era in which they were engendered;
  • That born-digital records are highly ephemeral and susceptible to quick loss;
  • That these records now compose communities that we value and want to document and preserve;
  • And that preservation often requires the immediate activism of a motivated group of citizens operating outside institutions and sometimes without cognizance of, or in spite of, traditional archival principals.

  • This is the ever-popular “why I’m wrong” slide. So what are some counter-arguments to my argument? One, that’s not provenance. I think the origins of respect des fonds, and the legacy of its application, shows that the concept of the fonds-based provenance is a slippery and often ill-defined idea born of a specific time period. Digital objects have many affordances that document provenance information and support a wealth of contextual detail. We can acknowledge that creatorship has value and that grouping records by fonds can at times provide additional evidence and context. But principals and theories adapt and the principals of provenance and original order feel increasingly inadequate to preserving culturally valuable born-digital, ephemeral materials.
  • The second, that’s not an archive. Defining “an archive” purely as records documenting organization or administrative activities seems limiting and many, if not most, archives have collections that would not meet this traditional definition of being archival. Of course a box of crayons is not an archive and neither is a single video game. But hopefully some of the situations I’ve discussed here show how preservation actions are often necessary long before something would ever be introduced into an archive. I’d rather have people call everything an archive and then have archivists work with them to implement professional practices towards preservation or appraisal. The more of that the better.
  • Third, that’s not a community. Like respect des fonds, this seems socially determined to me if not entirely actuarial. It’s more important to work with users to determine what is and isn’t worth preserving. Better awareness of what archivists do and why they do it can help build these bridges.
  • Fourth, that’s not activism: Perhaps they are doing it unwittingly, but these preservation communities are in some ways agitating against archival theories or practices that may inhibit the quick self-organized actions needed to preserve digital materials. That’s a great example of activism. ArchiveTeam notes, after all, that some of its members are “rogue archivists.” So maybe what the archives profession needs is more rogue archivists and a kind of professional activism, one that finds archivists on the front lines of preserving culture and questioning any verities that impede that act.

  • So to conclude: how can we be more rogue? Well, one way is that we can build on existing communities of interest. Archives are starting to do this with transcription crowdsourcing and other user-engagement projects such as having users nominate URLs for web-archiving initiatives – the Library of Congress and British Library are both doing this. We should extend that into full-fledged preservation activities for all types of born-digital records.
  • Another is that Jason Scott of ArchivesTeam is now working with the Internet Archive and it’s great to see institutional support for his efforts. Also, some of the presentations at today’s symposium show archivists and the archives community working with OWS – and that’s a fantastic example of archival engagement.
  • Lastly, Patricia Galloway at the iSchool at U-Texas has a great program working with a local computer museum to share knowledge around media archaeology, digital forensics, and preservation. It’s a perfect example of two disparate communities with overlapping interests working together to solve preservation problems.
  • In conclusion, we often speak of born-digital materials as these endangered things, and they are of course, but one thing that makes them powerful is that we all rely on them in a way that makes their preservation very easy to understand on a personal level. So what is exciting about our specific historical moment is that it provides a great opportunity for engagement between archivists and preservationistas.

Then there was wine. Well, not right then, b/c our panel was in the morning. But after the event there was wine. And then a bunch of archivists went out for beers.

Some of the other presentations were great (much better than mine!) so check them out when they get posted. Thanks again to Archivists Round Table for letting us present.


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  2. Thanks for posting this talk. As one who come from the world of print preservation and is increasingly, and intentionally, finding myself within the world of digital preservation I continue to ponder the conversations between these to disciplines. I am also intrigued by the role of the activist/enthusiast/”amateur” in both realms. Enthusiasts have always been collecting and preserving alongside of institutions, however a significant difference with digital material is the enthusiast’s ability to also provide access to the material collected and preserved. Providing real access to physical collections almost always requires institutional structures. (Nicholson Baker acquired an enormous newspaper collection as an enthusiast, but it eventually went to Duke University for ongoing preservation and access). In a recent talk of my own I reflected on the opportunities of digital preservation to potentially deconstruct the institutional contexts within which preservation happens and rethink preservation. A challenge to a deconstructed context, or an activist-lead digital preservation, it seems to me, is the ongoing persistence and stability that digital preservation requires.

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      Hi Kevin,

      Thanks for the comment! I totally agree on the necessity of continued dialogue between disciplines. Even in the archives world, there often feels to be a disconnect between “traditional” archivists and “digital” archivists. It shouldn’t be so (and I’ll post something on this soon).

      Your last sentence nails it. While enthusiasts/activists/etc are often on the front line of capturing and providing access, the ongoing access that digital preservation ensures will almost certainly be institutionally-dependent. Yet, paradoxically, much of the material available for eventual institutional preservation would not even exist were it not for the efforts of those enthusiasts. There’s lots of potential to build bridges here. As your presentation’s last slide notes, the question should be “what we want to preserve” not whether something is *for now* being preserved by non-archivists in non-archives.

      I’ll note that a just-posted pre-print article in DHQ by Kari Kraus and Rachel Donahue explores this idea in far more detail (and erudition) than my slidedeck. It is definitely worth a look.

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