How to archive for the future? Daniel Caron and Eric Mechoulan at Berkman

Liveblogged from lunch talk at Berkman

Daniel Caron explains that disintermediation makes things much more difficult for archives. Previously, archives waited for material to come to them – saw their role as beginning after the selection process. Now, if archives are to be able to perform effectively, they need to be much more active in the selection of material. There are three big effects of disintermediated digital publishing:

  1. “Here comes everybody” – there are fewer filters that archives can rely on to select works;
  2. There are fewer official interventions in the organisation of material – classification and description;
  3. Access has also become more direct and less mediated – people no longer want to talk to people behind a counter to access archives.

Archives are struggling to triage or select material – they have gone from receiving easily understandable information to a superabundance of information:

As literacy and technological capacity increase, we go from relatively meaningful, understandable and masterable traces to noise.

Caron suggests we need to refocus on the “Causa materialis“: “The essential documentation needed for the functioning of the state and society.” It becomes important to take a whole of society approach, and moving from a conception of objects towards content in context. Archives cannot focus solely on collecting – need to go upstream to identify and document how the material fits within a social conversation, across official and non-state actors, across different media.

Caron argues that archives need to move:

  1. from acquiring and collecting to identifying and documenting;
  2. from objects related mediation to ontological and evolving descriptions to reflect leixcon used in society;
  3. To preservation – in the could – of material of enduring value.

Caron argues we have an opportunity to build documentary holdings that are a better reflection (more representative) of our past – but more research is needed to identify these opportunities and refine traditional practices.

Eric Mechoulan

Eric Mechoulan tries to tackle these same issues from a different perspective. Mechoulan starts from a few observations. He notes that there is a view of archives as mechanical, automatically growing in size and accumulating material like sediment. This is particularly problematic given the massive growth in information and documentary practices. “In 2010, corporations stored another 7 exabytes (EB) of data, and individuals stored 6 EB” – until 2004 humanity produced about 5 EB of data. An automatic approach to archiving is no longer appropriate.

Preserving all of this information may not be worth the effort; relying on falling data storage periods will lead to unmanageable problems in the very short term future. From a purely economic point of view, we cannot keep everything (by 2018, the costs of archiving all data with exceed GWP by three times).

Mechoulan argues that we must therefore avoid the organic illusion of archiving activity (data warehousing, automatic recording) and instead emphasise the effects of technical, cultural, and social organisation of the past:

  • appraising what we are going to keep and for how long;

  • Ordering the possible retrieval

Part of what archivists do – and contrary to how their role is conceived – has always been to make these decisions. The difficulty lies in making these decisions with some confidence that we are keeping both the currently most important material and the material that may become important in the future. We need to focus on producing meaning, and thinking about what material it becomes important to forget.

So there are two big problems for archivists:

  • preservation: the variability of records and the obsolescence of software and computers must proceed through conservation by migration (to preserve content) and by emulation (to preserve mechanisms of access). This process can be repeated downstream form the initial storage operations.

  • access: classifying and developing metadata is important and must be carried out upstream from preservation operations. Access is very important, and needs to be considered at the very beginning, even before we attempt to collect and classify everything.

This means that archiving has become less about guarding of a national treasure or heritage, and more about constructing document architectures and providing technical assistance to producers. The role of the archivist has become to tell producers of information about archival processes and access considerations in order to let them make decisions at the point of release of information. Archival holdings themselves are being transformed from living memories into certified records; from storage of facts to storage of events; from information to documents. Archives need to focus on making information decipherable – that is what is important.

Archives fulfil a number of functions based on the needs of society: in culture, the preservation of materiality of content; in tradition, the preservation of regularity of form; in the digital environment, to preserve the regularity of content. In the digital environment, we have different formats and softwares, so we do not keep the materiality of content. Nevertheless, we authenticate or certify content by its regularity.

Mechoulan’s conclusion is that we should think about archives in terms of presenting information in a social context with a means of certifying the context to preserve it over time.