Digitized Archives, Digital Archives:
New Genres and the Gallery of the Scanner
The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries.
— Jorge Luis Borges, “The Library of Babel”
Since the ubiquity of the internet and the advent of (relatively) affordable scanners, there has been push to digitize archives —translating physical documents into easily stored, easily mined, often cloud-based, sharable files. Concurrently, with the upswing in online interactions, via web-based journalism platforms and social media, an impulse to create archives of these digital “paper-trails”, (take sites like archiveit.org or the recent debate over whether or not President Donald Trump’s Twitter feeds, @POTUS and @realDonaldTrump, constitute part of the official presidential archive) has also arisen.
Scanners — instead of creating some sort of digital safety net for documents via digital replicas — open up physical documents, physical archives, to technological advantages far outweighing those of other modes of reproduction, i.e. photocopies. Scans allow for perfect duplicability, shareability (complemented by things like email), flexibility in sizing and format (extending use value), more efficient forms of organization (through file-naming), better “searchability” (via encoding), as well as a more easeful establishment of archival “relation”. These last three features, provided by metadata, are something the analogue world does not afford.
The archive, then, literally takes on a fourth dimension — via its capacities for translation, potential duplication, alteration, and encoding — navigable through overlapping indexes and a search bar.
However this interpretation of digital translation, of “the scanner”, is not applicable to all archives, even digital ones (e.g. @realDonaldTrump).
Not all digital archives rely on translation, specifically those made from digitally-born or web-based materials. In addition, some online archives are community oriented, requiring actual participation in their creation, such as aaaaarg.fail. A distinction between digitized archives and digital archives then exits. They are disparate forms possessing different aspirations—distinct thrust.
Digitized archives — appendage of physical archives — envision the digital as a tool. As a result, they not only maintain their interest in bibliography and provenance, but also resist a transition to a more people-centric model, deferring instead to institution, to insular control, and to the mediation and placement of discrete (translations of) objects and histories via prescribed methodology.
(Physical archives are sorted according to a nesting-egg structure of provenance—collection, series, files, and item—fleshing history through ripples of description and citation, closeted away for later inspection. Archival science is not a “science” concerned with arranging, finding, or really even sharing items, but a discipline active around discovering and implementing better ways to protect and preserve an object’s not only physical condition but also discrete identity, it’s history—through language and placement—for posterity. It relies on hierarchy, on methodology, language, and physical space to understand itself; knowledge arises from both a physical and conceptual proximity.)
Digital archives, on the other hand, aspire to a horizontality, to dispersal, to reach, expressed through public engagement, algorithms (which are inherently subjective), randomization, and search bars. Take archive.org and archiveit.org. The former is a largely unorganized amassment of historical media in digital reprint. The latter constitutes a public database, tracking what people/the media establishment have/has been doing and saying online through a loose interpretation of archival notions of “series” and “collection”. Both sites are of the community-oriented model. Both eschew orthodox notions of description, context, and relation. Both desire viewership.
Media theorist Wolfgang Ernst, in Digital Archives and Memory, writes, “As long as media are not mistaken for their mass-media content, they turn out to be nondiscursive entities, belonging to a different temporal regime that, to be analyzed, requires an alternative means of description.” With this statement, Ernst is not referring to an artificial divide between form (or, the digital apparatus, i.e. “nondiscursive entities”) and content (i.e. “mass-media content”) or between micro (media-based) and macro (historical) trends. Instead, he is pointing to the fact that these “nondiscursive entities” are themselves a type of content, a type of media (“not to be mistaken [for]… mass-media content”), both influencing as well as evolving from a collective engagement with the media itself. Distinct analytical frames between this evolving digital apparatus and “mass-media content” are then needed, so that the macro (historical) and micro (processional) developments that they originate from can be evaluated, separated, and interwoven.
This is the job of the media archaeologist. I am not a media archaeologist.
That said, I isolated the scanner/scans, positioning it/them as a catalyst, not because it/they actually is/are a catalyst (a watershed innovation singly tipping the movement of archives from physical to digital) but as metonym for a larger system — the translation of materials from analogue to digital in the context of archives — asking why would you undergo this project of translation, if it wasn’t for the sake of posterity? And what does it mean for the Archive to prioritize public engagement over posterity itself, as web-based archives often do?
The answer seemed to be heightened communication and research capacities. But the real point was to illustrate the fracturing of institution of Archive into genre itself: in no other historical time has an archivist privileged any other aspect of archival work (i.e. communication and public reach) over posterity and provenance.
I don’t have the space, appropriate analytical frames, or foresight, to predict what this shift in archives (both in the structure of archives in an this new conception of Archive as a form of media, having distinct genres) will have on our individual and collective understandings of memory, research, and knowledge more generally. But it isn’t out of the question to assume that this conversion might fit into our “op-ed” concerns over the internet itself, specifically “googlization”.
“Googlization” broadly takes two forms. The first plays into a narrative about the search bar massaging the impulsive, ends-seeking aspects of the human psyche, resulting in an inability to concentrate and imposing limitations on humans’ capabilities for abstract thought, stunting conceptual scope. The second is about concentrations of power, and who owns what and who has access re: the digital. For example, Google possesses surfers’ browsing data via Chrome (selling this information to desirous retailers for targeted advertisement; we all know what this looks like) in addition to controlling what you see when you “search” through their search engine, as well as having their own technologies, such as “Google Drive” (one of the more advanced forms of cloud-storage), under lock and key.
It is then our (or media archaeologists’) responsibility to assess these interlocking macro (historical, i.e. concentrations of capital, questions of transparency) and micro (processional, i.e. the scanner) trends re: the digital. Only then can a (more) full picture of Archive (as a digital media expressing genre) fit into questions of individual psychic structure, collective knowledge, access, and the potential monopolization of memory.
Maybe, these archival adaptations will fulfill the digital’s prophecy of horizontality. Maybe, this will be a good thing. Or maybe (hopefully not), we’ll conform to Borges’ Book Man — who, while looking for the total book of knowledge, never manages to see the Library in its full dimension, nor finishes writing his own book. Only time, under the scrutiny of the media archeologist, will tell.