I’ve long had an interest in the end of the world. The 1980s, the core decade of my childhood, was replete with books and film about pre, post, and mid apocalypses - nuclear, robot, and otherwise. Over the past decade, my interest in this topic has gained momentum again, aligning with the birth of my children and the ever-looming sense that humanity has done too much to the world, and to ourselves, to expect that we won't pilot this ship directly into the iceberg. Of course, during this decade i’ve also switched from research-land to library-land, with responsibilities that swirl around protecting humanity from losing the knowledge we’ve gained over a relatively short period of time.
These losses have happened in the past - we’re constantly reminded in library-land school that the great Library of Alexandria was once a global center of knowledge that was lost, apparently not due to the apocryphal fire, but due to purging of academics and loss of funding (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Library_of_Alexandria). Regardless of cause, the loss resulted, surely, in loss of information and knowledge gathered over centuries. Some of that information has come back to us, more than likely some of it will never come back. There are plenty of other examples of catastrophic losses of information in humanity’s past, some slow motion losses, some sudden. Some losses local, some regional, some national. Decades and centuries later we have the benefit of hindsight and can say to ourselves, “we’re doing fairly well now*” and the stories of knowledge lost now serve more a role of Preservation Parables than actual examples of why preservation is important now.
Of course, there are loads of us out there thinking about preservation of digital and analog things, and we think about this at different time and space scales. But some recent reading and a re-engagement with that apocalyptic fascination of yore has me thinking about a particular point in time around an apocalyptic event that i don’t hear discussed much, if at all, in our field of preservation and access** to information - how information preservation might impact recovery from catastrophe.
Take the figure here from Baum et al. (2018) - the trajectories presented represents, on a time series, theoretical current societal trajectories, catastrophe related trajectories, and, important to this discussion, a variety of recovery trajectories. Baum et al. discuss recovery from catastrophe to regain civilization’s current agricultural or industrial condition, but little is dicussed about the inflection point where catastrophe meets recovery. The question I have is this: what role does/could curation and preservation of information and knowledge play in affecting the inflection point? How does access to information affect the rate of recovery?
Let’s look at a version of these curves a little more closely? Currently, we have digital preservation thinking for cultural heritage happening at a few places along this curve.***
Short Term - This is backups, local restores, and maybe some mirroring to other institutions (cf Metaarchive) or regions (as is commonly allowed with cloud services).
Long Term - This is, it seems to me, what we typically think about when we discuss digital preservation. One of the core assumptions about this kind of preservation is that the current (or more advanced) state of technological infrastructure will be available when we need to retrieve our content.
Super-Long Term - this is not usually a time scale or set of conditions we in cultural heritage typically (I think?) consider seriously, but it is a time scale and set of conditions that folks like the GCRI and the Long Now Foundation take seriously. One of the core assumptions here seems to be that there will be a loss of access to our current technological infrastructure, and that rediscovery of knowledge requires considering how we can share information at very long time scales. This might look like a reconstruction of technological infrastructure to help provide access to content (like for a DVD made of special materials) or deciphering a physical (usually) information storage system in order to access critical knowledge.
There is a way of thinking about preservation that is missing from these approaches to preservation that are fixed at temporal scales. How could an event-based conception of preservation change the way we think about curation of, preservation of, and access to content? In some ways, the disaster recovery plans we often have in place for cultural heritage institutions address a type of event based need. Typically, though, these disasters (though disastrous indeed) are relatively contained in space and time to such events as a water leak, fire, or temporary power grid disruption. By bumping up the severity of the disruption event, we are forced to think about similar issues (ie, if the power grid goes out for a year, what would we do?), but also to think about larger issues (ie, if the power grid goes out for a year, how do we rebuild the power grid?).
Should we seriously plan for major societal collapse events from a cultural heritage perspective? I think the answer to this is “yes”, in the same way that the answer to “should I earthquake proof my house” is “yes” - the probability of the event is low, but the potential impact of not preparing is high enough that it is worth putting in some effort now. If the answer to this question is “yes” then a whole host of follow on questions raise their heads, including, but not limited to:
How to make information/knowledge available given a disruption of current technological infrastructure? If there is limited electricity, if there is loss of internet, how do we access digital content?
What information/knowledge might need to be available in such a disruption? How could this information affect the trajectory of the recovery curve? How does this need change regionally? Based on event type (earthquake, tsunami, war)?
If we assume that we will be unable (or severely challenged) to access digital content, how do we format the information for access?
What is the right balance of technical vs. art vs. sociological vs. ??? content for this corpus of recovery-related information/knowledge?
Are there events we (humanity) has experienced relatively recently that can help answer these and other questions, or that can raise other important questions?
There are so many other questions here, and so many assumptions embedded in the above. I’m interested in continuing this line of thought and doing so in conversation with my broader communities. Leave comments, email, tweet, visit my house - let’s chat.
*I know, this isn’t true, we’re not doing fine. It's just, we sort of tell ourselves we are fine in order to avoid thinking about how treacherous things are. Thats a separate blog post, but i get it.
**I know, preservation and access are different things. I get it. But they are coupled. Again, different blag post.
***I would be delighted to hear from archivists where they think their preservation activities and planning fit on this curve (and plan to engage my local community on the topic when i can get them in a room).