Analogue Strikes Back

On 15 February 2016 a BBC news article announced that the UK is to continue printing and storing its laws on vellum. Hoorah shouted the man whose livelihood was secured. Boo cried the digital preservationists whose jobs depend on us creating more digital material. No goats were available for comment.


Historically, supporters of analogue have been dismissed out of hand as a bunch of traditionalist, stuck in the mud Luddites; it has become somewhat of a cliché amongst the digitisers to ridicule people like Nicholson Baker for having the audacity to suggest that a nation’s cultural history shouldn’t be destroyed en masse. Yet this dismissive attitude is increasingly less valid. People clearly comfortable with using digital technology were declaring their support for Parliaments’ decision on the comment sections of online news agencies and forums and indeed here I am, a vellum-advocate, writing about it on a blog as part of a digital curation university module. It seems as if it’s the digital preservationists, not the analogue supporters, are the ones who are out-of-touch. So what’s going on?


The oft-repeated phrase in the digital preservation world is “the message not the medium”. What is important and what needs preserving it is claimed is the content of the data, not the physical medium on which that data is inscribed. But is this really true? The work of cultural historians has increasingly alerted us to the fact that the medium can be as important, and in many cases more important, than the content because the medium chosen has symbolic and representational significance. To take one example, Eric Ketelaar has written that the content of the Domesday Book commissioned by William the Conqueror was actually fairly useless in administrative terms. Yet the existence of the Book as a physical object symbolised and conveyed William’s near mythical royal power.


Moreover physical objects resonate with the public and elicit a wealth of emotional and intellectual responses in a way that digital copies don’t. It seems highly unlikely for example that the thousands who flocked to see the British Library’s Magna Carta exhibition in 2015, at which two of the four original documents were on view, would have been impressed if they had simply been shown the contents of those documents on computer screens. Would Americans revere the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution to the same extent if it was merely something you downloaded from the Library of Congress website? These may seem trite observations but they reflect the indescribable but undoubtedly powerful intangible benefits that can be gleaned from experiencing archival objects in the flesh. In the case of UK laws being printed on vellum I think all those declaring their support recognised that we risk losing the essential historical associations the use of such a medium elicits. For the public, the medium clearly does matter.


So why do digital preservationists seem so blind to the role of the medium in shaping how content is understood and experienced? A cynic may suggest that this reflects their tacit acknowledgement of the limitations of digitisation; an attitude of “we can’t reflect the symbolism of the physical medium so we’ll say it isn’t important”. Yet if we allow ourselves to accept this viewpoint we risk losing the rich, deeper understanding that comes from viewing and handling content in original, physical forms. Ultimately the choice we will all have to make is whether we want to continue enjoying the profound human experiences that come from interacting with the physicality of our world or whether we want to opt for the insipid sterility of the digital realm.


Another One Bytes the Dust

On our first foray into the world of digital curation on Wednesday we very quickly discovered that dropping, altering, and generally messing around with bytes tends to corrupt file formats, and absolutely dropping those bytes tends to corrupt file formats absolutely. Using a programme called ‘Shoot the File’ we mercilessly subjected PDFs, word documents, JPEGs, TIFFs, and a HTML document to such an onslaught that many of the documents were rendered useless or even inaccessible. Whilst minor alterations prompted the loss of information such as diagrams a major corruption reduced the previously clear, distinct images to works of abstract expressionism. Sadly I was unable to open the ‘clean’ versions of the sound recordings but I have it on good authority that corrupting the sound of a cow’s mooing is particularly satisfying!

Onto our second task and for this we entered the world of binary coding. Like Indiana Jones in ‘The Last Crusade’ we were confronted with three challenges of increasing complexity (although fortunately not of lethal cunning). Armed with a UTF-8 Converter and Base 64 String Decoder we were able to convert the three strings of code expressed in binary, hexidecimal, and Base 64 formats respectively into the following questions:

  1. On March 11, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson mandated that all computers purchased by the United States federal government do something.  What was it?
  1. The vigesimal system was memorably employed by a U.S. President when dedicating a cemetery.  Which President, and what decimal value did he express in vigesimal notation? Hint: in old Norse, a notch on a stick used to tally values in vigesimal notation was called a “skor”.
  1. What are the sixty-four characters used to encode Base 64?

To which we answered with the assistance of Google and Wikipedia that Lyndon Johnson mandated that all computers purchased by the federal government support the ASCII character encoding system, that Abraham Lincoln was partial to waxing lyrical in the vigesimal in his Gettysburg Address (Four score and seven years ago….), and that the sixty-four characters used in Base 64 are as highlighted in the following link.

I’ve also attached this link to a song by New Zealand’s fourth most popular folk parody duo as it’s the only song I can think of that has a binary solo.


WYAS On-Line

I had the pleasure of recently undertaking a two-week cataloguing placement at the West Yorkshire Archive Service at Wakefield. Aside from the wealth of amazing material housed on-site, especially in the Registry of Deeds, the repository has a strong online presence with a number of social media outlets (see below). These reflect recent projects, such as the cataloguing of the Nostell Priory papers, outreach events and activities including family history sessions and ‘Explore Your Archive’ programmes, as well as general information showing the staff, buildings, and activities undertaken on behalf of the public. They even have a YouTube clip showing how to catalogue – I should probably have had a look at it before I went there!

A Song of Fire and Water

Upon informing family, friends and colleagues of my decision to embark upon a career in archives I received a variety of questions both pertinent (what does an archivist do?) and disparaging (are you sure you own enough cardigans?). An enquiry which I did not receive, and one which I had not considered much myself, was what does an archivist do when disaster strikes? I suppose in my naivety I had been taken in by the illusion of archival permanence; archive centres, like the collections they hold, seem stable, secure, eternal. Such a delusion is only strengthened when one is confronted either by the grand Victorian edifices or imposing modern repositories in which so many of our nation’s records are housed. My own disaster-free experience working at a volunteer-run community archive in Otley, West Yorkshire merely reinforced my misconceptions.

However, in little over a week the Scottish Council on Archives is meeting in Edinburgh for the conference ‘Fire in the Archives: Experiences Shared, Lessons Learned’. Whilst one speaker is to discuss the conflagration at the Glasgow School of Art another explores the aftermath of the fire at the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth. It is this latter example, of which I was largely ignorant, that caught my eye. In the early afternoon of 26 April 2013 two workmen making repairs to the roof of Building 2 using a blowtorch accidentally ignited the wood and bitumen impregnated fibreboard underneath the roof’s external cladding. Despite staff efforts to douse the fire the dryness of the materials accelerated the spread of the blaze which ultimately required eight fire engine crews and four hours to contain. By then a thirty metre long section of the roof had been destroyed. Although destructive to the fabric of the building, the chief damage to the collections ironically came from the use of water to extinguish the fire, which leaked through the top six floors. Amongst the material completely destroyed by water damage were three boxes of nineteenth-century records relating to the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Carmarthen as well as papers associated with the Wales Green Party, Welsh football, and the Acen Company archives.

Yet it could have been so much worse. The National Library of Wales contains six million books, one million photographs, 30,000 manuscripts as well as a plethora of ephemera including maps, works of art, and films, many of which contribute to the collective memory and heritage of Wales; the Library is home to material such as the Welsh Literature Archive and the National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales. One positive was that the top floor most affected was not a storage area but an office space where staff processed new acquisitions and inspected existing collections. Moreover, as the Library’s press releases emphasised, the staff had been well trained and successfully carried out the Library Emergency Plan by prioritising and removing the most valuable items once allowed back into the building and by covering the shelves and furniture in plastic sheeting to minimise water damage. Through pre-arranged agreements the worst affected items were sent to the Library’s in-house conservation unit whilst 140 crates of damaged material were sent to the document restoration specialists Harwell’s of Oxford to be freeze-dried. Furthermore the element which made this fire so potentially disastrous, the Library’s extensive holdings of national importance, also ensured that the Library received influential assistance. From its privileged position as a copyright library holding the largest collection of books in Wales it was assured of political and financial support; the Welsh Culture Minister at the time, John Griffiths, inspected the damage for himself and announced that the Welsh Government was working closely with the Library and promised grants to help overcome the £5 million cost of repairs.

I suppose the message to take from this is that whilst disasters can and do strike archive centres of any size or stature, the damage can be minimised by having a high level of financial and political clout and a workforce who are well drilled in emergency contingency plans, regardless of whether or not they wear cardigans.