Becoming citizen archivists (or: sorry, we’ve outsourced our archiving to machines)

To start this post I should make clear that I do not believe that we should (or can) replace all analog ways of storing our memory cues with digital ones. Some things can’t be digitised, like the joy of receiving a hand written letter, the beauty of a really photograph or the charm of a tin of film. Call me a romantic, but there’s history in the materiality of these things, and that’s something that should not be neglected.

I do believe that digital offers amazing ways to back up, organise, publish and display things that compliment what you can do with analog. As I’ve stated in a recent post, both analog and digital carry with them certain risks. Many of these are negated by using both. It does require a bit of work, though. And that is often problematic, as people don’t like a bit of work.

Digital is easy. I shot over 300 photos with my new camera just last week, without even thinking about it. If I were shooting analog, that wouldn’t have happened. Every day when I got home I put the photos in Adobe Lightroom, to review, edit and develop. Lightroom offers tagging, but I rarely use it. After I export photos from Lightroom, they go in Picasa and Google Photos. Both offer tagging, but I don’t use them. I rely on the automatic, built in geo-tagging and other metadata collected by the camera. This results in a sort of semi-archive, where I can find photos if I can remember where or when I took them, but not if I only know what the subject was. This has resulted in various occasions on which I couldn’t find that one photo I was looking for. I really should start tagging…

What I have you could call an anarchive. This term, taken from an essay by Wolfgang Ernst, refers to storage without organisation, in short.[1]  In the digital world, lacking organisation is poses a greater risk than it does in the analog world. As a computer can not interpret images, videos or music (as well as a human being can, yet), it relies on metadata and other organising structures to make sense of files. The less a computer knows about a file, the slimmer the chance it will be able to find it for you, simply because it has nothing to hold on to. If a photograph, for example, has no name or metadata, what could you ctrl+f ?

At the same time, advances in computing negate these risks to a great extent. Rising levels of sophistication in web crawlers, image recognition and search engines automate organisation to a great extent. These new tools enable the outsourcing of the most tedious and repetitive tasks, such as sorting pictures by date or place (if the pictures are geo-tagged). But they are also capable of performing increasingly complex tasks. Google image search can identify images that are similar to others; Picasa sorts images by the people who are in them with the help of face recognition technology; Google Photos, Google+ and Facebook automatically generate “photo albums” at the end of the year or after a weekend trip, identifying high points using complex algorithms. No actual people are involved with these tasks anymore, and I must say I think these programs often do a pretty good job.

American inventor Vannevar Bush wrote his seminal essay “as we may think” seventy years ago this year. In this essay he envisions a machine, the “memex”, that would make traditional hierarchical organisation obsolete. It would allow for associative browsing through collective knowledge, freely jumping from subject to subject. With the current state of Internet, we have made this machine, but its not everything that Bush expected it to be. The vast amounts of information have become unimaginable, and certainly unmanageable for most. As information scientists Bill Johnston and Sheila Webber have argued, the abundance of freely accessible information causes information overload.[2] The Googles, Facebooks and Microsofts of today realise that. That is why more and more content is custom tailored to the user. The same process is taking place with user data storage: as the amounts of digital files we keep becomes overwhelming, these large companies are eager to take them off our hands and help us to sort them out. As these services are usually “free”, I sometimes wonder what I will end up paying…

For now, our most important role in archiving, as human beings, is to interpret things that a computer can not. While a computer might be able to identify a “spectacular sunset” based on color and composition of a photo, geo-location and the time it was taken, it is not yet able to interpret the personal value or a more subtle meaning attached to it. This particular sunset could well be a snapshot taken on a  romantic evening, or there could be a sinking ship in the background. Simple tagging of photos and videos could help computers distinguish between the two. Of course, these kinds of artefacts are quite complex. A video of a baby’s first  steps could well be of interest to future historians because of things in the background. Just like present day archivists can only do so much, these limitations should not discourage us from striving to organise our personal memory cues as well – and as easily, otherwise we just won’t do it – as possible.

Information scientist and archivist Richard Cox argues that citizens should be offered education to become better keepers of their digital personal and family archives. He also comments on the rise of these large tech companies offering online storage. He argues that these companies, too, need to be educated on archival practice, for it is here that many future archives could reside.[3] Historian Peter Webster, who has a special interest in digital scholarship, argues in this blog post that historians should care more about digital archives. He closes with the following statement, with which I couldn’t agree more: “So: we need a new model of archival curation, based on a partnership between archivists, scholars and the public. The technical means are there; it simply needs a new form of engagement, and we historians can help make it happen.”

[1]  Wolfgang Ernst, “Cultural archive versus technomathematical storage,” in Archive in motion: new conceptions of the archive in contemporary thought and new media practices (Oslo: Novus Press,2010) 53-77.

[2] Bill Johnston and Sheila Webber, “As we may think: Information literacy as a discipline for the information age”. Research Strategies (2006) ,20, 108-121

[3] Richard J. Cox, “Digital Curation and the Citizen Archivist.” Digital Curation: Practice, Promises & Prospects (2009) 102–9.


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