What does it mean to archive emails? Are they the letters for the 21st century? Or are they the phone calls that simply disappear into the atmosphere?
I know that I try to personally archive some of my children’s text messages, as well as their voice mails, because I understand that these fleeting moments document both their youth and the passage of time. Suddenly, though, there seem to be too many significant moments for me to save -- Facebook albums, chat sessions, cell phone photos--and a lot of technology to master in order to do it all.
Archiving has regained academic prominence recently. Cultural philosopher Jacques Derrida wrote extensively on the archive’s relationship to power and memory. (It’s a painful irony that Derrida’s archive with UC Irvine has been the subject of recent law suits.) With the expansion of the internet, the archival field and its challenges have developed into — what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences calls--“The Digital Dilemma.”
I’m not alone with this rush of archival excitement. I just returned from UCLA’s conference, Reimagining the Archive: Remapping and Remixing Traditional Models. Archivists, similar to librarians and information scientists, have vastly expanded their opportunities as well as their dilemmas within the new digital arena. The conference featured Rick Prelinger, founder of Prelinger Archives (see Archive.org) as well as representatives from the Library of Congress, INA (France’s Audiovisual Institute) and the BBC.
France has been one of the leaders in the global archival movement. INA has digitized close to 800,000 hours of film, video and audio and has been capturing live digital material from over 100 cable channels and the web for the last several years. The Library of Congress will only start archiving this amount of U.S. televisual and web material beginning in January 2011, but the LOC has recently finished renovating an impressive new facility that will allow for the U.S.’s rapid expansion in the field of digital archiving.
The UCLA conference focused primarily on archiving moving images -- film, video and the web -- but also included other interesting archival developments, such as in the field of dance. Years ago, I received my first video production training by archiving performances and choreography at the American Dance Festival (ADF), now housed at Duke University. Performances, interviews and practices by significant choreographers and dancers have been documented on film and video since the 1930’s and are accessible for research with Duke’s Special Collections Library. But now, with the developments at the University of Surrey’s Digital Dance Archives, led by Rachel Fensham, we will soon be able to map and search dance archives for the history of a particular gestural movement -- such as an arm flung over the shoulder--by its visual and graphic likenesses and not just its textual descriptions. Not all gestures are easy to describe with words.
The possibilities for visual or photographic searches are fascinating, particularly for women’s history. So much of ‘women’s work’ has not been written down, archived or even spoken necessarily. As several authors indicate in a recent book, “contesting archives” and the gendered assumptions hidden behind archival histories are timely subjects for study.
This historical moment may finally turn out to be about not archiving everything digitally. Perhaps it will be about curating more wisely?