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, May 24, 2007

Life Bits

The May 28, 2007 issue of The New Yorker includes an essay by Alec Wilkinson on Gordon Bell’s efforts to document electronically every aspect of his life (Alec Wilkinson, “Remember This? A Project to Record Everything We Do in Life,” New Yorker, May 28, 2007, pp. 38-44. Bell, now at Microsoft, but known for his earlier work on networking at the Digital Equipment Corporation and with the National Science Foundation, is described for his present project to document the “daily minutiae of his life,” generating the “most extensive and unwieldy personal archive of its kind in the world” (p. 38).

Bell, discovering some time ago the utility of digitizing paper documents, has become involved in MyLifeBits, software for storing all this stuff, including video captured with the a portable Cam recorder, worn around the neck and capturing activity through his day. Consider the description of this strange archives: “Bell’s archive now also contains a hundred and twenty-two thousand e-mails; fifty-eight thousand photographs; thousands of recordings of phone calls he has made; every Web page he has visited and instant-messaging exchange he has conducted since 2003; all of the activity of his desktop (which windows, for example, he has opened); eight hundred pages of health records, including information on the life of the battery in his pacemaker; and a sprawling category he describes as ‘ephemera,’ which contains such things as books; the labels of bottles of wine he has enjoyed; and the record of a bicycle trip through Burgundy, where he tried to eat in as many starred restaurants as he could. . .” (p. 38). Wilkinson continues to discuss, then, how Bell assembles this “archive,” the individuals he has worked with, and Bell’s innovative and playful personality.

The New Yorker profile is, of course, just one of many examples of how technology is attempted to be used to solve particular problems, sometimes far extending beyond its original intended use. It reminds me, a little bit, of Ray Kurzweil’s efforts to harness computer technology to achieve immortality, a human response for sure but one that can seem also misplaced or odd. Wilkinson’s article about Bell reminds me of many conversations with individuals where I have heard that the continuing development of information technology with its corresponding relationship of increased storage and capability with reduced costs eliminates one of the core archival premises that we need to appraise the documentary universe, selecting the portions with its long-term or archival value. Not too many years ago, in response to Nicholson Baker’s scathing indictment of library and archives preservation approaches, a report by a group of leading professionals asked, “With so much information produced, how do members of the research community—scholars and teachers, librarians and archivists, and academic officers who support their work—distinguish between what is of long-term value, what is ephemeral, and what of that ephemera is valuable for the preservation of a rich historical record?”
(Council on Library and Information Resources, The Evidence in Hand: Report of the Task Force on the Artifact in Library Collections, November 2001, p. v). True believers in technology are, however, more prone to have faith that it can somehow eliminate the need to ask such questions, although clearly other questions emerge.

To Wilkinson’s credit, he does not describe Bell’s project as a panacea for humankind’s problems or as the answer to society’s need or interest in preserving information about the past. The New Yorker essay is, instead, a profile of an interesting and engaging personality, involved in something unusual, and with a number of intriguing implications for society and archives. Imagine, for example, if we passed legislation requiring elected officials to record all of their activities. Or, consider what might happen if CEO’s were also pressured into the same use of MyLifeBits in order to affirm that they were engaged in ethical and legal behavior. The notion of accountability in an era where this topic seems to have generated lots of attention as well as creative means of avoiding it would be transformed.

I am more interested here, though, in ruminating on the implications for archivists. Let’s imagine that MyLifeBits becomes an ordinary system adopted by millions, does this mean that archival repositories will cease to acquire personal papers? Or, will archivists need to develop a new set of appraisal criteria by which they seek to preserve the new form of personal archives for individuals who assume significant roles in society or a variety of people who live rather ordinary lives (although isn’t it difficult to imagine that anyone engaged in this extensive self-documentation could be classified as ordinary). Or, are we seeing another opportunity for the kind of citizen archivists espoused by Rick Prelinger?