Everything changes, part II

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.

21 thoughts on “Everything changes, part II

  1. What I find interesting is the simultaneous rates of change in both production and volatility of “data” (documents, measurements, wev.).

    I give all of my students s journal when they start working with me and we have a conversation about the many reasons why you might write something down.


  2. Yep! And the problem with digital is also that not only do you need the hardware to remain operable, but you need software that can read the files. We have data files from back in the 80s that are on readable media, but we can’t run software to open the files on any current computers. I guess we could write new software based on the file specs, if we could find them. The good thing about printed text and pictures is that all you need is eyes and a brain. Although thinking about it as I write, I guess this is the same issue as finding texts in dead languages.


  3. Great point about the false security of digital data, which we all take for granted every day. Reminds me of “the cloud,” which most people think of as some effervescent data nebula but is actually just more energy-sucking servers stashed somewhere, probably powered by a giant dam or some other horrible piece of technocracy.

    I will say that possibly the greatest thing about digitization is that it allows for the creation of easily searchable databases, which allow the researcher to sift through thousands of documents just by typing in a key word and hitting “enter.”

    But that just makes it easier to do research; it doesn’t make the actual media of these sources any more durable. The great library fires of the ancient and medieval worlds are the hard drive and server crashes of the twenty-first century – of course, hard drives and servers, and even their backup drives, can still be consumed by fire. But you get my point.


  4. I used to print out all my emails (private correspondence, I mean), mainly because I was still exchanging REAL letters with so many people and felt the emails to be an important part of the record. But prolly the last time I did that in any concerted way was around 2000-02. Occasionally since then I’ve done it with people I’ve terminated correspondence with, so I can erase everything I have stored electronically (there have been times when I couldn’t bear the though of an ex’s address auto-filling in the “to” field of my email or didn’t trust myself not to masochistically re-read messages from a happier time if I stumbled upon them accidentally), but very infrequently, and not otherwise.

    Someday, maybe, if I have filing cabinets enough and time…


  5. I have to admit that I’ve lorded it over my modernist colleagues with the durability of linen rag paper and vellum. Of course, cuneiform beats that hollow! Also, we’re also not accounting for all the ephemeral media of the past already having been destroyed for many and various reasons before we get to the present or even the early eras of archiving. . . .


  6. Cuneiform is probably even more durable than paper and vellum (fireproof, after all, and more waterproof), but I say that paper/parchment beats the hell out of it for portability & convenience (it’s weightless compared to clay tablets! And it won’t break if you drop it! And it’s more democratic!)

    Now, I have to go find something to “beat hollow,” just because I love that idea and expression!

    Flavia: now that’s a romantic in the early digital age–printing old emails before deleting!

    (I just send old flames to my spam canner when they reach out, because Eeew! And wev. And as “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” said in episode 1, “AS IF!”)


  7. I bring this up whenever I teach the department’s methods class–what kinds of documents will future historians have to work with?

    As for my own first, second, third, and more drafts of books, I’m always happy to push the delete button on those.


  8. The best data storage system is a Trilobite. They die. They calcify. They look good. That far back, who could expect to know more?

    I continued printing e-mails slightly longer (but not that much longer) than Flavia did. I might even read them once in a while if they weren’t buried under boxes of even more recent paper. They really are good for putting basic hash marks on the passage of time, and the relation of things in time, if nothing else.

    For scholarship, I’m definitely the paperless office’s and the server farm’s worst nightmare.


  9. I’ve thought about this a lot, even as I am trying to shift to an increasingly paperless office. Because I have TOO MUCH PAPER! I save things as PDFs, which are easier to shift from one system to another, but I do indeed have electronic notes from machines that have long since died. . .

    An additional part of this is the “library of the future”, where everything is digital. We had a bunch of books in our library disappear when the subscription prices went up. Because our library doesn’t actually own the books. Which is why you can’t ILL electronic books. So the library collection is ephemeral…


  10. Ah, the paperless office. I remember that fantasy from the 1980s quite well.

    Except PCs and printers meant that we had more paper than ever, because it was easy to print out more copies of everything!

    Susan, your warning about the ephemeral nature of e-books is well taken.


  11. If anyone seriously wants to start working on parchment, here’s where I’ve bought some: http://www.pergamena.net/

    I haven’t yet made my own ink, but one of these years, I’m going to.

    Making your own paper doesn’t sound too difficult, and maybe that’s what I should do with some of the old clothes I can’t quite bring myself to part with. Writing one’s journal on hand-made paper that used to be one’s favorite shirt . . . the archival layers there please me greatly.


  12. I work in museums & archives. Huge, huge concern. I went to a conference on digitization preservation a few years back. It’s going to be about the haves and the have nots (isn’t everything?): major research archives will lead the way and figure it out, and the smaller places with fewer resources will not be able to save things. Before, everyone could at least stuff paper in boxes and put it in storage, even if it wasn’t in perfect shape. Now, you have the Harvards of the world backing up their digital archives in triplicate on archivally stable tape, moving the second copy 10 miles away and the third copy 50 miles away (actually a policy at one time). The local historical societies just won’t have the resources to figure out how to collect and preserve the material, much less migrate the data or keep track of what hardware & software is necessary to read what.


  13. I’m remembering the Philadelphia Social History Project [PSHP], a red-hot grant-funded thing from the late 1960s and early ’70s. Then, principal investigator and staff interests migrated to other kinds of ideas, leaving behind huge amounts of creaky data storage systems. They eventually landed upstairs in the Penn Library, locked behind wire mesh caging temporarily installed in previously open space that looked like it had been a prop for some movie set at Alcatraz or Sing Sing. It was a forlorn tableau that some people actually took entering graduate students to see as a hint about the “half-life of hot” even in a relatively slow moving field like history. The most poignant part of the exhibit was a set of old style computer print outs, hanging like bread dough over coat hangers attached to racks maybe ten feet high. Then “hot” at the library suddenly veered in the direction of the critical need for “collaborative undergraduate study spaces,” which seems to be organized around take-out pizza boxes rather than SPSS, coat hangers, and yellowing print-outs. The PSHP stuff disappeared overnight, like the Baltimore Colts on their way to Indianapolis. All is vanity, saith the reference desk.

    On the “haves and the have nots” theme, I found it encouraging to see that the Huntington years ago installed moveable shelving that you actually had to hand crank, rather than the more expensive but hard to not get jammed electronic version that a lot of university libraries were getting into. Turning the big slow crank wheels made it feel like you were really making an investment in access to knowledge. Plus, you were less likely to crush an impending lunchmate who was mesmerized in front of an ancient church register three shelves down the row.


  14. I recently read a Washington Post article about how students – who use digital methods for all kinds of activities – prefer reading real paper books. I sent the article to my editor at a major university press (I’m about to submit my manuscript to her…) and in reply she thanked me and said, “All we hear out here is ‘digital, digital, digital.'”
    Here’s the link: http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/why-digital-natives-prefer-reading-in-print-yes-you-read-that-right/2015/02/22/8596ca86-b871-11e4-9423-f3d0a1ec335c_story.html


  15. Thanks, Kathie–I’m not surprised. We read differently in different media. Reading a blog post or a Jezebel article on a phone is fine. Reading a magazine article is fine on a tablet or a computer screen. But a whole book? Nothing beats codex!


  16. Oh, don’t get me started on e-books! Our library briefly had a policy of buying e-books as a first choice, for space reasons, but our students hated them and we forced them to drop it.

    At least the old hot technologies of microfilm and microfiche have the advantage of being simple: a light source and a magnifying lens and you’re good to go. I use microfilms of obscure Soviet newspapers a lot, and I’m grateful even though it’s hell on my eyes because otherwise that material would not be available at all. In the case of Russian and Soviet archival material, digitization depends on the good will of the state, which is also highly unstable.

    I love Indyanna’s model: “The best data storage system is a Trilobite. They die. They calcify. They look good.” Can I adopt that as a goal for the second half of life?


  17. Pingback: Wednesday Link Roundup #88: Social Historians & Inked Historians - Elizabeth M. Covart | Elizabeth M. Covart

  18. Pingback: Everything Changes, part III | Historiann

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