Issues of Responsibility and Opportunity in Digital Archiving

By rbron246

Thinking a great deal lately about the concept of the archive and specifically digital archiving, I recently spent a morning in the Condé Nast Research Library and was interested to see how/where these issues might be at play. In conversation, the senior librarian informed me that the library operates separately from the archive and described the difference as such: the archive serves as the center for preservation while the library provides access to information. While this sounds like a simple and practical divide, the idea was further complicated when I asked about articles published only online. Who handles the preservation of these articles that must make up a huge contribution to the collection of these media brands? She smiled somewhat ruefully and said she wasn’t sure. Not only did the library have no involvement with this process but the librarian actually said she was too apprehensive to even ask questions. With only three librarians, and one other part-time staff member, she said they didn’t have the resources to tackle that issue if it was raised. I was interested in this division between the archive and library and asked some further questions about photo requests, receiving yet another vague response. The librarian informed me that they had “some photo records” and could respond to “some” requests leading me to believe that the divide between the two departments isn’t quite as strict as was originally portrayed. The interaction got me thinking about issues of responsibility in terms of digital archiving.

Condé Nast has digitized the entirety of Vogue from the very first issue, an expensive undertaking that was outsourced to a different company. Currently, a yearly subscription costs $3,250. Digitizing is expensive and time-consuming and corporations like Condé Nast must decide what paper materials to digitize while also considering how to incorporate born digital materials into their archive. As of now, it is quite unclear how that is being handled.

The archive as a physical collection and theoretical concept forms a basis for much of scholarly research and when examined brings up issues of authority, authenticity, ownership, and policy. Attempts to define these objects of study get at the very nature of the disciplines they serve. Associate head of the humanities library at MIT, Marlene Manoff names various concepts of the archive such as the “social archive, the raw archive, the imperial archive, the postcolonial archive, the popular archive, the ethnographic archive, the geographical archive, the liberal archive, archival reason, archival consciousness, archive cancer, and the poetics of the archive”—a list which speaks to the way this concept has permeated many fields (11). Derrida in his influential Archive Fever, claims that the archive produces as much as it records the event. “The archive has always been a pledge, and like every pledge [gage], a token of the future. To put it more trivially: what is no longer archived in the same way is no longer lived in the same way” (18). Within this context the structure of the archive also determines what can be archived, and history and memory are then shaped by the technical processes of “archivization”.

These technical processes have seen huge transformations with recent advances in information technology. Manoff claims that the methods for transmitting information shape the nature of the knowledge that can be produced, and points to social theorist Adrian Mackenzie’s claim that the centrality of the archive to cyberspace stems from the fact that existence in virtual culture is premised on a live connection. In Mackenzie’s phrasing, “to die is to be disconnected from access to the archives, not jacked-in or not in real time” (10). In this culture of connectedness, there is a new kind of instant archivization where the moment of production and preservation happen at once.

This situation leads to two potential opposing issues. On the one hand we are producing very vulnerable digital records at an alarming pace, however; if digital archiving efforts prove effective we could end up with a more complete historical record than ever before, an information overload.

Information consultant, Terry Kuny, commented on this situation fifteen years ago,

As we move into the electronic era of digital objects it is important to know that there are new barbarians at the gate and that we are moving into an era where much of what we know today, much of what is coded and written electronically, will be lost forever. We are, to my mind, living in the midst of digital Dark Ages; consequently, much as monks of times past, it falls to librarians and archivists to hold to the tradition which reveres history and the published heritage of our times.

Kuny places the responsibility for this future preservation work on librarians and archivists, and it seems that in terms of the opposing dilemma—information overloadthese same professionals would take center stage. Manoff points out that archival work is “about making fine discriminations to identify what is significant from a mass of data. These kinds of distinctions are also central to the work of librarians and archivists” (Manoff 19). However issues of digital preservation have far-reaching implications relevant to almost every discipline, and one of the biggest issues currently facing digital archiving is a lack of a clear path or a defined sense of responsibility as I saw at Condé Nast.

In Scarcity and Abdundance: Preserving the Past in a Digital Era, Roy Rosenzweig points to an absence of process in digital archiving. “Over centuries, a complex (and imperfect) system for preserving the past has emerged. Digitization has unsettled that system of responsibility for preservation, and an alternate system has not emerged. In the meantime cultural and historical objects are being permanently lost” (745). He discusses historians’ lack of attention to these issues, in part due to an assumption that these are “technical” problems outside of the purview of scholars in the humanities and social sciences. Manoff points out that, “archival discourse has also become a way to address some of the thorny issues of disciplinary and interdisciplinary knowledge production and the artificial character of disciplinary boundaries” (11). The most important and difficult issues of digital preservation are social, cultural, economic, political, and legal—issues humanists should excel at. Yet this professional division between historians and archivists leads to a confusion of responsibility that seems to go beyond solely this historian/archivist split. Within the discourse surrounding archives, libraries, museums and archives are often conflated and there is confusion not only concerning the overarching questions of how and what to save but also who will be doing it. Digital documents are disrupting our traditional system of publication, dissemination, and preservation. Digitization challenges our notion of ownership, who owns the materials and thus who is responsible for their preservation. Licensed and centrally controlled digital content erodes the library’s ability and responsibility to preserve the past. Why preserve something you do not own?

Rosenzweig ends his discussion, pointing to “one of the most vexing and interesting features of the digital era…the way it unsettles traditional arrangements and forces us to ask basic questions that have been there all along” (760). Digital preservation and the challenges it presents open up an opportunity to re-think disciplinary boundaries, to potentially form greater cross-disciplinary connections, and in doing so strengthen our own field. One thing is for certain, there isn’t time to wait for a perfect solution and if seen as an opportunity for joint action, this recreation of the processes of preservation can be an exciting opportunity. Let’s not avoid asking the questions that need to be asked.


Derrida, J. & Prenowitz, E. (1995). “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression” Diacritics 25(2): 13

Manoff, Marlene. “Theories Of The Archive From Across The Disciplines.”portal: Libraries and the Academy 4, no. 1 (2004): 9-25.

Rosenzweig, R. (2003). “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era” The American Historical Review 108(3)


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