Features

I’m Into Archives But None of my Friends Give A Shit

by Smoko Henderson

Not that long ago I reached a point in my life where I suddenly became interested in archives. It took me a while, but I think it takes most other people longer.

There are archives everywhere. There is an online collection of some of the oldest wax cylinder recordings in the world that I visit for new music. I don’t buy new books anymore as lifetimes of reading hang in the form of raw data all around us as real as the air we breathe. All of the greats are online for free. If anything modern is seemingly great you can bet its online somewhere. There is the US Congress library archive, the Australian parliamentary archives, tax department archives and the SLWA archives. There’s film and sound and music archives, historical news paper archives, legislation archives, geographical survey archives, department of defence archives, civil war archives and medical archives. Every city, region, electorate, township, site and state has its own archive. Maybe many. Horticultural archives, University archives, national, state and regional history archives. Vet science archives, astrophysics archives, NASA archives and airport record archives.

Typically by now physical archives all have their websites. Many web archives do not have tangible counterparts. There is something exciting about online archives but there is something appealing about a physical location storing information not available on the web. Even when less is more, there is not enough.

Not that anyone else I know feels that way – there are social costs. I get blank stares and premature nods of the head. I am alienating myself just talking about them. The responses are predictable: “Yeah, I know that information is out there,” or, “just because I haven’t looked up whatever doesn’t mean I don’t care,” (it really does), or, “who gives a shit about things we already know?”

This one I have no retort for. This is why I contest it with all the more anger, for I suspect that I might be wrong.

There are databases that collect and amass archives. There are archives for those databases once they get stale. Within both there are thousands of online libraries. If you want to research something, there are too many places to go. I used to wish I knew more troves of information. Not any more.

You want the true definition of irony? Online formats change faster than paper decays. Having industrial strength cardboard or tin boxes – thousands of them – packed full of documents and artifacts stored somewhere free from elemental exposure is actually a more viable method of permaculture than establishing that information in a non-tangible format that declines the need for material storage in the first place. We have the technology of permanent, cost efficient storage well and truly under our fingertips, but we’re so consumed by the aesthetic and commercial appeal of the upgrade that we progress too quickly for timelessness to keep up. Fun fact: the NAA have cardboard boxes that last for 500 years.

You’d think that online archiving is the answer to all information storage logistics, and it is, so long as you update the software and re-scan everything every five years. As archives grow, so do others. Eventually partnerships are made but some agency will have more money than another, and then that agency upgrades, meaning that if the other agency wants to stay afloat they need to upgrade too. So there’s no room for solidarity. Even isolated intranets update too quickly to establish viable solutions.

The Australian National Library archive (it’s called Pandora) is something like a decade old but already feels like an ancient web relic.

Somehow, the stashes of old paper documents that have been sitting still and rarely touched for decades upon decades, those documents outdated by the rise and fall of at least one intermittent generation of human beings, are still more relevant and contemporary than the current online systems designed less than a decade ago to house them.

That is irony. That is the ultimate in human folly – encircling an issue with solutions but never actually getting the point across.

Who cares, though? Not me. I have too many things to read up on. The history of the world is in paper and in pixels scattered across tens of thousands of online and real world collections. One day someone will text my phone and ask me where to look for something.