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ARCHIVES OF INCONVENIENCE

Rick Prelinger
2015-10-08
rick@ucsc.edu
@footageo
Friday, October 9, 15 1

Thank you.
Friday, October 9, 15 2

I want to propose that archives are places where media theory is produced. The easy way to say this is to take an inclusive
shortcut and assert that archives theory is one of many subsets of media theory. But we could discuss that for years, and there's
probably a case to be made that it's actually the other way around. So because thinking about archives is what I do, I'd really
rather tickle you with a few thoughts about archives, thoughts that might reverberate through our discussions this weekend. And
since the theory and practice of archives is way behind where it needs to be, I hope that reflecting on the terms of media will also
add clarity to the terms archives themselves negotiate and produce.
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The recent history of archives is replete with inspiring stories of emergence and visibility, but it's very much a tale of neglect, of
utopian cards unplayed, of disrespect for archival labor and of theories often too diffuse to be actionable. But I'm optimistic about
the possibilities that archives afford at this point in the history of recordkeeping and media, and so I want to parallel archives and
media to try and better understand what archives might be and under what conditions they exist, and perhaps use the archives as
a spur to reconsider some of the conditions under which media and scholarship are produced.
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We have yet to sort out the symmetries and dissonances between media and the archives where they settle, hopefully to flourish,
but more often than not to die. Archives set terms and limits for scholarship, especially digital scholarship, even when scholars
don't directly reference them. And they also set some of the terms, or collaborate tacitly in setting terms, for history as a publicly
practiced and publicly received enterprise. We'll return to this. And in an era when the pace of personal media production is wildly
accelerating, we're starting to recognize that it's hard to erect walls between our personal digital workspaces and the custodians-
in-charge of our digital production.
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I've been speaking publicly about archives for about ten years, and one of the most striking take-homes for me has been that we,
as a community of scholars, don't think very imaginatively about archives. We think of archives as somewhat glorified
warehouses, as service organizations, and we outsource the maintenance of our research base to workers whom we insufficiently
respect. Unfortunately, I can't credit most archivists with more imagination. So it's no less urgent to intervene in the flow of
archival theory than it is in media theory. The divide between people who think about archives and people who work in them is
striking and unproductive. This divide is manifested in language, in status and in workflow.
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You will notice I'm using the term "archives" rather than "the archive." I don't consider the two terms interchangeable. I'm
fascinated by the imprecision that exists between "archives," which most archivists define as places of collecting, preservation,
access and archival labor, and "the archive," which I consider an umbrella term for conceptual, philosophical, artistic, literary,
historical, or analytical constructs centered around archives and/or archival process.
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Most writers and artists have gravitated to the term "archive." Some also use "the archive" and "the archives" interchangeably
without interrogating possible differences. But the fuzziness surrounding "the archives" and "the archive" vexes archivists. An
unstable amalgam of the unconscious and quotidian, the "archive" has become an undemanding construct. It serves the critical
disciplines as they interact with history and memory without necessarily requiring sharp definition. You might think of the
"archive" rendering as a screen onto which traces of theory flash for long moments before fading. For artists, writers and
theorists, "the archive" is terra nullius, open for unchallenged occupation.
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"The archive" invites flirtation; the "archives," on the other hand, could not be more demanding. Though their workplaces may
seem quiet and their workflows pretend to appear apolitical, archives overflow with contention. To collect is to commit to the
survival of certain records over others; to arrange and describe is often to enclose; to preserve is to resist power, violence and
constraint; to proffer access is to invite misunderstanding and aggression. And yet "archives" yearn for praxis; even menial
archival labor is practice in search of theory.
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I hope you'll excuse my rather polarized treatment of these terms, because I hope we can move towards reuniting them and the
practices to which they refer. Could we try to draw connections between academic, artistic and archival labor? And could we try
to link the conceptual umbrella we call "the archive" with the more quotidian work of "the archives"? Could we daylight archival
theory? There is little engagement with archives as working entities; reflection and critique is typically second-order, once-
removed, focusing on the construct rather than the workplace. We might listen harder to the people who perform archival labor
and begin to think of it as cultural work or research rather than simply wage labor. Few have considered the politics of archival
workflow. This alone would establish cause for intervention, but the problem may be more fundamental than that. The word
"archives" carries a lot of baggage. It implies enclosure defined by a set of rules. It is a place for documents firmly situated in the
past.
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Could we throw out our preconceptions, or better our predispositions, about archives and try some new definitions?

In fact, forget definitions. Let's try dreams. Here are a few utopian archival propositions:
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-- A storage and delivery infrastructure for evidence and memory that is as reliable as city water or gravity-propelled Roman
sewage systems and scalable and flexible enough to remember or forget as needed
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-- A data corpus that surrounds us like air, manifesting itself through our sensorium and the tools with which we augment our
bodies; or alternatively a mycelial network that feeds on data to propagate and spread
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-- A locus (or loci) of preservation of information and ideas capable of collecting both the canonical and the quotidian,
hegemonic and oppositional, personal and institutional
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-- An anticipatory network that sniffs out, appraises and collects records of potential interest
Fortune, 1944-01
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-- A fully permeable repository that supports a spectrum of access from casual inquiry to deep touching
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-- An agnostic system that dissolves formalistic distinctions between physical and digital materials
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-- A suite of preservation functions that simultaneously support centralized and decentralized storage schemes
All-woman crew, WBKB-TV (Chicago), World War II and thereafter
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-- An organ that embodies the power of the record while simultaneously disavowing it, that is to say both privileged and anti-
privileged
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-- A curatorial algorithm that doesn't automatically reject garble and glitch


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-- A utility that familiarizes us with its holdings through convenience and defamiliarizes them through inconvenience
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-- and an entity that in its scope and outreach crosses anachronistic species boundaries.
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Even those suspicious of archival utopianism recognize that traditional archives deliver much less than they promise. They're
compromised entities, gated rather than hospitable, poor entities (archives povera) in a rich world. These deficiencies have often
divided archives from scholars, who can't get the records they want in the manner they want. And the gap between actual and
potential may help explain why anxiety has become the default mindset in the archival world. Anxiety is debilitating and
distracting, and causes many archivists to forget that in fact they often perform better than they imagine.
DO PHYSICAL OBJECTS HAVE RIGHTS?

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It was transformative to work with Internet Archive starting in 1999 to build an online repository of digitized films. Every archival
custodian should be as lucky as I was. The barriers that often separate archival collections from those who would use them
melted away, and I had the satisfying experience of seeing materials that had once sat quietly on my steel shelves pushed out to
anyone who might be interested. Our collection has experienced over a hundred million access events to date and the films have
found their way into an unknowable number of derivative works. Content has lost its provenance and become infrastructure,
which is the greatest honor an archives can receive. I became a rabid proponent of mass digitization, and worked with Internet
Archive in the mid-2000s to help build out an open path for mass book scanning that functioned as an alternative to Google's
then-highly-closed and secretive books project.
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But concurrently I was working to co-found a physical library in San Francisco, which has now been open for 11 years. Though it
might not seem so, it was a thoroughly anti-nostalgic project. Our unvoiced but principal idea was to experiment with opening a
repository of physical materials to a noninstitutional community and see what might happen. In the absence of a hypothesis the
lessons were even more surprising. We learned very quickly to dismiss all sense of analog nostalgia or digital supersession. It
became clear that, to transcode a formulation from artist and writer Jen Bervin, physical and digital materials each had different
jobs to do. It was pointless to think about opposing analog to digital, unless you were talking about obvious attributes like
weight, physical bulk, and dependence upon electron flow, or unless you needed conflict for an otherwise pedestrian news story.
Since then I've been convinced that analog-digital hybridity is not a transitional state, and I'd hope it remains a permanent one.
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[film clip: "Spring of Youth"] In my work with our library and my film archives I've come to realize that the turn to digital
revalidates the analog. I make digital films that play before audiences who talk while the film runs. I thought this was radical, until
I realized I was actually channeling the Elizabethan theater whose front pit was filled with loud and boisterous groundlings.
Hybridized analog and digital.
San Francisco Chronicle, 1915-09-14
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But while digitality may revalidate analog, it's rapidly devaluing it. Physical objects are being disposed of and destroyed at an
accelerated rate (which is one reason why we've been able to collect so much interesting stuff for our library). It's now possible to
ask librarians and archivists a highly impertinent question: do physical objects still have the right to exist? For some media, like
newspapers, journals and videotape, this has already been settled in the negative. Shelves are emptier and stacks gone in many
libraries. I'm not mourning this, as I've come to believe that loss is formative. We pursue research precisely because we perceive
gaps in the record, or because we come to recognize that the powerful have suppressed evidence about the powerless.
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The crisis ecosystem of evidence-bearing physical objects has become really fascinating. The expulsion of physical materials in
favor of digital surrogates is akin to urban gentrification, and as scholars and as a society we will one day have to answer for it.
Because the attributes that distinguish the physical are exactly what we should be preserving, and they are a pain. Physical
objects, no matter how many we discard, are incredibly persistent. And their persistence is inconvenient. They're the table
scraps, the leftovers of digitization, and there aren't enough dogs around the table to gobble them down. We are basing entire
new phenomenological and philosophical agendas (to say nothing of how we configure scholarship) on a single iteration of
technology, and we have to engage physical materials in combat to make room for apparent digital abundance.
DIGITAL FRAGILITY

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Digitality is inconvenient in a different way. Despite its apparent victory over physical media, digitality is fragile. It requires a
compliant social order, the accommodation of governments, and the steady availability of energy. It is not a monolith; the
Chinese digital world works differently than the North American. And its corporate structures and business models are
experimental. We cannot overreact today to a force that will behave differently tomorrow.
East St. Louis, Illinois, 2009-11-04
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The air of romantic obsolescence that surrounds a lot of historical media and communications technology today is quite striking
and entertaining, and we might actually enlist it to help build a bridge between media archaeologists and the public, but I don't
find much of it defamiliarizing. While the landscape of Detroit, or any other deindustrialized city for that matter, is a rich text
filled with evidentiary threads that implicate many players, most visitors see only ruin porn.
A.M. Low, Wireless Possibilities, 1923
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Dead media, failed kludges, speculative engineering ventures that pass neither usability nor smell tests and express poorly
integrated relationships between information and its embodiments are all deeply fascinating, but we need to squeeze those
"neglected margins" hard. And yet anything we can do to alienate the unreasonable faith much of the world seems to have in the
robustness and persistence of the digital should be most welcome. As long, perhaps, as we are not fetishizing digital fragility, or
mourning in advance.
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If I may generalize, many archivists also fetishize extinct media technologies. They are the ones buying all those old film
projectors. They sit up at night worrying not about their eBay overspending but about digital precarity. The archival axioms of
permanence and provenance don't remap well into the digital domain, where everything is as fragile as the next spike, brownout
or coronal mass ejection. In the aggregate, archivists have thought a great deal about the implications and contradictions of
digital archives, but like many who think as futurists, they have yet to reflect on how these peculiar databases will function
socially.
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Digital archives are already pervasive. They might be total -- meaning they are not simply reservoirs of power but organs of
power as well, like transmission lines that store as well as propagate energy. Both archivists and non-archivists try to track and
parse the disruptions that digital media and repositories have brought to the disciplines that our predecessors (and even some of
us, if we're old enough) secretly hoped we could follow in peace and privilege until our temporary abilities faded.
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It is destabilizing, like being at a picnic populated by anxious family members. You are on turf dominated at least temporarily by
others. Your sensorium vibrates with overstimulation but you cannot follow the house cat under the couch. Your perceptual
system sends untestable messages to process while your interpretive lines are clogged with tests that iterate and reiterate,
looping in anxiety. And twenty feet beyond the tables the park is quiet, abiding its time in the sunlight. It is untouched by the
aggro under the trees.
Electronic Industries
1945-06

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Picnics can also be fun. Banquets of continuity, reiterations of unsurprise. We are distracted by the skins of scale and speed
wrapped over terms that might not necessarily have to be renegotiated. I am not being nostalgic, just trying as hard as I can to
be radically traditionalist during my visit to New England.
The Consortium for Slower Internet 10/8/15 10:55 AM The Consortium for Slower Internet 10/8/15 10:55 AM

updates, etc should be absorbed slowly and given time for consideration. Systems that
THE CONSORTIUM FOR
SLOWER INTERNET emphasize duration are central to a Slower Internet.

PRINCIPLES DEFAMILIARIZATION
The information delivered by Fast Internet is the white bread of data: predictable,

FOR
lifeless, sanitized for mass appeal. Slow Internet delivers content in unexpected formats

and spaces. The practice of defamiliarization encourages users to scrutinize their role and

participation in a given system. Seamless experiences are suspect.

SLOWER AUTONOMY
Fast Internet dazzles with maximum features at minimum price, but it often does so at

INTERNET
the expense of user autonomy. Increasingly, users are encouraged to sacrifice their rights

to own material they produce with a given system when services are rendered free of

charge. Slower Internet respects user autonomy by giving creators control and ownership

over their data. Charging reasonable fees for a service is always preferable to spying on

customers and appropriating their data to serve advertisements.

Slower Internet is about more than speed. The Consortium for Slower Internet pursues

projects that promote the following principles. DIVERGENCE


Computers have long been universal machines, able to perform any calculation regardless

of content. A Slower Internet, however, requires that dissimilar tasks occur in a diversity
of spaces on a multitude of devices. Living with information does not mean that we have
DURATION
to give any type of machine a monopoly over our attention. Slower Internet is a process
There is no inherent concern with information that is transmitted and distributed with
of cultivating a garden of machines that fit localized, individual desires.
great speed, but Slower Internet suggests that information be consumed at a more

contemplative pace. If information is to be a central part of our lives, Slower Internet is

interested in finding ways to live with it on more human time scales; news, facts, The Consortium for Slower Internet
Made in Minneapolis, MN
updates, etc should be absorbed slowly and given time for consideration. Systems that

http://slowerinternet.com/principles.html
http://slowerinternet.com/principles.html Page 1 of 3 http://slowerinternet.com/principles.html Page 2 of 3

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At times I've felt part of a digital vanguard: making CD-ROMs with the Voyager Company in the early and mid-1990s. Putting
archival films online. Scanning books from our little library. Feeling a little sorry for my friends on the other side of what was then
a digital crevasse. But now it's different. Digitality and privilege have been inverted. Speaking personally with a bureaucrat,
collecting and touching artisanal objects, writing with a nice pen, these are privileged encounters. The rest of the world wrestles
with phone menus, cheaply made goods and poorly designed websites. There are no stray bits in your slow food. And slow media
is coming back. Some friends are building an intentional community in Mendocino County, on the northern California coast.
They're installing fiber on their farm, but it transmits data slowly, and their Internet service is only up between 8 am to 5 pm.
STORIES AND THEORIES

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Our newly ex-Librarian of Congress, James Billington, liked to say: "Stories unite people, theories divide them." It's funny, I
always wanted the opposite to be true. Like Brecht and his epic theater, I placed high priority on dividing the audience, and of
course I hoped the world would unite around certain theories. And I am absolutely unconvinced of the centrality and absolute
value of storytelling.
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Museum curators, archivists and many historians look for ways to narrativize evidence. In this they are part of a systemwide
project to tell stories. The gatekeepers of documentary film almost always require the work they fund to contain compelling
characters and a narrative arc. The ambiguity and enigmatic nature of images and much evidence, which could lead in so many
directions, is forced into the channel most useful to establish a story that can be told within the bounds of budget and mass
comprehension. And sometimes within the bounds of triumphalism.
Robert Merry's Museum,
v. 3, 1843
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We cannot narrate media archaeologies in this manner. Nor can we tell every story well. I find the evidence itself to be what's
most interesting. Most of what we see drawn from archives is overtold, encrusted with narrative. The poet and teacher Barrett
Watten writes of narrative as malware, malware infecting his words as well as his machine. I want to find a place for
foregrounding the record itself with relatively little "storytelling." In other words, seek to encourage new kinds of negotiation
between the document and its users, and let a more-or-less contextualized, or even decontextualized document find its own
path. This could mean trusting evidence over interpretation. Evidence is its own narrative; storytelling is a special interest.
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[film clip: Moran, Kansas, 1942] Archives could push back against the terms that restrain publicly practiced and received
histories. To do this doesn't just mean foregrounding underrepresented narratives and records that have been suppressed by
force and violence, but actively pushing out records that represent anomalies, that document personalities, cultures and
technologies that don't fit into received timelines. Home movies exemplify this kind of record in the way that they can be taken
to resist stereotypes of race, gender, class and place. And of course this pushback resembles the work of media archaeology.
AMATEURISM

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[film clip: cycling hobo, 1940] Media archaeologists and anxious industry executives share at least one attribute, and that's a
special concern for media technologies and practices that originate at the periphery of established media industries. Both try to
assess the challenges these may pose to dominant forms. In so doing they peek into a future when suits and titles may no longer
get much respect. Archives are equally challenged by vernacular efforts to collect, manage and preserve the historical record, and
only the most courageous archivists have looked into the future and recognized decentralization as positive. The archival future
is, in my view, much more about coordination than collecting; what future archivists can save will result from billions of lucky
accidents, and one of their jobs will be to share knowledge of what data persists and keep track of idiosyncratic evolution.
1980 2011
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Popular archival practice doesn't get as much attention as vernacular media, but it's excitingly disruptive. Independent and
community collections enable research in ways that more traditionally organized institutions cannot. We may not be nearly as
organized or comprehensive, but we are often more direct and efficient. We may not present our materials on lovingly
contextualized and vetted websites, but we shovel a lot of material online to surprise and enrich our users. We can often be better
at collecting specialized materials (nontextual, for instance) that can be vexing to traditional collections. And by defamiliarizing
the compartmentation and seemingly mysterious workflows that exist in most special collections, we encourage our users and
our longer-distance fans to think about how future libraries and archives might work. Of all entities we might call "archival,"
independent, community and amateur collections come closest to actionable spaces. We possess all the virtues, not to mention
the flaws, of amateurism.
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Robert C. Binkley celebrated amateurism before he died very young in 1940. He spoke of amateur historians, collectors and
independent scholars as a kind of citizen army whose self-motivated efforts could fill gaps unaddressed by libraries, archives
and universities. Long before E.P. Thompson popularized the phrase "history from below," Binkley addressed the work the
academy was leaving undone, and even the crisis in scholarly publishing, 1930s-style.
Binkley, Manual..., 196, 198.

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He imagined a kind of distributed research and publishing system that had a place for amateurs, the credentialed and the
unemployed, a system that made use of multiple transitional technologies like micropublishing, offset printing and strike-on
typesetting. He promoted (and may have conceived) the WPA works program for unemployed intellectuals in Ohio, where they
inventoried local history collections and indexed historical newspapers. A close reading of his 1936 "Manual on Methods of
Reproducing Research Materials," reveals little foreknowledge of electronics but much anticipation of the attributes of the Internet
as a system for scholarly communication, and the turn towards digital humanities.
PERSONAL RECORDS
AND VERNACULAR COLLECTING

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In Kim Stanley Robinson's MARS TRILOGY, human life has been extended to several hundred years, but the bioscience of memory
extension lags behind. Many people therefore are drawn to try and reconstruct events that happened over a century ago, and in
so doing frequently search databases to prompt their fading memories. Interestingly, almost all the searches reference personal
records. This got me thinking about the future of queries, and I got to wondering whether repositories of personal records and
associated microhistories will become far more pertinent to the needs of future searchers than the records of government and
institutions -- especially if you consider the content of surveillance databases to be personal record.
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In any case, there's no question that the volume of personal media production is historically offscale.
In such an environment it's really hard to tell what's archival and what's contemporary. Residual and emergent not just coexisting
but combining. Think of YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, even the sadly languishing Flickr, all pseudo-archives that support
quotation and reframing back to their earliest uploads. It's maybe more productive to think about personal media production as
happening within constantly updating workspaces that share common objects with custodial services that look a lot like archives
but whose archival compact with users, as I've said elsewhere, is a noncommittal handshake.
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I like to think of personal digital materials inhabiting a spectrum of personal recordkeeping that perhaps begins in the deep
analog era: scratches in the sand, drawings on cave walls, clay tablets, papyrus fragments, graffiti, etc.; then extends to quilts,
diaries, letters and postcards; then home movies and home video; into contemporary digital media, and finally towards digital
(and post-digital) media we are now seeing or might expect (or not expect) in the future...body cams (Google Glass was just a
first effort), location data and metadata from phones, etc.; CCTV feeds; QS-type life data; endoscopy; sonograms; medical
telemetry; brain waves (not any time soon).
First pager messages
prompted by attack
on WTC, 2001-09-11
(source: Wikileaks)

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Personal records are highly granular, often uncharismatic, extremely inconvenient, frequently unreleasable, eminently
unselectable, effectively infinite. One could argue that the firehose of personal records requires centralized institutions that can
collect at scale. But one could also say that individuals, when they can, are most likely to be the preservers of personal (and non-
personal) digital materials.
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These records are difficult in so many ways. Who owns them? Who keeps them? Who can forget me, how can I be forgotten? The
mirroring between records in the open and classified worlds. All those NSA backup jokes. It is remarkable how much people are
willing to reveal publicly or semipublicly, that's to say to friends. I have a hunch that people are less worried about original,
granular data than the timelines or narratives that others might make of it. Unmodulated evidence may feel less sensitive.
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Archivists go to personal digital archives conferences and throw their hands up in the air. What they often end up doing is
building analysis and processing tools because the big questions are so difficult and the mass of data unknowable. But as an
optimist I think the weight of the quotidian record lifts away when we stop fussing and actually engage with it. The flour, oil and
salt some of us store against the prospect of apocalyptic starvation is easier to refresh when it is drawn from.
ARCHIVES OF INCONVENIENCE

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It's all too evident that engineers have a great deal to do with the design of digital archives. One of the consequences (both good
and bad) is that they tend to route around what they perceive as inconvenience. The early 2010s will be remembered as a time
when queries and recommendation engines got pretty good and started to rule. At the same time digital libraries are still
industriously writing grants to simulate the serendipity produced for free in library stacks.
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As digital repositories become more complex and diverse, they get harder to classify. The database becomes soupier, less
structured. The locus of intelligence shifts from structured data to smarter queries -- I surmise we're seeing this happen with
Google's search. But the engineering goal remains the same: to link queries more closely to results. This is hard for the flaneur in
me to accept. What happened to the cyberpunk idea of oneness, of being the data, of jacking (hacking) into datasets such that
bits directly stimulated the senses? There's little serendipity in a black hole. Bouvard and Pcuchet would have loved Google, but
then there could have been no novel.
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Spending time with contemporary digital archives may be overstimulating, but it's a different sort of engagement. There's rarely
an organic point of entry into digital repositories. Usually some kind of "archival portal" keeps us at a distance. There's a frame
around the picture that keeps archives from integrating with the rest of the web and the world. (You can deeplink into Internet
Archive, a rare exception, but you've all experienced the mediations between JSTOR, ProQuest and their users.) In a world built on
allusion and citation this should be anomalous, but we leave bricolage mostly up to artists and to commercial culture, which has
no problem quoting freely, blending newborn and adopted memes.
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And yet I'm not sure we're well served by an excess of affordances. Look at Bouvard and Pcuchet, lost in the 19th-century
supermarket of ideas and their homebuilt laboratory filled with once-used equipment. Or their New England equivalent, the
Peterkin family, really a satire on the Transcendentalists, I think, who spend the length of a story trying to get their son Solomon
John the paper, ink and quills he needs for the book he so much wants to write, and when he sits down at his desk surrounded by
family members he looks up and states, "But I haven't got anything to say."
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Archival enclosure is a systemic problem and a bad inconvenience. But there are also formative inconveniences, which I like to
think of as good affordances. Wrangling with inconvenience is like choosing to write by hand instead of typing or dictating. You
learn more about the words you are processing. I discovered this with physical media while making my urban history programs.
These were originally prompted some years back by an interest in showing historical films to audiences who potentially had a
direct relationship to the material. Film is inconvenient, hard to show; it takes time, labor and resources to inspect, repair,
document, prep for scanning, scan, edit, etc. But this can involve community members, creators and their relatives. It could even
involve motivated scholars. You learn about the film you are making by touching its physical constituents. Inconvenience enables
defamiliarization, which is what makes movies possible.
U.S. President's Materials Policy Commission, Resources for Freedom,
v. 1, 1951; excerpt from preface, probably written by Eric Hodgins
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And if we can learn from the current state of archives, it won't be due to ease, it will be prompted by inconvenience. The lessons
arise out of breaks in continuity, imperfect narratives and interruptions in order.
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And we'll need to interrupt archival theory itself, whose pretensions to permanence read quixotically in an age of mass
extinction.
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It would be a generous act to read archives as media and to think of them as producers of media theory. We need to think of
archives as players in an environment that is all about transmission and reception. And the archival project of the moment, which
revolves around superseding a heritage of enclosure with a culture of hospitable transaction, should also influence the work of
media theory. So for the moment I would like to offer archives not as terra nullius, but as a laboratory for working out some of
the changing conditions affecting media and history.
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Thank you.