Today’s post is part II of a meditation on skin and ink inspired by Flavia’s recent adventures in body art. Part I is here.
Last week, the curator of literary manuscripts at the Huntington Library, Sue Hodson, gave a small group of readers a tour of some of the literary manuscripts from the collections that reveal the different ways in which writers wrote–some revised as they wrote in longhand or on a typewriter (Jack London and Charles Bukowski), others clearly didn’t save their drafts as their work was printed in clear, neat, meticulously spaced tiny letters on the page (Wallace Stevens). That was fascinating–it made me long to see the famous Mark Twain papers collected here.
More fascinating for the historians among us–or at least for me–was the conversation we got into about preservation issues. Hodson pointed out that the most durable and long-lasting materials for literary and historical texts are some of the oldest technologies like vellum and other parchment, whereas the newer technologies and media for storing information were some of the least stable and most ephemeral. In general, she said, the further you progress in time, the less stable the archival materials become. So, seventeenth and eighteenth-century paper made with rags is a much more stable information storage medium than cheap nineteenth-century paper made from wood pulp, and that wood-pulp paper is more durable than a great deal of later twentieth-century media.
To illustrate that last point, Hodson made a comment to the effect that “we’ve got boxes and boxes of floppy discs–remember them?–discs of all kinds and sizes, and they’re basically worthless,” compared to even a printout of the contents on those (very temporary) electronic data storage strategies. The Huntington tries to keep computers of different generations going so that they can retrieve some of the information left on magnetic tape reels, 5-inch “floppy” discs, their junior 3-1/2 inch disc relatives, and so on. Even printed material from the floppy-disc and dot-matrix printer era doesn’t help much, because it turns out that many of the printer inks they used were extremely unstable.
I’m sure that CDs, DVDs, and jump drives will be next on the pile of nearly-useless data storage devices. One of the other readers said something like, “remember when we thought that digitizing everything meant that we’d have it forever and it would never need to be photographed again?” Hodson concurred, saying that they’re already having to update material that was digitized fifteen or twenty years ago. (To which I might add: photostats, microfilm, and microfiche, anyone? As I’ve argued here in the past, these were the utopian data storage technologies of the 1930s and 1940s.) Having digital collections means committing to a constant renewal and updating of these materials for the technologies of the moment.
And now, we have a world wide web of knowledge and human experience that’s hugely unstable. What gets archived or preserved will be a decision in the hands of private individuals or organizations that own the information in question. (But this in a sense back to the future–it’s just like every other medium for storage in the past, right? What we have now that records human history is stuff that its owners and other interested people have decided to save and preserve.) In other words, there’s no plan and no strategy to archive the web.
Memo to those of you interested in keeping your own archive: print it up or write it down on paper. Better still, hire a scribe and get it all on vellum, with ink from a twelfth-century recipe, because the more we vault into the future, the less stable and less recoverable our past appears to be.