New Archives and Old Problems

In the previous post I talked about the difficulties in archiving something like Twitter, a representation of modern social interactions in a digital medium. And in general, we haven’t always been great at keeping up with preservation of cultural productions, particularly as they intersect with new technology. (Think of the BBC erasing a huge number of early Doctor Who episodes in the 1970s, for instance) Thankfully, there’s a little more awareness of the value of unorthodox histories today, driven in large part by a participatory culture that provides a space for hobbyists and interested parties to operate and contribute to history even from the outside of academia. In particular, this week I’m contrasting a couple of sites that exist on the margins of the ‘History Web’–created to preserve and share a history, but not necessarily ‘by’ or even ‘for’ formal historians.

text-ss-2

The first is textfiles.com, an repository of–well, somewhat obviously–text files. The site puts its mission statement front and center: it’s documenting a specific era of computing culture, from roughly 1980 to 1995. And the site stylistically evokes the experience of the BBS era. The curator, Jason Scott, contextualizes the files as a whole, categorizes them according to their content, and offers a selection of his personal favorites with a description of what makes them interesting, relevant, or representative. But in large part, the seemingly intended user experience is to get lost in the files themselves, drifting through the ephemera of a particular culture and moment. Rather than as a purely archival source, the site functions more as an interactive museum that immerses the participant in the history, while allowing them to draw their own conclusions and impressions. And it accomplishes that goal well.

internet-archive

The Internet Archive at archive.org is another organized undertaking to catalogue and preserve the digital, encompassing a large number of different efforts to preserve all kinds of media–from old TV commercials to hip hop mixtapes to Windows 3.1 shareware. The accessibility of the content is impressively robust: consider the MS-DOS games that can be emulated in-browser. In a nod to the participatory turn of Web 2.0, individual items can also be rated and commented on.

But so much of the site seems scattered and fragmented. The breadth of the archive’s goals are frankly overwhelming, and of varying levels of quality and completeness. Much as a physical archive may contain a folder of letters from a given person, archive.org has collections of floppies that belonged to an individual donor, or even that were at one point acquired in a pile. In thinking about this very issue recently, Jason Scott recognized the value in preserving this kind of content but posed a crucial question: ‘But then what?’

What’s the point of the preservation of media, particularly media that few people may ever bother to look through? While the “small keyhole” of history that games represent may draw curious eyes–primarily involving fleeting interest driven by cheap nostalgia–the vast majority of preserved content is overlooked. Even software or videos that may have been meaningful and relevant at the time now feel at best amusingly inconsequential.

org-trail-ss-sm

I don’t know that there is an easy answer. This might simply be the everpresent challenge of the archive. I think of file cabinets full of property tax records sitting in a basement, completely forgotten–until a historian finds that one of the documents within is the key component that ties together his thesis about the 18th century merchant class. Who knows whether the same will one day be said about a 1989 abstract art generator or a disk of fonts?

If anything, textfiles.com offers an intriguing contrast. The reason I think it succeeds at being engaging where archive.org struggles is because the former exists in a liminal space between exhibit and archive. The standardization of archive.org’s format limits its ability to function as anything other than a repository, where the point is the content and not its contextualization of that content. Casual field trips are for museums; you go to an archive with a purpose, trying to research something through its collection.

But even if archive.org fails to market the real depth of its content to the general public, perhaps textfiles.com indicates an untapped opportunity for moving forward. I think somewhere in there there’s potential for a really brilliant digital exhibit that unpacks the importance and cultural understandings of all the abandoned software that’s currently neatly filed away in the servers.

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2 thoughts on “New Archives and Old Problems”

  1. I really enjoyed your contrast of the two sites, and consequently your argument for the potentiality of a hybrid exhibit/archive format that you propose textfiles.com attempts to create. Some of what you’re describing though, sounds like what most traditional archives already do – providing brief contexts in their finding aids and many curate physical or online exhibits highlighting materials in their collection. What is it precisely that textfiles.com does that is different and more engaging? Briefly looking thru the site, I admit I like its casual and colloquial tone, and I definitely get the pull to just poke around and open various files. I guess another question would be, do you think there are aspects of the site that traditional archives should adopt for their own websites, or is this a format suited only to the enthusiastic, but unofficial website?

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    1. Hmm, it’s tricky. I think textfiles functions as both archive and exhibit, but just as you say, many traditional archives do indeed create exhibits. I suppose that I’m making the (obvious) point that archives by themselves have difficulty in attracting a public audience. To have significant public relevance requires more than just good content. The archivist must make a deliberate effort to curate and contextualize their work in some fashion–textfiles represents one successful means of doing that (in my opinion). Its somewhat informal construction and tone demonstrate an understanding that sometimes you need to adapt to reflect the material you’re engaging with. This approach would be inappropriate for an archive of 18th century engravings, perhaps, but it preserves something crucial about the experience that textfiles.com is concerned with.

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