“The archive is not one and the same as forms of remembrance, or as history. Manifesting itself in the form of traces, it contains the potential to fragment and destabilize either remembrance as recorded, or history as written.” Charles Merewether, The Archive, 2006:10.
For the fourth commission of New Archive Interpretations the focus is on the practical work that takes – or could take place - at Het Nieuwe Instituut.
When it moved to a new office space in 2015, Dutch-based architecture and urban design practice MVRDV (founded in 1993) decided to present its archive to Het Nieuwe Instituut. MVRDV is on Het Nieuwe Instituut’s list of ‘key archives’: architecture agencies that occupy a central position in the history of Dutch architecture. As such, these archives have priority in the active collection policy of the institute. Besides the various models, more than 80% of the archive consists of digital material: text documents, various types of images, videos and technical drawings. MVRDV’s digital archive is used by the institute’s conservators as a case study to explore aspects of digital archiving and preservation. Rather than focusing on traditional methods of selection and deletion, the aim will be to capture the various relations between different files, documents and people that could aid future preservation efforts.
In general an archive consists of documents. At first these documents had to be written or printed on paper (Hirtle 2000), but already at the beginning of the 20th century this assumption was challenged and a wider adoption of what a document could be became current. In 1951 documentalist Suzanne Briet even argued that an archive could include all kinds of objects, or even any physical or symbolic sign – her famous example being the antelope in a zoo – that were “intended to represent, to reconstruct, or to demonstrate a physical or conceptual phenomenon” (1951:7). In the past decades several court cases tried to argue (unsuccessfully) to include ‘instant messages’ (a type of online chat which offers real-time text transmission over the Internet) or other social networking software in evidence as documents (Hirtle 2000 and Balasubramani 2011b). The reason for the dismissal of these ‘documents’ in court is that they cannot easily, or more importantly with accuracy, be traced back to one person, or one specific computer for that matter. In another case, e-mail was said to be sufficiently authenticated ‘based on surrounding evidence’ (Balasubramani 2011a). What this means is that digital information is valued based on additional information and the relations attached to the main ‘document’.
Although it could be argued that contextual information has always been important to assess the value of documents (Levy 1994), a digital environment is inherently relational (Fuller 2005). As early as 1970 computer scientist Edgar F. Cobb conceived of a digital database that was based on a relational model of data, in which different connections could be made between different tables.* Even though relations and the value of looking at the environment in which something takes place are recognised, in most preservation methods attention is given to digital preservation of files, software, source code and documents, and little attention goes to the relations between these and other elements that are important for preserving a work, project or digital archive. Some of these relations can be significant, meaning that it is important to preserve them too. In other cases the relation should be maintained but single elements might be changed, for example, an image needs to be opened in Photoshop, but this could also be another programme as long as it performs in the same way. However, in other cases Photoshop might be an important reference for the work. But where are the people who created the documents, the software, the code, the projects and the archive for that matter? As rightly argued by Jardine and Kelty, “archives are never just about representation or preservation—they also perform, create, and remake collectives. They participate in governing just as much as they represent some reality or object of study”. How can we trace the relations between the ‘human hardware’ in and with the digital documents? In other words, how are people being reimagined and remade in the creation of archives and databases?
We asked designer, entrepreneur and expert on digital archives George Oates to reflect and think about ways of highlighting relations between documents, files, and people in digital archives. George has worked on and around the web since 1996, mainly focusing on the front-end of the web(sites). She is “an intelligent strategist, a fabricator of process, and a sensitive interaction designer. She is interested in all sorts of things, not limited to ubiquitous computing, curatorial practice and organic information systems”. Of particular interest to this particular commission, is her previous work from creating web software with a human voice, and inventing The Commons on Flickr, a program to help public institutions like The Library of Congress and the Smithsonian share photographs from their collections with the Flickr community.
*At the time, in the 1970s and 80s, the ‘database debates’ took place, discussing the difference and value between relational and networked databases. For more information see, for example, Castelle (2013) and for a historical reference of early developments in storage technology and its relation to data management, see Haigh (2009).
Balasubramani, Venkat. 2011a. “Massachusetts Supreme Court Finds Email Sufficiently Authenticated Based on Surrounding Evidence — Commonwealth v. Purdy.” Technology & Marketing Law Blog, 21 May.
Balasubramani, Venkat. 2011b. “Connecticut Court of Appeals Tackles Authentication of Facebook Messages — State v. Eleck.” Technology & Marketing Law Blog, 19 August.
Briet, Suzanne. 2006. What is documentation? (Qu’est-ce que la documentation?). Translated and edited by Ronald E. Day and Laurent Martinet with Hermina G.B. Anghelescu. Lanham, MC: Scarecrow Press.
Castelle, Michael. 2013. “Relational and Non-Relational Models in the Entextualization of Bureaucracy.” Computational Culture. A Journal of Software Studies, Issue three.
Codd, Edgar F. 1970. “A Relational Model of Data for Large Shared Data Banks.” Communications of the ACM Vol. 13, Nr. 6, pp. 277–387.
Fuller, Matthew. 2005. Media Ecologies. Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Haigh, Thomas. 2009. “How the Data Got its Base: Information Storage Software in the 1950s and 1960s.” IEEE Annals in the History of Computing, October-December, pp. 7–25.
Hirtle, Peter B. 2010. “Archival Authenticity in a Digital Age”. In Authenticity in a Digital Age, edited by Abby Smith. Washington: Council on Library and Information Resources, pp. 8–23.
Jardine, Boris and Christopher Kelty. 2016. “Preface: The Total Archive.” Limn, The Total Archive, Issue 6, March.
Levy, David M. 1994. “Fixed or Fluid? Document Stability and New Media.” European Conference on Hypertext Technology 1994 Proceedings. New York, NJ: Association for Computing Machinery, pp. 24–31.