Discommoded by the Archive

Our just-concluded stint as guest editors of Archive Journal’s new issue, entitled “Publishing the Archive,” has proven sobering and instructive, to say the least. Every piece in the issue calls attention to the daunting (and possibly insurmountable) challenges in the digital age of preserving archival materials in an ephemeral medium. Particularly enlightening in this regard is Jefferson Bailey’s “TAGOKOR: Biography of an Electronic Record,” which traces the protean life of a Korean War casualty file through sixty-plus years of digital evolution, from its origin as a set of 109,975 punch cards through a dizzying array of iterations and platforms to its present-day (and by no means final), web-mediated life a remove or two from the grid. The story of the archive’s life (or, more accurately, series of lives) is a cautionary tale to anyone harboring illusions about reliably preserving information in the face of technological progress. Or, as Bailey puts it, “Servile to the pull of technological change, the whims of human signification, and the longevity of printed errata, early electronic data files and digital archival records like TAGOKOR exist at a distinct intersection of documentation, mechanism, and technological reconstitution that discommode ideas of trustworthiness, decipherability, and explication.”

From 1950 into 1964, the TAGOKOR data was preserved on punch cards, and the legacy of that medium’s organization of information, lurking in the present-day record like cosmic background radiation, reminds us all of the power of mistaken assumptions about the future. “Curiously, prior to conversion the cards were sequenced by state, then by county within state, then alphabetically by individual name within county. This model was ‘dictated by past experience indicating that future research activity’ would be based on requests by state and county. This first moment of preservation reformatting thus offers an early glimpse of how administrative decision-making, along with expectations of research use, shape the arrangement of, and access to, the historical record.”

In November 1964, the record was converted to seven-track magnetic tape, and two copies were made. Subsequently, it was copied onto a nine-track tape, “EBCDIC file that is standard DOS labeled.” No one could read the tapes, however, as there was no program available to process the data, whose public-use version was a “well-worn printout of the record fields along with the attendant key file.” In 1989, the data was copied again, this time onto “an archival master 18-track, 27871 bpi, 3480 magnetic tape cartridge.” (I’m skipping over a lot of fun stuff here, like the EBCDIC-to-ASCII coding at one point causing every date-of-death entry to be rendered as an ampersand.)

With the emergence in the 1990s of the World Wide Web as an information resource, TAGOKOR made its tortuous way there as well, undergoing significant transmogrification. “TAGOKOR’s early appearance on the web reflects the characteristics of that medium—its quirks of design, methods of arrangement and access, and also its ephemerality. These websites provide their own parallel narrative of the retransmission and recontextualization of the TAGOKOR file.” Most interesting was a TAGOKOR-displaying web site entitled “The Ramblings of Whitey Reese,” the brief life of which began in 2000. “Viewing the many captures of the website over time, a contemporary user cannot help but feel a nostalgic charm, no doubt evoked by the animated gifs, the blinking ‘click here’ buttons, and the lengthy list of html tables—all reminders of early web design, syntax, and construction. That TAGOKOR’s reuse can be so historically situated, dependent upon the customs and visual aesthetics of early networked technologies, is a reminder of the file’s ongoing, alternate existence outside the custody of the National Archive.”

This whole saga—and I’m providing only a glimpse here at a fraction of the enchanting details in Bailey’s narrative—brings to mind Jerome McGann’s rueful realization, recounted in his A New Republic of Letters, that after half a lifetime of work, his best bet at preserving the University of Virginia’s ground-breaking Rossetti Archive in the face of technology’s constant change lay in printing out the entire site.

All of us working in digital publishing and preservation wrestle with these maddening issues; but the TAGOKOR saga, beginning as it does at the dawn of digitization, graphically highlights how mad it is to think of preservation as an act of forever suspending information in digital amber, never to be altered by storage media, bureaucratic practice, or relentless technological migration. There is no reason to think that the digital march will ever end, or even slow down, which means that the academy has to rigorously examine any illusions it may have that preservation in the analog sense is a realistic option. “And so the biography of TAGOKOR,” Bailey writes, “like all archival records, is one both already written and never completed, both continually becoming and terminally changeless, forever poised between incident and encoding, articulation and preservation, record and reinterpretation, finality and vitality.” For someone in my line of work, this is, by turns, tremendously depressing and tremendously exhilarating.

Which brings me to this.