Monday, September 13, 2010

Of archiving and tragedy

I've been reading up on archiving for my job, and I have two observations about the relevant literature.

First, no matter how convoluted and unclear a writer I am, archivists, or at least the ones whose works I've read so far, are much, much worse. It's a combination of bureaucratic office-speak (in formal writing, "impact" should not be transitive verb!) and abstruse academic verbiage.

Second, there appears to be an inherent tragedy in what I understand to be (and what the books and articles I'm reading tell me is) the dual mission of archives: to preserve sources in perpetuity and to ensure access. It seems to me that it's almost impossible to do either and that it's impossible to do both.

Sources deteriorate, eventually, in a hundred years or a thousand years or 10,000 years, they will pass away and be forgotten. The sun also rises..... It would be the height--or at least one of the many heights--of hubris to claim that the library in which I currently have my graduate assistantship will survive over the centuries.

Every time a source is used, it is damaged, however imperceptibly. We can do a lot to forestall the damage. We can put documents in protective plastic coating, or we can photocopy "dummy documents" that patrons can consult instead of the originals. But eventually the plastic will wear out or break and have to be replaced, or the dummy document will wear down and another one will have to be made.

I'm not sure how true this is of digital collections, especially because I'm ignorant of how electronic files actually work. But I have trouble believing that the information technology of today will be compatible with that of tomorrow, or that they don't have their own elements of "wear and tear."

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