The Magic of Archives: A Reading List

I’m thrilled to present this week’s Reading List in collaboration with Samantha Abrams, an archivist and great friend. I’d planned to curate something about the importance and changing role of archiving—an oft-misunderstood or overlooked science—but I didn’t have enough in my longform arsenal. Cue Sam. I reached out to her via Twitter, asking her if she’d be willing to pass along pertinent articles, essays and interviews she’d encountered as she studied for her master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin’s School of Library and Information Studies. Sam understood immediately what I was looking for: nothing overly technical, but not condescending or simplified, either.

I spent over a year as an archivist’s assistant, working with the records collectors in a particular branch at the National Institutes of Health. My focus: digitizing records from the late 1980s and early ’90s. My favorite moments: reading someone’s journal from the 1970s and collecting documents for Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. I felt like a detective. Archiving isn’t my calling, but I loved my mentors and their serious, inspired work.

On the other hand: You know the look someone gets in their eye when someone really, really loves something? Sam gets that look in her eye, because she loves her work. She has interned at the Library of Congress. She’s the first and only archivist for Culver’s. She’s kind of a genius.

Sam sees outreach as a part of her role as an archivist. Archivists are no longer stuffed into cubicles, scanning and sorting—although that can be part of their job description!—but out saving the World Wide Web, using their best judgement to decide what’s important to preserve and what isn’t. And that requires engagement with the wider world. Here, Sam is genuinely excited to share her expertise with the Longreads community, and I couldn’t be more grateful. I hope (we hope!) that you learn something new and surprising.

Sam’s Pick
1. “Raiders of the Lost Web.” (Adrienne LaFrance, The Atlantic, October 2015)

The internet never forgets—or does it? Kevin Vaughan and his tech-savvy son rebuild his 34-part project, “The Crossing,” about a little-known tragedy in rural Colorado.

Em’s Pick
2. “Why Can’t I Be You? Lisa Darms.” (Amy Rose Spiegel, Rookie, December 2013)

Archiving is punk rock, literally. You’ll find Lisa Darms, artist and archivist, in New York City overseeing the Downtown Collection (“a set of videos documenting punk culture in New York City in the 1970s”) and the Riot Grrrl Collection, among others:

…We have a very broad concept of what a “document” is, so we’ve got a lot of unusual things like stage sets; T-shirts; and functional objects, like a skateboard with Fight Homophobia stickers all over it from Outpunk [the first record label entirely devoted to queer punk bands]…Although most people think of zines when they think of the Riot Grrrl Collection (and we do have over 900 of them!), my favorite things are letters, drafts of lyrics, notebooks, and sketches—places where you can really see these teenage girls working through ideas and trying new things.

Interviews like these—outreach, just like Sam said!—are so important. Darms’ insights take away the mystique and abstraction surrounding archival work and show Rookie’s readers a way to integrate their interests (like art, photography and activism) into an unexpected career.

Sam’s Pick
3. “The Gravekeeper’s Paradox.” (David Shultz, Nautilus, March 2015)

A beautiful essay about David Gallagher, Chief of Conservation at Mount Auburn Cemetery.

Em’s Pick
4. “Snatching History’s Forgotten Women from the Evil Clutches of the Patriarchy.” (Emma Paling, Broadly, February 2016)

A super accessible, exciting example of contemporary archival work: Project Continua is dedicated to recording the oft-overlooked achievements of women in history and a “virtual laboratory” where students can connect with scholars.

Sam’s Pick
5. “The Cobweb.” (Jill Lepore, The New Yorker, January 2015)

Can archivists pinpoint the culprits behind the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17? Jill Lepore visits the physical headquarters of the Internet Archive in Presidio, CA, where founder Brewster Kahle wants to (virtually) build the second Library of Alexandria.

Em’s Pick
6. “Silence in the Library.” (Marie Elia, Queen Mobs, August 2015)

“Accidental archivist” Marie Elia on the power of archivists to “light the little lights”:

I think archives are a place where things don’t have to be resolved but can be allowed to speak in their urgent, messy, complicated, and honest ways. While the cataloger in me still loves the satisfaction of choosing the most precise subject term or creating the perfect catalog record, I also love the freedom and opportunity in archives to create room for myriad stories to be told in their own words. I think that’s a way for people to find themselves and their histories in a world that often denies their legitimacy or even their existence.

Sam’s Pick
7. “The Race to Preserve Disappearing Data.” (Bina Venkataraman, Boston Globe, May 2015)

Many films from the early 20th century have been lost to the ravages of time, floods, fires or neglect. Movies made today, digitally, are also at risk for a host of different reasons.

Bonus Pick
8.  “The Web as a Preservation Medium.” (Ed Summers, Inkdroid, November 2013)

“Here’s one I keep coming back to,” Sam wrote to me. The title is dry, but Summers’ quiet humor and straightforwardness will hook you. Rather than a straight lecture, Summers uses anecdotes from the history of the internet to back his thesis: “The web needs caring for…and we need to do it collectively.” Take out your notebook—you’re going to want to write this down.

You can watch the video of Summers’ presentation at the National Digital Forum or read the transcript.