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Collecting Strategies for the Anthropocene


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Talk delivered at Libraries and Archives in the Anthropocene conference, New York University, May 13, 2017. The talk runs away from the topic suggested by the title, but that turned out to be positive.

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Collecting Strategies for the Anthropocene

  1. 1. Rick Prelinger Prelinger Library & Archives UC Santa Cruz @footage Collecting Strategies for the Anthropocene LAAC #1, New York, May 13, 2017 1Saturday, May 13, 17
  2. 2. 2Saturday, May 13, 17 First, I want to thank the people who have made this conference happen — those who have provided and are providing the labor essential to any human assembly and those who have provided the intellectual and social impetus for this gathering. To Casey Davis Kaufman, Madeleine Charney, Rory Litwin, Eira Tansey and those of you I don't yet know, I want to give credit for committing to the idea that the work of maintaining archives and libraries now also includes providing for their survival. This is not a new idea, but it takes courage to push it forward in distracted and confusing times.
  3. 3. under Fascism, but they exist also for those writers who have fled or been exiled; they exist even for writers working in countries where civil liberty prevails. 1 The Courage to Write the Truth It seems obvious that whoever writes should write the truth in the sense that he ought not to suppress or conceal truth or write something deliberately untrue. He ought not to cringe before the powerful, nor betray the weak. It is, of course, very hard not to cringe before the powerful, and it is highly advantageous to betray the weak. To displease the possessors means to become one of the dispossessed. To renounce payment for work may be the equivalent of giving up the work, and to decline fame when it is offered by the mighty may mean to decline it forever. This takes courage. Times of extreme oppression are usually times when there is much talk about high and lofty matters. At such times it takes courage to write of low and ignoble matters such as food and shelter for workers; it takes courage when everyone else is ranting about the vital importance of sacrifice. When all sorts of honors are showered upon the peasants it takes courage to speak of machines and good stock feeds which would lighten their honorable labor. When every radio station is blaring that a man without knowledge or education is better than one who has studied, it takes courage to ask: better for whom? When all the talk is of perfect and imperfect races, it takes courage to ask whether it not hunger and ignorance and war that produce deformities. And it also takes courage to tell the truth about oneself, about one’s own defeat. Many of the persecuted lose their capacity for seeing their own mistakes. It seems to them that the persecution itself is the greatest injustice. The persecutors are wicked simply because they persecute; the persecuted suffer because of their goodness. But this goodness has been beaten, defeated, suppressed; it was therefore a weak goodness, a bad, indefensible, unreliable goodness. For it will not do to grant that goodness must be weak as rain must be wet. It takes courage to say that the good were defeated not because they were good, but because they were weak. Naturally, in the struggle with falsehood we must write the truth, and this truth must not be a lofty and ambiguous generality. When it is said of someone, “He spoke the truth,” this implies that some people or many people or least one person said something unlike the truth—a lie or a generality—but he spoke the truth, he said something practical, factual, undeniable, something to the point. It takes little courage to mutter a general complaint, in a part of the world where complaining is still permitted, about the wickedness of the world and the triumph of barbarism, or to cry boldly that the victory of the human spirit is assured. There are many who pretend that cannons are aimed at truth. 2 The Keenness to Recognize the Truth Since it is hard to write the truth because truth is everywhere suppressed, it seems to most people to be a question of character whether the truth is written or not written. They believe that courage alone suffices. They forget the second obstacle: the difficulty of finding the truth. It is impossible to assert that the truth is easily ascertained. First of all we strike trouble in determining what truth is worth the telling. For example, before the eyes of the whole world one great civilized nation after the other falls into barbarism. Moreover, everyone knows that the domestic war which is being waged by the most ghastly methods can at any moment be converted into a foreign war which may well leave our continent a heap of ruins. This, undoubtedly, is one truth, but there are others. Thus, for example, it is not untrue that chairs have seats and that rain falls downward. Many poets write truths of this sort. They are like a painter adorning the walls of a sinking ship with a still life. Our first difficulty does not trouble them and their consciences are clear. Those in power cannot corrupt them, but neither are they disturbed by the cries of the oppressed; they go on painting. The senselessness of their behavior engenders in them a “profound” pessimism which they sell at good prices; yet such pessimism would be more fitting in one who observes these masters and their sales. At the same time it is not easy to realize that their truths are truths about chairs or rain; they usually sound like truths about important things. But on closer examination it is possible to see that they say merely: a chair is a chair; and: no one can prevent the rain from falling down. They do not discover the truths that are worth writing about. On the other hand, there are some who deal only with the most urgent tasks, who embrace poverty and do not fear rulers, and who nevertheless cannot find the truth. These lack knowledge. They are full of ancient superstitions, with notorious prejudices that in bygone days were often put into beautiful words. The world is too complicated for them; they do not know the facts; they do not perceive relationships. In addition to temperament, knowledge, which can be acquired, and methods, which can be learned, are needed. What is necessary for all writers in this age of perplexity and lightening change is a knowledge of the materialistic dialectic of economy and history. This knowledge can be acquired from books and from practical instruction, if the necessary diligence is applied. Many truths can be discovered in simpler fashion, or at least portions of truths, or facts that lead to the discovery of truths. Method is good in all inquiry, but it is possible to make discoveries without using any method—indeed, even without inquiry. But by such a casual procedure one does not come to the kind of presentation of truth which will enable men to act on the basis of that presentations. People who merely record little 3Saturday, May 13, 17 Last Wednesday I walked through the aisles of our library in San Francisco, wondering what I would fit in my one piece of baggage and one personal item if I had to pack for a new geological era. Today I won't present a luggage manifest, but I'll talk about some considerations that may help us get closer to making one. This talk is, for me, about working through some ideas, and I think these ideas will change greatly after hearing all of you speak, so please view what I say as tentative, an experiment of sorts. It's also influenced by rereading the essay shown, which I'm happy to share with any of you.
  4. 4. U.S. President's Materials Policy Commission, Resources for Freedom, v. 1, 1951; excerpt from preface, probably written by Eric Hodgins 4Saturday, May 13, 17 We have been collecting exuberantly (and, if we're librarians, we might have been deaccessioning exuberantly) and we've been providing more access than ever before. Exposing collections online sensitizes the world to the importance of the record, and we've been feeding an accelerating circle where access enables visibility which tends to lead to new acquisition. And now we're drinking from the digital firehose and collecting a spectrum of documentation ranging from the deeply personal to the cosmological. This is a great development in human history, though we have not yet imagined the fragrances of amnesia that will inevitably arise in the presence of voluminous memory. And I have a hunch that we are collecting at this breathless rate largely because we can, not necessarily because we should.
  5. 5. East Warren Avenue & Cadieux Road, Detroit, 2011 5Saturday, May 13, 17 Eira Tansey has eloquently asked us to "consider for whom and why we preserve in the first place." I would turn the semantic compass a few degrees and ask us to take up the question of why [and for whom] we collect. In my field, for example, which is moving images, discussions of "why archive?" often circle around an empty center. Aside from obvious business or legal reasons, we have generally not openly considered the reasons why we collect these difficult objects. In fact, since the beginning of the modern film archives movement in the 1930s, there's been a steady retreat away from answering (or even asking) that question. Instead we've been content with triumphalist case studies geared for public consumption that purportedly explain the reasons for collecting, without looking critically at the real reason: cinephilia. And while I don't want to suggest that we shouldn't love the records we collect, we should certainly realize that love for records does not make repositories more sustainable or resilient. Now more than ever, we need to make the process of collecting (and preservation) goal-driven. As we prepare for times when our collecting and access decisions may sometimes be dictated by externalities we can't control, I'm hoping we won't lose sight of what we want our archives to be. Because regardless of which collections we prioritize for preservation, our most important task is to preserve the archives itself — by that I mean preserve the legitimacy of the archival endeavor and keep it from fading away or being starved into extinction.
  6. 6. 6Saturday, May 13, 17 The advent of the Anthropocene would seem to bring jeopardy in many forms: • climate and cataclysm • financial and social precarity • unsettled social and political climate • public indifference • official or populist hostility None of these are new dangers, but they might be dangerous on a greater scale.
  7. 7. I could not forget, in an age of space-ships, world wars & publicity, that the real things of the country were hidden & inward. (Van Wyck Brooks, 1961) 7Saturday, May 13, 17 While one of the archivist's less celebrated skills is the ability to hide, to keep collections safe by staying under the radar, it's dangerous to focus defensively. Archives exist to be difficult in difficult times, to oppose presentism. We should collect against the stream of dominant opinion, of power. A surprising number of people accept a reductive view of archives -- that we are organs of power, that we exist to limit free agency. But quite a number of archives exist to provide records that may counter consensus, to enable historical interventions, and perhaps in the case of the Anthropocene to enable environmental interventions.
  8. 8. Lithia Park, Ashland, Oregon, 2006Burrowing Owl, Imperial County, California, March 2017 8Saturday, May 13, 17 We should both think and collect countercyclically. Because archives are inherently countercyclical. If not already, archives might see themselves as sites of resistance, and collecting as resistance to amnesia and historical oversimplification, though we still have much to learn about what it really means to resist. But thinking of ourselves this way turns much of what we do into manifestations of optimism. Optimism and privilege often coexist, and optimism may be easier for those of us who have the freedom and resources to move to higher ground. Water can be harder to resist than authoritarianism.
  9. 9. 9Saturday, May 13, 17 I hoped to come to New York with collections development scenarios to float for discussion and criticism. But after some reflection I realized that this was exactly what I should not do. Or at least not get into too much specificity at this time. Because all any of us can do is confer and provoke. But there are still things to say.
  10. 10. protectionofcult00uscorich 10Saturday, May 13, 17 First, some of us are already experiencing some of the dangers and constraints we tend to associate with the Anthropocene. How are we responding to them? Have we taken the messages of Katrina and Sandy to heart? Many of us are experiencing the difficulty of keeping drives spinning. And we all know of collections without long-term homes, collections rotting in tropical environments, unfunded collections, repositories in political jeopardy. What lessons are there in contemporary experience that we could learn, especially about business as usual, about sheltering in the same places? We also must be aware of Archival traces that signal the Anthropocene's onset, respond to them, and also collect them.
  11. 11. Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, Inyo County, Calif. 11Saturday, May 13, 17 What should we enclose within the "protective envelope?" Architects use this phrase to describe archival buildings, but there are other dimensions of protection. Collections need to be protected, but so does the archival process itself. And so do the subjects of records: archivists of social struggle work hard to protect the identities and profiles of activists whose safety might be at risk. And records may be in political or legal jeopardy. You may have heard that Internet Archive is building a mirror of its collections in Canada. You will hear from others this weekend on crowdsourcing efforts to preserve research data held in government repositories. And there are questions about the survivability of archives (especially digital archives that require a constant supply of electricity) in the Anthropocene. What kinds of "protective envelopes" do we need, and which are most likely to succeed? Will we need to plant a thousand seedlings knowing that only half a hundred will survive?
  12. 12. I-5 Northbound, Grapevine, California 12Saturday, May 13, 17 Should we collect for immediate utility, modeling our acquisition and retention policies on a scheme akin to the Whole Earth Catalog? Should usefulness become our prime criterion? How would we define usefulness in an emergency that takes years to unfold (I am purposely not referring to James Howard Kunstler's misanthropic and racist book THE LONG EMERGENCY). A short-term view might be to focus on collections that are actionable; whose preservation seems tied to immediate dilemmas and prospects. But measuring "actionability" isn't simple.
  13. 13. Abandoned county bookmobile, West side of I-5, Kern County, Calif. ≈ 2000-2012 13Saturday, May 13, 17 Can we maintain existing collections in the manner to which we're now accustomed, or should we "pack lightly" for a quick getaway? I'm especially concerned with the destiny of community collections, often located in resource-poor areas. While most of us might agree that communities should own and physically control their cultural assets, what kind of protective envelopes are useful and appropriate to this kind of control? DIY archives, community archives, feminist libraries and archives, non-institutional collections and even institutional collections unsure of how much support they can muster from their overlords have been thinking about this for some time. Are these kinds of archives more sustainable, or will they be obliged to endure engulfment? Are they equipped to move with their communities? Should they survive if their communities do not?
  14. 14. Robert C, Binkley, Manual on Methods of Reproducing Research Materials, 1936, p. 198 14Saturday, May 13, 17 Not all of us represent established institutions. Can we acknowledge room for individual initiative? Robert Binkley promoted possibilities for independent scholars and archivists. He suggested in the 1930s that individuals could collect where institutions could not, and imagined community-based historical repositories.
  15. 15. 15Saturday, May 13, 17 Does it make more sense to work on controllable small projects or huge ones? My hunch is that there is no one solution. We are talking about an ecosystem of archival collections, not as presently exists, but an ecosystem that tries to adjust to future needs.
  16. 16. 16Saturday, May 13, 17 — Could we elaborate a new ecosystem that allows for caves, Svalbard-type centralized repositories, lending institutions, community centers, centralized clouds, oral tradition, Fahrenheit 451-type memory — There are of course dangers of centralization (Svalbard, Canadian ice core collection) — We might wish to dispense with the drive to collect and centralize? What would that mean? — Can we actually deal with distributing authority over valued collections and distributing the collections themselves? We might build cooperatively owned and controlled regional repositories near population centers. Brewster Kahle's decentralized web initiative might be a good model. Or a blockchain registry.
  17. 17. http-// tk-labels/ 17Saturday, May 13, 17 Might we develop a labeling system like CC or Mukurtu to signal that a particular record holds a high priority for distributed preservation? Then when people touch it they can grab a copy.
  18. 18. The Protection of Cultural Resources Against the Hazards of War, p. 2 18Saturday, May 13, 17 Will Archives and organizations in different areas fulfill different functions? Will there be deep physical and digital repositories in areas where cheap renewable energy is available? Will interior-coastal relationships start to resemble client-server architecture? Or might we think of restructuring the relationships between densely settled and rural areas? Will there be decentralized "thin" collections maintained for reference and access, with thicker ones hidden away? I think this is already happening in our library system, with remote storage and shared print initiatives.
  19. 19. near McKenzie Pass, Oregon, 2014 19Saturday, May 13, 17 Do we want to construct hierarchies of what we should collect? This would seem obvious if the boat will soon be waiting at the dock, but I would suggest that what we are starting to think about now is just the beginning of a long process. Yes, let's plan and collect carefully, but we are just starting to engage in a long struggle. We are in a time when science sits in the foreground of our concerns about the future. Does this mean we should place highest priority on collecting and conserving scientific data? But we are also in a time whose key story is one of inequality maintained by violence. And an era that has lasted for some time in which displacement and migration are key experiences, where "home" hides behind diaspora. Does this affect our priorities? Will we be able to care for the records of the Alaskan village of Kivalina when Kivalina is underwater? There will be thousands of Kivalinas. [If Google can help with anything, it could start shooting "Coastal View"]
  20. 20. "In this diary are only facts, not opinions!" (Ernst Prelinger, "war diary," ca. June 1944) 20Saturday, May 13, 17 And then the trend of recordkeeping has changed in recent years. While institutional records are being created as never before, the real growth is in personal archival records. Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars....[discuss]
  21. 21. Partial content list of Westinghouse time capsule, New York World's Fair, 1939-40 storyofwestingho00pendrich 21Saturday, May 13, 17 I have a few cautions. There is the precedent of the time capsule, where one concentrated repository purports to contain canonical evidence of a civilization. Time capsules aren't about interweaving preservation and access; instead they constitute burial without the assurance of disinterment. Their builders make arbitrary inclusion and exclusion decisions that tell their own story in retrospect. They are fascinating, but perfect examples of the way we don't want to build archives or construct histories.
  22. 22. Mackaye Family papers, Rauner Special Collections Library, Dartmouth College, box 159, folder 10 22Saturday, May 13, 17 Decentralization is an attractive strategy and good, but not pure. I think of the progressive, often anarchist-minded regional planners of the 1920s and 1930s. They believed that cities were dangerous for people to live in (as they indeed were for many) and promoted decentralization as a healthier and more humane alternative. Benton Mackaye's Appalachian Trail wasn't originally conceived of as a hiking trail, but a pedestrian spine intended to link self-sufficient, mutual-aid-focused communities of young workers along the Appalachian ridges. The New Deal came and planners were co-opted into government. World War II turned decentralization into a means of distributing industrial production throughout the landscape so that it could not all be destroyed by enemy bombing. And after the war decentralization morphed into state-sponsored urban sprawl, often reinscribing racism into the landscape.
  23. 23. 23Saturday, May 13, 17 There is a mindset that resembles Cold War civil defense. We may in our mind construct threat scenarios that involve environmental dangers or political antagonists. But we also need to design around vulnerabilities that arise out of our relations with those closer to us. Family and dynastic conflicts. Warring flavors of activism. Local disputes or factionalisms that become impacted. Our friends can be more dangerous than our enemies. We must make sure that distributed archives do not become warring fiefdoms. We see this now. If we take refuge in thousands of holes, let's make sure they are networked and noncompetitive.
  24. 24. At stake...are not the worlds these collections claim to represent, but...the worlds they invite us to imagine & even realize #ArchiveFail (@bspalmieri, 2014-11-10) 24Saturday, May 13, 17 To be less dramatic: yes, we should collect what is useful to the future, but we should not get caught up in the trap of pure utilitarianism. The parts of the record thought least useful have often turned out to the most actionable as time passes. The most appropriate response to the obliteration or erasure of ecosystems and biota is not to echo with archival erasure (or omission) even if the reasons may seem good at the time. Appraisal decisions often look terribly shortsighted only a few years after they're made. I'm not sure the gravity and finality of the decisions we may be forced to make in our lifetimes will help us make better decisions. As today, we will likely be left with what we COULD do, not necessarily with what we WANTED to do. And we must be clear to distinguish environmental pragmatism from presentism, seeing the future through the prism of present-day values and concepts. To oppose presentism is to resist a facile futurism, to oppose set ideas about what we THINK will happen.
  25. 25. OPPORTUNITIES 25Saturday, May 13, 17
  26. 26. Permaculture diagram, after Bill Mollison, David Holmgren and their associates 26Saturday, May 13, 17 Here are the permaculture principles as elaborated by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in Tasmania. While I would not take them literally or simplistically, they are a great framework for archival work. And many of the principles around this "clock" are actionable. Permaculture encourages using the outputs of one system as the inputs to another, which of course is the perfect paradigm for archival work. Ultimately it's a rejection of the cycle of cultural production that goes produce, distribute, forget. Instead it helps us consider integrating archival concerns into the making of culture; to modulate authorship and production with archiving. Both authorship and archival activity constitute creative acts. And both need to be recognized as necessary labor; the labor of making should not be seen separately from the labor of maintaining. Integrating production with preservation recognizes that makers cannot always throw the burden of preservation onto third parties. We can't create complex and expensive problems for archivists to fix ex post facto, but we could bring them into the production workflow to advise on precautionary tactics.
  27. 27. Richmond District, San Francisco, 2015 27Saturday, May 13, 17 I want to confess that while I condemn environmental injustices and the relegation of many people to a precarious and dangerous future, the prospect of human adaptation kindles my optimism. Cooperative forms of adaptation are a great opportunity for all species, and I hope I live to witness at least some of them occur. Humans are also extremely adaptive, if archives and archival workflows can adapt, their future contours are far from fixed. Apocalyptic scenarios may not be universal scenarios. And we need to reconcile how a concern for environmental justice and a sense of catastrophism can coexist in our minds. Because catastrophism can be immobilizing, and it distracts us from working toward the alternate futures we desire. Actually alternative futures surround us; contemporary archival theory is at this very moment infused with alternative temporalities, as we're seeing for instance with Afrofuturism and what Bethany Nowviskie calls its "counter-insurgencies to inevitability". It would be a pity if we let our awareness of danger give way to catastrophic, fatalistic thinking. This will ultimately turn us into agents of capital, not of culture.
  28. 28. 28Saturday, May 13, 17 There will be situations where we need to act quickly and with resolution. I saw how many archivists here jumped during Hurricane Sandy. But there will also be many situations that are chronic rather than acute, where there will be time to experiment and see how different ways play out and interact. The current imperfect system of collecting strategies has time to adapt, if hasty decisions aren't made. And I need to ask — after some 20 years that digital technologies have been in the mainstream, have we really come to terms with them? If we haven't nailed digital longevity and all of its associated problems, and if MPLP is linked with overcollecting, I would suggest that we're still in the sandbox.
  29. 29. 29Saturday, May 13, 17 I also want to say that loss can be formative. The histories we investigate most eagerly today are often histories of losses that we want to remediate, erasures that we hope to repair. The crime of erasure and the experience of loss can powerfully stimulate the work of artists and historians. While we should never make peace with erasure, we might get better at coming to terms with the inevitability of archival loss. This might not mean welcoming it, but it could mean accepting its inevitability. I do not wish to equate this with the need to address overcollecting, but the time is right to minimize the problems we are creating for our descendants.
  30. 30. Nathaniel Hawthorne, "Earth's Holocaust" (1844), Lilly Library, Indiana University 30Saturday, May 13, 17 "Once upon a time — but whether in the time past or time to come is a matter of little or no moment — this wide world had become so overburdened with an accumulation of worn-out trumpery, that the inhabitants determined to rid themselves of it by a general bonfire." Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1844 story "Earth's Holocaust," one of the greatest anti-archival tales, imagines a moment when the world wants to rid itself of its past, and builds a giant bonfire. He is careful to say that intellect itself cannot serve for humans to distinguish right from wrong. Similarly, we cannot look to archives themselves for the clues they need to survive. We need to look to the communities we hope to serve.
  31. 31. 31Saturday, May 13, 17 If archives are to ride the rising waves, it won't be as arks fully caulked to repel leaks, but as permeable wetlands capable of assimilating ebbs and flows — venues where hospitality is as valued as preservation, where people interact with records and records with people, where past, present and future transfuse one another. This is our most urgent and exciting purpose.
  32. 32. Red-Tailed Hawk nesting, Great Highway & Taraval St., San Francisco, June 2015 @footage 32Saturday, May 13, 17 Thank you.
  33. 33. 33Saturday, May 13, 17