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.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Sorting Out One Mystery, and Creating Another

Wired magazine has been a window into cyberculture and our so-called information age since the start of its publication. If you want to gain some insight into what Wired is part of, I recommend that you read Fred Turner’s excellent From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), ISBN-13: 978-0-226-81741-5. But my purpose with this post is not to comment on Turner’s book, but to draw attention to two articles in the recent issue (January 2007) of Wired, continuing evidence that this magazine often provides commentary on the notion of documents and archives.

One article in this issue – Gareth Cook’s “Untangling the Mystery of the Inca,” pp. 142-147 – describes the work of Harvard anthropologist Gary Urton in deciphering Incan khipu, knotted string or rope. The article describes how about 750 khipu survive and how Urton and others are using computerized technologies to decipher the rules governing the language of these artifacts. As Cook writes, “Urton’s great insight has been to treat the khipu not just as a textile or a simple abacus but as an advanced, alien technology” (p. 147). As such work continues, we have the prospects of gaining a greater understanding of one of the oldest recordkeeping systems in the Americas.

Later in the same issue of Wired David Kushner – in his “We Put a Man on the Moon. But (d’oh!) NASA Can’t Find the Videotape,” pp. 166-170 – recounts the story of one of the more embarrassing moments in American government recordkeeping, the losing of the videotape of the July 20, 1969 moon landing somewhere in the archives of NASA. In this essay Kushner describes the “4 million musty boxes at the Washington National Records Center” (p. 170) and the discovery that the “government’s data storage system is a shambles.” He continues, “There’s no barcoding or computerized tracking when a box is checked out, the only record of its removal is a sheet of paper placed loosely on the shelf in its place, The placeholders can sit there yellowing for decades – assuming they don’t fall behind the stacks” (p. 170). I doubt that the boxes at the federal records center are musty, and in this description we have just another example of the use of stereotypical notions of what archives represent to make a point – in this case, how one of the most famous and important records of the twentieth century could be so easily misplaced.