the future of the archive

I had some delicious Pad Thai at Tampopo last night. Again with the servers carrying wireless PDAs, but this time they were on the Palm OS. I wrote the following on my Palm while sipping my Kirin and waiting on my food.

Because of the work in which I’m currently engaged, pulling documents out of the past to try to understand them in a contemporary context, I’m thinking about the nature of archives, and what they might look like in the future.

Specifically, what will be the future of archival literary research? Will libraries like the one in which I’m working continue to maintain archives? What will the document/artifact trail left behind by today’s writers and artists look like?

I’m reading diaries, correspondence, and even readers’ marginal comments and marks made in printed material. But if these historical figures had communicated by email, kept weblogs, and read the Bible and the news online, instead of in printed form, imagine how much this would change the practice of studying this material. Certainly email and weblogs can be archived and saved, but what role would libraries play in doing this? And rather than there being a single digital Methodist Archive, for example, it seems that you could have as many copies made of this hypothetical data as you like. Would it lose its importance if it was always available to anyone at any time? Would there be a need for scholars to explore the archive, where access has traditionally be restricted, and synthesize their findings for an audience without access? Additionally, would we maintain the devices upon which the material was originally recorded so that we could fully understand the context in which it was produced, distributed, and received? As Matt’s post on “Darknet Nostalgia” makes clear, something important is lost when the interface changes.

Aside from writing, consider the other activity at stake here: reading. Surely the scholar will need new tools, new methodologies, to recover the deleted browser cache and untangle its mysteries, speculate about the page at the other end of the broken link, or explain the connections between trackbacked blog entries spanning a dozen sites. And where did the reader record what she thought about her reading? Which portions of the text were most important to her?

We need to have a conversation about these issues. The future of the work we do depends on it.

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One thought on “the future of the archive

  1. I imagine that projects like the WayBack Machine – http://www.archive.org/ – will be as useful to us (now and) in the future as searching old usenet groups is now.
    Loss – of manuscripts, conversations, interactions, entire histories – has played such an important role in shaping our cultural heritage that I’m really curious to see how a combination of Internet ruins, link breaks, fragments and (on the flip side) overwhelming amounts on information affect the continued creation of that cultural landscape.

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