Impermanence and archives in the information era

I have been thinking a lot lately about the ideas of impermanence, flexibility, retention, and change. Apart from the aesthetics or poetics of impermanence, it does in a very real sense pose problems to a digital record. We have access to more voices, more information, more possibilities than ever before, yet in some ways we have less. As projects and web spaces necessarily evolve, history and documentation can be lost. Sometimes it is refined, but sometimes it is simply replaced.

As I began a discussion today about digital humanities resources, completion, and evolution, I realized data fragility on that level is something to return to at another time. Here, and now, the concern is on a more immediate possibility of a different kind of record loss.

The broader web and digital records pose challenges that archivists have been debating since the beginnings of the Internet—how rapid, how impermanent a space for communications and public discourse. But it is also a place for public access to many kinds of records, and none seem more important right now than government data. In an era of looming uncertainty about transparency and access to information, the preservation activities of the Internet Archive Wayback Machine seem suddenly radical.

Archivists as activists have been a topic of interest for some time, but it is often in relation to hidden histories or underrepresented communities that such discussion develops. It is a strange twist, indeed, to suddenly view government documents archivists and scientific communities as activists. But as the fear that certain politically unpopular documentation—websites, datasets, papers, reports, communications—may start to disappear, a frantic effort to collect and archive seems like just that.

Business Insider explains this in an article articulating concerns about the possibility of climate change data being wiped from both servers and web spaces.

Tech.Co similarly explains three ways scientists are frantically preserving this data.

The University of Toronto Guerrilla Archiving Event: Saving Environmental Data from Trump was initiated by faculty fearing data loss and the tamping down on access to information. The End of Term Presidential Harvest, an initiative of several university and government offices, took on a tone this year that seems more urgent, more immediate, and more important than in the past. As though data—and history—may actually be erased, not just updated or misplaced.

There are undertones not simply of the usual transience and carelessness in the management and access to information, but of malicious intent. This is put forth, forcefully, in the language of the Internet Archive’s See Something, Save Something initiative. Sure, it’s about anyone pitching in to help preserve websites and digital content, but co-opting and playing on the language of the See Something, Say Something campaign to combat terrorism through heightened public awareness is not a subtle message that the willful “disappearance” of information from public spheres is something against which people must remain vigilant.

Further, digging out and tweeting this 1946 educational film on despotism seems an unequivocal declaration that Internet Archive is watching the political and social arenas and guarding access to information for the future of an informed citizenry:

Encyclopedia Britannica Films

Archival activism is alive and more essential than ever, and the task of vigilant preservation and advocating for public spheres just became even more immediate. The message on the part of a great many groups is clear: knowledge isn’t just power, it’s a basic human right.


Embarking on a journey of discovery and rediscovery

The beauty of the original 23 Things project created by Helene Blowers, technology director at the Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, is that it both teaches and reinforces many popular (and at this point widespread) social media outlets in addition to introducing some that are less well-known to many people. As a training exercise it is quite effective in bringing people up to speed on using social media technology by providing a concrete list of 23 must-try social media tools that have uses within a business, library, or academic context. As a personal exercise it is just plain fun to go into exploratory mode. As with all technologies, however, some of the items will or have already become a little passé. One needs only to think of the imminent shutdown of Delicious at the hands of Yahoo for a good example. Interestingly, the 2006 Delicious list of other libraries employing the 23 Things program rests prominently on the original webpage–a testament to how quickly pages or links on the Internet can become fragmented or irrelevant. This list is an export from a dying service and soon the headline will announce active links kept via a defunct social technology. Interesting reminder about how fast progress (or at least change) happens in a digital age.

The original 23 Things project, however, still holds purpose as an outreach tool. Of course, since technology marches forward the original list has some serious omissions. The use of virtual worlds, location-based services like Foursquare, mobil technology, and augmented reality are all elements that have taken greater hold in the time since the list was established. Even so, a surprising number of people are still unaware of many of the original social media trends covered. As a living document, it still holds considerable weight and purpose.

I have completed many of the original 23 Things items in the past. Others I have accomplished simply by virtue of being a tech savvy person. I follow blogs and keep one of my own; I actively use Twitter and Facebook, RSS feeds, contribute to YouTube, edit and share photos and videos, and so forth. Many of these same items appear in revamped lists by other organizations. However, the spirit of any of the 23 Things projects is about more than simply completing and checking off scripted exercises. It is about playfulness, adventure, learning, and exploration. It encourages growth and reflection. So in that spirit I am going to work through a new 23 Things with fresh eyes. I am going to explore the suggested resources of the 23 Things for Archivists and will probably add some of my own. I am going to approach this as an opportunity to learn new things about each and every one of the tools. The beauty of social media, after all, is that it changes and forces us to adapt and, sometimes, to reinvent.

I have taken my first step in creating a dedicated blog for this journey. I will pull items from the 23 Things and the Expanded Things for Archivists. I will learn and reflect-both on myself and on the applications of the technologies in a professional context-and I invite you to join me through discussion. This is, after all, a reflection on the use of social media tools, and what better way to put these to use than connecting right here.  

23 Things for Archivists is a new program by the Reference, Access, and Outreach Section of the Society of American Archivists. It includes many of the original 23 Things, but expands them to include intermediate items, 24-46, and advanced things, 47-∞. It is still under development, so some of the advanced and intermediate items are not yet fully implemented. Still, it is a fresh take on the classic, and can be found here: