Friday, February 24, 2012

Archive it now or lose it forever


The month of February is LGBT History Month in Britain.

As a Patron to the annual event, I try to find helpful ways of contributing.

Last year I was delighted to be a part of a big project to create a high quality educational resource, charting the historical relationship between LGB & T people and medicine, and their contributions towards it.

This year I've similarly been part of a project to launch a new scheme to help improve the quality of care provided in GP Practices; I'll also be giving a talk myself about the twentieth anniversary of the foundation of Press for Change.


Some of these projects highlight the difficulties of obtaining historical information.

The historical timeline, for instance, relied heavily on previous attempts to create the same kind of resource and refine it. The main research was undertaken by staff from the Lesbian and Gay Foundation (LGF)  and the Trans Resource and Empowerment Centre (TREC).

As I advised on the content, I was conscious of how we were all often relying on memories of things we had read elsewhere to fill gaps. There are few libraries of museum collections which do more than document fractions of the story. Newspaper records have often erased or distorted lives and events.

I have no doubt that future efforts to piece together more of our histories will build on our efforts in the same way. Finding additional information feels a lot like foraging.

Erasure of a different kind

Tracking down historical information from tens or hundreds of years ago is understandably difficult for any long-marginalised community. Isolated people don't keep systematic records. Anything that does get recorded is likely to be through the eyes of others, reflecting the dominant ideas of the time. We can talk a lot about various kinds of erasure and their consequences.

However, as I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, we can't afford to be smug and think that erasure is something that other people do to us. If we are careless we can end up doing it to ourselves. My explanation of how Press for Change lost an online resource that had taken 13 years to assemble, should be a warning we never have to repeat again.

Good news

Before I continue, there is some good news.

The remarkable power of the Internet (and Twitter especially) meant that, shortly after I publicised my blog about history "hanging by a thread" I started getting contacted by concerned professional archivists. Before long I was in correspondence with a very helpful lady from the British Library.

It turned out that, unbeknown to ourselves, Britain's premier repository of literary treasures … books, manuscripts and periodicals … had been quietly harvesting copies of Press for Change's web site since 2006, as part of a massive project to preserve key parts of the UK's internet resources.

So, if you want to look up what we were doing back then, find accounts of what went on, or (more importantly) provide a reference to that material in a modern day work, you can once again do this.

I'll not give the address here, as the archive is for research rather than a substitute for present day communities running their own services. However, if anyone wants access for their own work then I'll certainly point you in the right direction.

Archive nominations welcomed

It turns out that the British Library is quite keen to receive suggestions of other sites that it could archive for posterity in this way.

So, if you run a British web site whose contemporary content would be valuable to researchers of social history in the future, and if the site is capable of being electronically crawled to copy the content, then do let the library's web archive team have your nominations.

The address to write is: They will write to the owners of any sites you nominate to obtain permission to copy and store the content.

Do note that the BL Web Archive's interest is only in UK sites. Readers with resources in other countries will need to find out how the web is archived by their own national institutions.

Let's learn from our fortune

Let's not forget, however, that the fact this information was archived for us to use now, was about luck rather than planning.

Let's also remember that capturing history for future study is about a lot more than simply saving web sites, or ensuring that the backups of your electronic documents are readable in the future. The latter is a whole subject in its own right, and I don't want to attempt to go into that in depth here.

In summary, it's not just about whether backup media can be read in 5, 10 or 50 years time. It's not just about whether future word processor or email programs will be able to open and display the files.

Future historians will need a lot more than to simply be able to read our electronic materials.

Making sense of the information

For myself, as a former activist, I know that the history of what we did and achieved is a complex amalgam of many separate components.

There were the exchanges (spoken, written and electronic) that I and my colleagues had about the big decisions, as well as the small. Some of that is in paper form. Some of it is in email archives. Some of it was verbal and exists only in our heads.

Already it can be difficult to recall the order of some events. Which came first? Did our decision to do 'A' influence 'B'? Or was it the other way around?

How did we reach the conclusion to prioritise one thing over another? How did we formulate the line we were going to take? Who was there? How do we understand the events … as we saw them at the time, and as we have rationalised them further looking back?

Understand too, as you contemplate these questions, that four people could have experienced the same discussion or events and have different recollections about it. Therefore, this can never be just about one person's view. This is why, where I've been able, I've been keen to examine or record different viewpoints myself.

If there was one thing that I personally wish I had done, looking back, it would be to have kept a proper diary … not just to record events in the right sequence, but to record what I thought about them too. Inferring the same information from 85,000 emails in 4Gb of electronic archives is a much harder job.

New technologies, new challenges

If it's difficult enough to look at how we may capture the right detail for historians from just 15-20 years ago, I think the current era poses even bigger challenges for the future.

As I watch contemporary campaigners working, I can see the attractions that everyone sees in today's free social media. Savvy campaigners can do so much more with these tools than we could ever dream about just a decade ago.

Today's campaigners don't just put information out to their followers; they have continuous conversations. They link to other information in the moment … stories on news sites and videos on YouTube, for instance.

Yet it is all far more ephemeral than the web site and email services we painstakingly built by hand (and which professional archivists fortuitously copied for posterity).

Today's campaign site could disappear overnight on the whim of the provider. We see it happen. And most campaigns have no contingency for that, let alone the prospect of easily recovering current documents stored in such services. Think how much harder that will be retrospectively.

That doesn't mean I don't think people should use these services. Quite the reverse. However, if campaigners plan to change the world then (modesty aside) they need to have thought for whether historians will be able to trace what they did and why. Not just in a hundred years, but in ten.

Three things you can do

Attempts to plan for the future can be doomed to failure. None of us has any idea what it may hold. However, we can do a few basic things that seem to have held good, regardless of the technologies that they use in their own age.

  1. Start a diary. Write it up reasonably close to the events, so that your honest contemporaneous thoughts and impressions are kept. Include the names of people, the reasoning for decisions made, and the things ruled out or deprioritised. In this modern age summarise the essence of online conversations too. What was the mood? Whose views stood out?
  2. Take photographs of people and events.
  3. Have a system of filing systems - paper documents, electronic documents, emails, photos
  4. Start filing the papers before it is too late to contemplate trying to do it retrospectively.
  5. Use storage that can expand. And please don't do what I did and throw away stuff that you later realise it would have been valuable to keep.
  6. Keep emails in some sort of correspondingly structured form. Print the most important ones, as an insurance in case the electronic ones ever become unreadable. Remember this can happen both because the media may become unreadable or because the software may no longer be available.
  7. Devise a similarly structured way of saving electronic documents. If you have the space then, once again, keep paper copies of the most important documents. The same readability precautions apply.
  8. Make regular backups of the computer files. When you upgrade computers or software think about how you are going to preserve the content.

I doubt that's a complete list. Maybe readers can add to it, or chip in their own retrospective experiences.

Above all, however, I think we all owe it to future generations to help them make sense of the history being made today. Without that, there's the risk of someone else telling it differently.

And in the meantime, I and some of my former colleagues are discussing how to pull together and professionally preserve our own records and recollections whilst we still have the chance.


Anonymous said...

This was one of the things my history teacher at school was saying: that it might be difficult for the historians of the future to discern what happened in this day and age because we rely so much on electronic communication, rather than writing things on paper.

Jed Bland said...

I dont know how much interest there might be in the Transgender Archive put together by Richard Ekins in Belfast University, but, unless it has been recently successful, it is looking for a new home.

Christine Burns MBE said...

Thanks for mentioning the transgender archive Jed, as I'm sure there are lots of people who don't know about its existence.

For those who don't know, Professor Richard Ekins, (now Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Cultural Studies at the University of Ulster, Coleraine) began collecting materials for his unique academic archive more than 20 years ago. His archive provides a particularly interesting record of the print media from that time and before.

If anyone is interested, his details are easy to google.

Christine Burns MBE said...

UPDATE: Note that the Richard Ekins archive referred to above now has a safe new home in the Transgender Archives at the University of Victoria in Canada.