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.


It’s been awhile…

Funny how time often slips by so quickly. Despite good intentions, I have been neglecting this and my other blog, Writing It All Down, for quite some time–well, to be exact it’s going on close to three years now. That isn’t to say I haven’t been just as engaged with exploring new social media resources, figuring out ways to incorporate them into library and information literacy practices, and design work. To the contrary, I have actually been involved with some very exciting work, but my energy has been focused on the planning, research, articles, presentations, deliverables, and social media use specific to those projects.

Despite my hiatus having dragged on a bit longer than originally anticipated–and let’s face it, there are plenty of well-intentioned but unfinished and abandoned personal and institutional resources out there–I am back with renewed excitement and many things to share.

First, I thought I’d jump in with a micro update on my new activities so I am including some links to recent library projects:

Stereographs of the Panama Canal:

Loading Drill-Holes with Dynamite. Preparatory to Blasting – Near Empire on the Panama Canal Route. Keystone View Company. 1909. Panama Canal Museum Collection, Special and Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida.

In my work with the Panama Canal Museum Collection at the University of Florida, I wrote a grant proposal to digitize a set of important resources from the collection. This grant provided funds to scan (front and back–trust me, scanning the back is important and was often not done in the past), process, enhance metadata, run OCR, create animated gif files (a huge thanks goes to Jimmy Barnett for the creation of these), and create associated educational resources.
Sub-collection of stereographs:

Grant proposal:
Panama and the Canal:
Some of the day-to-day work I perform includes selecting and digitizing, or sending for digitization, important materials from the collection to build the digital library space. Much of this work includes enhancing the metadata and creating original records and finding aids for the archival collection.

Panama and the Canal digital library:

Panama Canal Centennial Celebration:Much of the work I currently do is tied up in a museum-library merger, a part of which is the cultivation and partnership of a dedicated museum community. A huge part of that has been planning for a Panama Canal Centennial Celebration weekend, which was held in late August and included exhibits, lectures, museum family days, and performances.

Photos and information from the museum day:

Just a few of the exhibits:
I curated and installed this exhibit in the Education Library at UF: The Everyday and the Extraordinary: Molas and Ritual Objects of the Kuna People:

My colleagues Lourdes and Amara and I co-curated and installed Panama: Tropical Ecosystem at the Florida Museum of Natural History:
    It's been awhile...It's been awhile... It's been awhile...

I will save other projects for a later time, but having given a capsule review here it’s time to move on! I’m looking forward to connecting and re-connecting to discuss, debate, and share all kinds of new things. Next up: a bit of redesign and redirection.

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: