Saturday, November 16, 2013

More stuff, more problems

Sometimes I fear I am a bad person – or at least a person unfit for any type of preservation profession.

day 18/365 by flick user shehan365
I was sitting at a plenary session at Best Practices Exchange, and Meg Phillips of NARA was talking about their mindblowing challenge of digital records management for the US federal government. She did a wonderful job of presenting the challenge and the legal directives and then she solicited the thoughts of the attendees about what they saw as the nature of the problem and how it could be resolved.

What follows probably further digs me deeper into the hole of being a bad person. The participants in the room seemed to be mostly archivists. I will make two bold assertions about archivists: 1) They will complain about having too much stuff; and 2) Given the choice between acquiring more or less stuff, they will almost always opt for more. (I don’t think these two characteristics are unique to archivists, but “characteristics of a profession” is qualitatively different than being idiosyncrasies of an individual.)

While the participants were dreaming of algorithms to automatically categorize the kinds of records the federal government was creating, I was thinking in my head – “Don’t take in so much stuff!” Just because something has been recorded in a “preservable” format it doesn't mean there is any reason to preserve it.

I am hardly moved by the plea to keep things because we don’t know what value future researchers might find in it. Nope, we don’t, and I hardly think we are doing the future researchers any favors by burying them under mounds of our mostly useless trivialities that might hold some gem.

The people of the future, just like those of the past, and we today will make meaning out of what they have access to. (The ingredients of “meaning” are far more vast and complex than the variety of documents and records available.) A people with access to 10 records will construct one meaning. A people with access to 1000 records will construct a different meaning, and a people with access to 100,000,000 records will construct a different meaning. I would argue that these meanings are not getting progressively better with the more records that are available. They are simply the meanings created with what is available. (There is an interesting, and I think related post on the Signal about what might impact might be had if we had access to the information on Lee Harvey Oswald's laptop.)

The stuff we have access to today is the product of a combination of human intention, luck, and natural causes.  I don’t know what the ratio is for importance of those three elements, but I’m disposed to guess human intention is probably be the smallest number.

While I may be a bad person, I’d like to think I’m not stupid. Advising NARA and the federal government to keep less stuff is not likely to result in a very l long or substantial conversation. But I do think all parties involved would be advised to approach the task with humility. (Advising the federal government to be humble isn’t likely to result in any more substantial conversations.) Future peoples will construct meanings both because of, and despite our actions today. Keeping more stuff today, doesn’t necessarily mean a better tomorrow.

There is never enough data to remove mystery.

p.s. After saying what could be seen as potentially disparaging remarks about archivists I want to add that I am in awe of and deeply grateful for the work of archivists. A reasonable response to the above post is when faced with the challenge of the onslaught of digital records, archivists choose to fight, I choose flight.

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