After last week’s post, I decided to further explore the “rabbit hole” of porn in the archives. In “Digital Archives and the History of Pornography,” Sarah Bull argues that porn historians must “become archival magpies” to glean information on “authorship, material production, and consumption” (402). Mixed animal metaphors aside, Bull casts digital technologies as a tool through which historians can – in a sense – accession, process, trace the provenance of, and publicize their materials. Historians can act as historiographers and amateur archivists.
These symbiotic roles beg the question – why/how are historians of taboo/obscure topics (e.g., pornography) forced to chase down either seemingly nonexistent materials or riffle through unidentified primary sources? Why/how have our social stigmas, cultural norms, and political regulations (e.g., homophobia, Puritan ethics, censorship) shaped the way we compile and organize our archives?
Bull examines the way online databases and physical archives resolve issues of research overlap. Academics tend to poorly cite their archives; Bull observes that they also “rarely describe the full body of materials examined, or how to locate them” (403). Historians must engage in a free exchange of bibliographies to fill gaps and, arguably, build an informal “archival community.” Comparable to what Mark Greene suggests in “The Power of Archives” (fortifying an archivist identity), historians must discover a greater sense of collectivity – “the labor involved in researching pornography’s past could be significantly reduced if scholars pooled information about where and how to find extant primary sources” (404). Social media, sharing sites, and databases allow for more expediency and communication.
However, archivists would no longer be obliged to mediate exchanges between scholars. Besides “digital spaces,” what else can archives and archivists do to bring scholars of a particularly under-recognized field and their work into “closer conversation with one another” (404)?
“Photographs are not yet mediated by a database form that attempts to pin down the stories they capture” (115).
McKinney concludes that digitization must be “improvisational, open to revision and critique, and willfully imperfect in its management of considerations such as metadata” (117). Searching for “sexuality” might yield no results; searching for “porn” might produce images of sex wars protests; searching for “erotica” might generate images of sex with a “specious aura of antiquity” (125). Archival classification and the definition of “what is pornographic and what is fit for public consumption” goes beyond issues of presentism (125-6). Archives determine access, draw connections, and define borders. The act of processing – naming and arranging – shapes censorship policies, and will shape the ubiquity of sexual imagery. And what about the ethics of processing with respect to pornography? Issues of provenance, consent, publicity/privacy, access restrictions, and confidentiality must be negotiated.
"Raiders." The Atlantic. Accessed September 16, 2016. http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/10/raiders-of-the-lost-web/409210.
What does it mean to “archive” the Internet? “Archiving” is usually reserved for the act of backing up digital information, not the work of preservation in a physical repository. “Digital preservation” is itself an oxymoron depending on how you interpret it. Preservation ensures material is available in the long-term, but digital formats are finite. Digital preservationists are charged with maintaining both reformatted and “born-digital” content. As Helen Willa Samuels observes in our reading, “Who Controls the Past,” “changing technologies and communication patterns” continually alter the nature of our records and force us to fathom and gather material in a variety of formats (111). Thus, “archiving” the Internet – preserving it in its digital format – would include backing up digital information.
In her article “Raiders of the Lost Web,” Adrienne LaFrance discusses the significance of the Internet Archive and the necessity of re-conceptualizing the seeming perpetuity of digital information. Archivists must be mindful of their resources. The cost of digital storage (maintaining servers and databases) is much greater than the “passive” storage of materials in, for instance, a warehouse. “There are now no passive means of preserving digital information,” LaFrance quotes writer and digital historian Abby Rumsey. Web content is inherently ephemeral; the Internet was founded as a communications system, not as a place to store information.
Yet the Internet has become a place where information is stored without physicality (e.g., “the Cloud”) even while no concrete means exist for digital collections to be acquired and preserved. LaFrance points out that “in the print world, it took centuries to figure out what ought to be saved, how, and by whom.” What was lost in that time? The contents of the early web, our web, will likely disappear and be forgotten in the same manner.
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