I spent last Friday, Saturday and a bit of Sunday at MIT 6, the 6th biennial
Media in Transition gathering convened by MIT’s Comparative Media Studies (CMS) program.

It was the first for me, and I found it really useful and stimulating. What was particularly heartening is the degree to which archives and archiving have moved into discussions of new media, social media, digital video, participatory culture and so on, as central rather than peripheral; and the growing recognition that archiving, and in particular digital and media archiving, pose very knotty problems that we have yet to solve.

In his welcome remarks, David Thorburn of the CMS characterized the new media landscape as replete with ‘exhilaration and anxiety.’ “We need to share anxieties, not let the utopians shame us into silence.” He urged attendees to keep in mind the theme of speed, immediacy, accelerated pace…the state of perpetual flux creates problems; future-oriented communities such as MIT sometimes have a tendency to lose sight of these.

I have been thinking about this question of immediacy a lot, in terms of our work here at WITNESS and my work as an archivist. I’ve worked for 20 years in archival contexts in which immediacy is paramount, in which the need to manage, evaluate and push out content were primary drivers of selection, description, and access. Archiving in these contexts is extremely challenging, requiring a high level of editorial, logistical and technical problem-solving. Here at WITNESS, the Archive’s major focus over the past 3 years has been on building a digital asset management system and archive precisely to open up access and provide this immediacy. Given multiple contributors, formats, languages, stakeholders and distribution channels, this is no small task for an organization our size.

Simultaneously, of course, as archivists we are concerned with persistence; we view the present as we imagine it in the future – ie as the past. As articulated by many at the conference, we are at a particularly critical moment. Ann Wolpert, Director of MIT Libraries/MIT Press noted the potentially huge gap between institutional archives (where policies and resources can be put in place and supported) and the records of ‘normal human activities’ which have less likelihood of accidental archiving in digital form. She remarked that she has little confidence her grandchildren will have access to the photos of today, whereas 19th century photos of her grandparents will still be accessible. “Bits won’t survive in a shoebox in the attic.” Unless we are truly intentional about digital persistence and preservation we are facing huge losses.

There is an emerging discourse within the sphere of human rights about the importance of archives and documentation. We have not yet seen the full potential of archives and documentation to serve advocacy, justice, good governance, and the essential memory and restorative work for societies in transition, but what’s clear is that the timeframes for seeking and receiving justice can be very long. Persistence, preservation, longevity are crucial not only to historical memory but perhaps to justice itself.

What persists in a culture is very much linked to power – political or economic. Media has become more participatory, diverse, bottom-up, unmediated and unfiltered, immediately accessible; but access needs to include the future too. We cannot cede responsibility to the powerful – governments or Google – to ensure the survival of the growing diversity of voices, stories, perspectives and creative works.

So are there answers? Well, admitting the problem is the first step I suppose. And Rick Prelinger and others had some interesting things to say about citizen archiving and self-archiving. I’ll write more on that and more in the next post. In the meantime, the conference site has abstracts and many full papers, and podcasts of the plenaries, well worth a look/listen.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *