Evidence of Me/We
New Design Congress and the Webrecorder project are looking to talk to people who are (or want to be) involved in web archiving in all shapes and sizes as part of their research into how to integrate web archiving functionality into browsers. While institutional archiving practice is important, as some of this functionality moves into browsers I think it’s really essential that the needs & possible harms for activists and other memory workers are factored in. If you or someone you know might be willing and interested please get in touch using the link at the bottom of the post, and please share in your circles if you can.
Thinking about this tension between institutional and personal record keeping practices prompted me to return to Sue McKemmish’s Evidence of Me (McKemmish, 1996). I’ve always liked this article for how she draws on fictional and auto-biographical modes of remembering to make an argument about how “evidence of me” becomes “evidence of us”–although maybe “evidence of we” rhymes better 😊 She was in part responding to the work being done at the time by Richard Cox and Wendy Duff on functional requirements for electronic records in a corporate setting (Cox & Duff, 1997).
One point that McKemmish makes is that the role of the “post custodial” archivist in a corporate setting is a bit clearer than in the personal record keeping context, because the latter is, well, “personal” and doesn’t necessarily involve archivists. But in many ways the archivist and the record keeper personas collapse into one. She suggests that personal record keeping practices develop in response to institutional practices:
A study of the personal diary might be very revealing in this regard. It represents both a documentary form and a type of recordkeeping system, a system that is so institutionalized in our society that individuals can readily follow its ‘rules’ and ‘protocols’, implementing the recordkeeping processes associated with keeping a diary in ways which support its transactionality, evidentiality and quality as memory.
Here we are 25 years later, still talking about electronic records 😂 and still with some of the same issues. Webrecorder’s slogan “Web archiving for all!” is largely in response to the reality that “web archiving” is really only a practice that institutions are engaged in. Putting web archiving creation (and distribution) into the browser is a seizing of the means of archival production if you will.
And yet the practice of saving things from the web for use at another time is widespread–think about screenshot practices (Jaynes, 2020). My hope about this NDC/Webrecorder collaboration is that it will set the scales in favor of individual’s needs when collecting from the web, rather than superimposing the requirements of institutions onto people, following the grooves McKemmish identifies.
I also suspect that what are now institutional practices were actually once practiced by individuals and small groups. Memory practices are not born institutionalized, so we must be especially attentive when creating rules and protocols for memory in software. Because it’s exactly this process that works to institutionalize them.