Look if there’s one thing, just one thing, that I wish everyone understood about archiving, it’s this:

We can always decide later that we don’t need something we archived.

Like, if we archive a website that’s full of THE WORST STUFF, like it turns out it’s borderline illegal bot-made spam art, we can delete it. Gone.

We can also chose not to curate. You can make a list of the 100 Best Fanfic and just quietly not link to or mention the 20,000 RPFs of bigoted youtubers eating each other. No problem!

We can also make things not publicly available. This happens surprisingly often: like, sometimes there’ll be a YouTube channel of alt-right bigotry that gets taken down by YouTube, but someone gives a copy to the internet archive, and they don’t make it publicly available. Because it might be useful for researchers, and eventually historians, it’s kept. But putting it online for everyone to see? That’s just be propaganda for their bigotry. So it’s hidden, for now. You can ask to see it, but you need a reason.

And we can say all these things, we can chose to delete it later, we can not curate it, we can hide it from public view… But we only have these options BECAUSE we archived it.

If we didn’t archive it, we have no options. It is gone. I’m focusing on the negative here, but think about the positive side:

What if it turns out something we thought was junk turns out to be amazing new art?

What if something we thought of as pointless and not worth curating turns out to be influential?

What if something turns out to be of vital historical importance, the key that is used to solve a great mystery, the Rosetta stone for an era?

All of those things are great… If we archived it when we could.

Because this is an asymmetric problem:

If we archived it and it turns out it’s not useful, we can delete.

If we didn’t archive it and it turns out it is useful, OOPS!

You can’t unlose something that’s been lost. It’s gone. This is a one way trip, it’s already fallen off the cliff. Your only hope is that you’re wrong about it being lost, and there is actually still a copy somewhere. If it’s truly lost, your only option is to build a time machine.

And this has happened! There are things lost, so many of them that we know of, and many more we don’t know of. There are BOOKS OF THE BIBLE referenced in the canon that simply do not exist anymore. Like, Paul says to go read his letter to the Laodiceans, and what did that letter say? We don’t know. It’s gone.

The most celebrated playwright in the English tradition has plays that are just gone. You want to perform or watch Love’s Labours Won? TOO FUCKING BAD.


Want to watch Lon Cheyney’s London After Midnight, a mystery-horror silent film from 1927? TOO BAD. The MGM vault burnt down in 1965 and the last known copy went up in smoke.

If something still exists, if it still is kept somewhere, there is always an opportunity to decide if it’s worthy of being remembered. It can still be recognized for its merits, for its impact, for its importance, or just what it says about the time and culture and people who made it, and what they believed and thought and did. It can still be a useful part of history, even if we decide it’s a horrible thing, a bigoted mess, a terrible piece of art. We have the opportunity to do all that.

If it’s lost… We are out of options. All we can do is research it from how it affected other things. There’s a lot of great books and plays and films and shows that we only know of because other contemporary sources talked about them so much. We’re trying to figure out what it was and what it did, from tracing the shadow it cast on the rest of culture.

This is why archivists get anxious whenever people say “this thing is bad and should not be preserved”. Because, yeah, maybe they’re right. Maybe we’ll look back and decide “yeah, that is worthless and we shouldn’t waste the hard drive or warehouse space on it”.

But if they’re wrong, and we listen to them, and don’t archive… We don’t get a second chance at this. And archivists have been bitten too many times by talk of “we don’t need copies, the original studio has the masters!” (it burnt down), or “this isn’t worth preserving, it’s just some damn silly fad” (the fad turned out to be the first steps of a cultural revolution), or “this media is degenerate/illegal/immoral” (it turns out those saying that were bigots and history doesn’t agree with their assessment).

So we archive what we can. We can always decide later if it doesn’t need preserving. And being a responsible archivist often means preserving things but not making them publicly available, or being selective in what you archive (I back up a lot of old computer hard drives. Often they have personal photos and emails and banking information! That doesn’t get saved).

But it’s not really a good idea to be making quality or moral judgements of what you archive. Because maybe you’re right, maybe a decade or two later you’ll decide this didn’t need to be saved. And you’ll have the freedom to make that choice. But if you didn’t archive it, and decide a decade later you were wrong… It’s just gone now. You failed.

Because at the end of the day I’d rather look at an archive and see it includes 10,000 things I think are worthless trash, than look at an archive of on the “best things” and know that there are some things that simply cannot be included. Maybe they were better, but can’t be considered as one of the best… Because they’re just gone. No one has read them, no one has been able to read them.

We have a long history of losing things. The least we can do going forward is to try and avoid losing more. And leave it up to history to decide if what we saved was worth it.

My dream is for a future where critics can look at stuff made in the present and go “all of this was shit. Useless, badly made, bigoted, horrible. Don’t waste your time on it!”

Because that’s infinitely better than the future where all they can do is go “we don’t know of this was any good… It was probably important? We just don’t know. It’s gone. And it’s never coming back”


#101 Uses for Infrastructureless Computers #history #amnesia cw #this post was queued because my to-reblog list is too long and I didn’t want to dump it on you all at once

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