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May 27, 2010

Gettin’ Trashed

Ah, Memorial Day Weekend — the traditional beginning to the marketing of summer. In New York this means one thing: the city will now be overwhelmed by the invasive stench of garbage being baked and steamed by the heat and humidity. The other week some fresh-faced new college grads, probably out looking for their first apartment, walked by my window. A piece of conversation floated in, something about how the air in Brooklyn is the freshest and loveliest around.

I felt sorry for these kids, who apparently had grown up next to a sewage processing plant or the municipal dump. Or maybe I should have felt happy for them for moving somewhere new and sad for myself — during a recent trip back to Oregon a major event several times a day was simply standing outside and taking deep breaths.

Whatever the case, these thoughts reminded me of a Radiolab episode from a few years back about the archeology of trash (“The Greatest Hits of Ancient Garbage” July 29, 2007).

The main story was about the discovery of what turned out to be an ancient dumping ground in the Egyptian desert that contained around 1000 years of discarded items. Of course there were the requisite pottery shards and household items — the jelly jar drinking glasses and giant wooden spoon wall hangings of their day — but the major find was massive amounts of 2000 year old paper fragments. And this warn’t no Michener-by-the-pound or Diet for a Small Planets. No, these papers include contemporary anti-heroic responses to Homer, non-canonical or alternate versions to christian bible texts, and surprising forms of popular literature.

These discoveries present starkly different views to accepted knowledge and interpretation of the ancient world, opening up not only our knowledge of the past but also our understanding of the creation and transmission of culture. Is there something inherent in a cultural work like The Iliad that makes it ‘timeless’ and something that makes responsive or satiric literature too bound to a certain period to be memorable? Or is there some kind of guiding hand of a canon-forming elite that enforces their taste on the masses? Or is it just random fate that allows one thing to be maintained and passed down while other things fall by the wayside through no fault of their own? There is as much to learn in what we keep as there is in what we decide to discard.

There are obvious correlations here to selection in archives and the concept that we don’t always know what materials will be relevant to the future. However, I think there’s something else here that can be gleaned from thinking not about the content of what was found, but rather how exactly this great discovery was enabled. One thing to consider is that the great luxury of analog materials is the potential for persistence in spite of — or even because of — neglect. Here these papers were, sitting buried in sand for century upon century and yet, though it will take more than a lifetime to piece the fragments back together and translate them, the majority of the content will be readable or at least viewable. We will have no such luck with digital media. Think about the difficulty of trying to open files from 15 years ago and try to imagine letting your hard drive sit for 2000 years before accessing it again. Heck, I could create an InDesign file at home on CS4 and then take it to work and I wouldn’t be able to access the file on CS3.

This issue underscores the great need for having a proactive preservation plan for digital media, including format and codec selection, obsolescence monitoring, migration plans, well-formed metadata sets, and more. What this underscore underscores, however, is that there has been a lack of tools and guidelines for digital preservation that have kept up with the quickly shifting requirements and structures of media and systems. There have been some strides made lately (including [blush] some of our own efforts), and many organizations are hacking through this issue (such as NDIIPP, FADGI, Blue Ribbon Task Force, and others), but there’s still plenty that’s unsettled.

When contemplating the challenges of digital preservation, it feels like a struggle fought in quicksand, tiring and futile. A common reaction is, well let’s just move everything back to analog. I don’t think this is an option now. First, the access digital materials have created and the possibilities they hold are just too great… and the amount of space and infrastructure we would need to store everything created as physical materials is just too great to be feasible. That’s why there are trash heaps and garbage is shipped across state lines for deposit. Second, this is our moment as archivists, and as a society, to do something big, to identify a major problem and find the solution. We can no longer be that anonymous Egyptian who has a cultural impact by having stored his papyrus in the ‘circular file’. It’s time to make a commitment, take some action, and manage our digital materials the same way we know we can the analog. Our days may be like sands through the hourglass, but our lives have greater agency than that.

Joshua Ranger

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