Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Why We Write (or Ought To)

The world is changing, and by most accounts, the pace of change is accelerating. Evidence of the past, from archival materials to historic structures and sites, is increasingly threatened because change suggests an interest in newness. As I related in an earlier posting, toss out the old appliance and buy a new one; tear down the old house and build a new one. However, as society gets accustomed to such an attitude – that new is better and change brings progress – what happens to the mission of archives, museums, and libraries (especially as all three are also caught up in digital projects and delivering services in an always faster, more efficient mode)?

In a book about the impact of new building and destruction of the old, The Place You Love is Gone: Progress Hits Home (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2006), Melissa Holbrook Pierson argues, “All writing, which comes from the seat of recollection and is always about the writer’s past even if it is set in a fictional present, is triggered by a destruction” (p. 134). If that is the case, and it seems like a pretty solid notion to me, one would expect that more archivists, museum curators, and librarians would write about their struggle to stop destruction or, at the least, to enable a more orderly and rational destruction whereby we select what ought not to be sent into oblivion.

The challenge in preserving anything can be seen in Steven Levy’s interesting new book on the iPod, The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006). Levy describes the iPod as being the “symbol of media’s future, where the gates of access are thrown open, the reach of artists goes deeper, and consumers don’t just consume – they choose songs, videos, and even news their way. Digital technology gathers, shreds, and empowers, all at once” (p. 4). “Shreds” is not a word the archivist is likely to embrace. Yet, who among us is committing to write for a lay audience, like Levy, to counter such notions of our present era – or, at least, to provide a more balanced assessment of what needs to happen with information and the evidence contained in information?

Levy is a freelance technology writer and one who gets a lot of attention. And, at one point in the book, he describes why he decided to become such a writer: “What had compelled me in the first place to devote my career to chronicling the digital revolution was my belief that this was the biggest story of our time. I have often expressed the thought, to the point of boredom to those close to me, that hundreds of years from now, if humanity survives its penchant for self-destruction, people will look back at these decades and wonder what it was like at the time everything changed” (p. 19).

There are a couple of problems with Levy’s comments. First, terming any present era the time when everything changed is risky at best. When we make such comments, we are making such conclusions based on a particularly limited view. Every generation believes that it is the pivotal era. Second, how will we be able to look back? What will be left of the digital documentation enabling us to understand such a period? It is the sense of impending destruction of our potential documentary heritage that ought to provoke us to write responses to the digerati.

If you are looking for an insightful assessment of how an innovative piece of information technology came into being, Levy’s book is a good choice. However, like many discourses about current digital technologies, there are assumptions professionals such as archivists and librarians need to think more critically about – and respond to in whatever way they can.