Two Archival Apocalypses
I recently re-read a gem of a paper by Leonard Rapport about the process of reappraisal, or reviewing an archives’ holdings and reevaluating whether they still need to be retained (Rapport, 1981). It was written just as the deluge of data generated by computation was ramping up, but before the explosion of the Internet and the web had begun. Rapport’s argument hinges on the difference between “permanent” and “continued” preservation. It is the latter that the Federal Records Act of 1950 stipulated:
The Administrator, whenever it appears to him to be in the public interest, is hereby authorized-to accept for deposit with the National Archives of the United States the records of any Federal agency or of the Congress of the United States that are determined by the Archivist to have sufficient historical or other value to warrant their continued preservation by the United States Government.
The use of “continued preservation” made it through the various amendments to the act over time, including Obama’s addition of electronic records in 2014. So it’s funny we often talk about records going to archives “permanently”, and design systems that enforce or enshrine this idea.
Obviously not all archives are run the same way as NARA in the US of A. But it is comforting to recognize that the architects of this system understood that not only could we not keep all records, but there were limits on how long they could be kept. Rapport makes a strong humanistic argument that the cost of keeping records should always be weighed as best they can against their perceived use, and that this is an iterative process.
Just a few years later Bearman (1989) argued, again pretty persuasively, that the process of appraisal was fundamentally broken in the age of electronic records because of the staggering increase in volume of records. While he is sympathetic to Rapport’s argument, Bearman says that we can’t reappraise because our value-based process for appraisal is itself broken. Reappraising without changing what it means to appraise would just make the problem many times worse. Instead Bearman says we need to shift the analysis from the value of records, to the activities that generate records, and assessing the importance of records to those activities. Of course this anticipates the work on Macro-Appraisal (Cook, 2004) and Documentation Strategies (Samuels, 1991) that was to follow.
So it was fun to follow this little thread, but I mostly wanted to blog about Rapport’s article because it closes with this really wonderful and enigmantic little thought experiment about archives:
If that does not put a troubled appraiser in a more comfortable frame of mind, share with me two apocalyptic visions. In the first it suddenly becomes possible to keep a copy of every single document created, and, for these documents, a perfect, instantaneous retrieval system. In the second, and less blissful, vision the upper atmosphere fills with reverse neutron bombs, heading toward every records repository. These are bombs that destroy records only, not people. They come down and obliterate every record of any sort.
Keeping these two events in separate parts of your mind, project forward a century. How different would the two resultant worlds be? In the first would our descendants, having all the information that it is possible to derive from documents, have, therefore, all knowledge? And if they have all knowledge would they have, therefore, all wisdom?
In the second, lacking the records we have as of this moment, would our descendants wander in a world of anarchy, in a world in which they would be doomed to repeat the errors of the past?
I leave it to you to conjecture as you please. My own guess is that between these two worlds there wouldn’t be all that much difference.
Why would there be no difference between these two scenarios? Do you agree? How prescient are they as we look at what technologies like IPFS are attempting to make available, and we consider the threat of a strategically deployed Nuclear Electromagnetic Pulse?