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The Ghost of Parchment Future

Questions of digital information’s impermanence fascinate me.

This appeared ten years before Amazon disappeared Orwell’s 1984 from its Kindle devices.

“Do I want to keep it? If so, what does ‘keeping’ mean?

And, if I decide to keep it, what is the ‘it’ I’m imagining I will want to retrieve later?”

Faced with a profusion of electronic information, many of us experience overload while trying to decide what to notice and what to store for later use. These questions arise: Is this newly received information really new to me? Will I want to find it again later? How much later? In what context? In how much detail? Can the information remain in its native environment or should it be somehow transformed or transported?

As you quickly breeze through one of the innumerable pages of possibly new information on a website, you may ask yourself: Do I want to keep it? If so, what does “keeping” mean? And, if I decide to keep it, what is the “it” I’m imagining I will want to access later? With electronic information, by “keeping” you probably mean retaining access to it, but perhaps not removing it from its current state (committing it to paper, or CD-ROM or other physical storage medium). By “it” you refer to the facts listed, the ideas expressed, and / or the extra meaning provided by the web design, and / or the deeper layers provided by the links to other websites maintained and created by others.

Similarly, Information Technology managers in big corporations are struggling to establish reliable long-term information storage. They ask the same questions: Is this information worth keeping, and if so, what constitutes “keeping”? Even choosing the best storage medium presents problems. Recent testing indicates CD-ROM’s are not the stalwarts against deterioration we had hoped. They can be harmed, it seems, by oxidation, magnetic fields and humidity, and the disk media themselves can decay. What is to be done? One interesting notion, aside from the acknowledged benefits of redundant data storage, is that the Internet, midwife to such a mushrooming body of information, may also provide a way to save some of the data. It is possible now to store important files at offsite locations. Rather than trucking boxes of papers to a locked warehouse storage bin, that can mean transferring the files electronically for secure storage on a file server elsewhere. The risks common to all digital information remain, however. Digital storage on servers is also susceptible to system crashes, power surges, glitches of unknown origin; and to hackers maneuvering through security measures to meddle with the data, hide or destroy files, or distribute their contents to unauthorized recipients.

An important additional risk exists as well: even if the digital storage has retained flawless digital copies, twenty years from now there may be no way to retrieve the data. The methods used to create and read the data are likely to have become obsolete, gone the way of eight-track audio systems, magnetic-card-reading typewriters, and other antiques of the 1970’s.

One begins to appreciate physical archives – with their look, feel, smell, relationships, life-sized objects and textures – grouped intelligently together in a more material reality. Nothing in such an archive has been flattened into the uniformity of pixel patterns on a screen; nothing has been enlarged or reduced to standardize the proportions and sizes; the handwriting on the document is not a mere likeness – it was made by another human, working with this same document, at another time. The fortunate scholar who can handle these objects while studying them no doubt can learn certain things simply not available to clone-studiers. On the other hand, the materials do degrade, some rapidly. Paper deteriorates, color photos fade, celluloid film turns to powder, early recordings made on cylinders of wire corrode, adhesive tape and self-adhesive labels yellow and fall off. Parchment scrolls, centuries old, can be more legible than faxes of ten years ago.

By its nature, there is only one unique set of original archived material. The entire depth of experience provided by the original cannot be more widely distributed. It is however possible simultaneously to retain the original, with its special glow, and diffuse the information in many clones of identical quality, none quite like the physical original.

The Archives of American Art accumulates analog information from artists, collectors, dealers, galleries, scholars and others, and stores the originals, while distributing copies on microfiche, available for research at the Archives’ regional sites throughout the United States. Their web presence is developing. But already for twenty years or more their initiatives have been of enormous help to scholars and writers wanting access to primary sources (even tiny black-and-white photographs of them).

Alternatively, one can jump from parchment right into the digital realm, creating as many clones as desired, all with equal fidelity to the first digital copy. Working with IBM, the Vatican Library’s archiving project brings ancient original manuscripts directly into digitized form, available online to scholars worldwide.

Another such digitization of primary materials is the American Memory Project. It is an ambitious initiative, now underway, to collect, catalogue, digitize and post for unlimited free access a great magnitude of cultural documentation from the Library of Congress of the US government.

Where the “original” itself is digital – a web-based work of art for example – no intermediate steps of photography, microfiche-creation or digitization are required to duplicate the work. What may be harder, however, is defining what constitutes the work and how much context is essential. Now that art museums have begun to accession web-based art forms into their permanent collections, they must ask the same questions as the corporate IT managers, or you and I: If it’s worth keeping, what is to be kept, and what does “keeping” mean?

With works of art, answering the questions can be quite difficult. If part of the art, as created, was its links to other Internet entities, what exactly is acquired, if only the artist’s own web data is accessioned? When a museum curator or registrar (those lines blur, too, here) accessions web-based art, will the artwork be archived, taken out of action, and frozen onto a CD-ROM, or will it remain an active, changing work on the Internet? If it keeps changing, which part is the artwork the museum owns (and, perhaps, insures)? What is the expected life of this work, if CD-ROM’s deteriorate, offsite file storage of clones is still vulnerable, and work created for today’s Internet, stored on today’s media, is unlikely to be readily accessible in a few years?

How much alteration of such a work is permissible before the artist’s work is no more? When the digital art is first conveyed to the museum, will an artist describe the work by title, date, and “variable media” thereby agreeing to future, unknown modifications of the work, to accommodate future technologies of communication and perception?

As infants must learn the crucial truth that when a parent disappears from view, the parent may still be There – present and reliable, if unseen – we users of electronic information must learn to rely on the continued availability of the binary data we value. We also must decide how much reliance each of us can tolerate, calibrated depending on the gravity, or irreplaceable character of the underlying information.

We can all probably recall, when first learning to use computers, that phase of urgent disbelief that computer files stored digitally were really There. We can all probably recall, too, printing out multiple copies of seemingly important documents, to keep in more than one safe place. (So much for that Paperless Office of the Future.)

We could try to blame the developers of electronic media for irresponsibly making all this data available, then dumping on us the problems of selection, security, and less than certain permanence. (For that matter, even an unaltered website, accessed at different times from different computers with different monitors and browser software, will yield quite different results.) We could try to blame our discomfort on that hard-wired human urge to gather and collect, now thwarted by these invisible electrons. Practically, we can try to apply principles of redundant storage, and focus carefully on appropriate retrieval structures. Maybe we can also learn to relax, to live with intangible data.

Undeniably there is a very rich sense of connectedness to be had perusing archives full of unique collections of related materials committed by humans to physical media. Could a similar sense be provided by an electronic storage medium or method? Perhaps not. But there may be an equivalent approach, if not a similar one: We still live as physical, biological beings in a material world. But how physical is our knowledge, really? First, before they were recorded, those scrolls, images and typewritten pages were ideas and forms of human expression. At present, many of us are already accustomed to straddling the digital and analog worlds – writing a first draft, perhaps, on a computer, but requiring hard copy for the final edit. Now, we have the ability to return new creations of the brain, psyche and spirit, after a quick pass through the material world (typing, scanning, recording), to something more like their native habitat. Now, more of our knowledge – as intangible as can be – can remain that way. Can we learn to live with that?


The Archives of American Art, part of the Smithsonian Institution, based in Washington DC, assembles and maintains collections of letters, memoirs, photographs, exhibition announcements, shipping invoices, bills of sale, loan agreements, scrapbooks, museum catalogues and other documentation of the visual arts in America. [New Link]

The Vatican Library Project site includes sample image files with explanatory material. Methodologies (scanning, watermarking, etc.) used in the digitization project are explained in a paper available at [Old Link]

The American Memory Project, part of the Library of Congress of the United States government contains an astonishing wealth of information. Topics include: Early American Mutoscope & Biograph Films of D.W. Griffith; Ex-Slave Narratives collected during the 1930’s by the Federal Writers’ Project of the WPA; Meeting of the Frontiers, the story of the dual exploration of Siberia and Alaska during the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; Revolutionary War Maps from British, American and French cartographers. American Memory materials are organized and searchable by broad topics, by time (beginning with 1400’s-1699), and place (regions of USA). There is also an extensive list of the many more sets of materials currently being prepared for inclusion.  [New Link]

The three resources listed above provide examples of archives about arts and letters. This one is a work of web art about archives about arts and letters: The Unreliable Archivist, at the Walker Art Center (Minneapolis, MN) includes an essay by Steve Dietz, and work by the artistic trio of Janet Cohen, Keith Frank and Jon Ippolito. The Unreliable Archivist explores, celebrates, and ridicules the limitations of web-based artforms placed in cold storage by museums. Using archived material from the important early web project, äda’web, the artists provide the visitor with limited maneuverability around preselected elements of the äda’web source materials. Distorted archival materials result.

The notion of Variable Media is discussed at [Old Link]

Anne M Carley used to manage collections of art and archival materials. She has performed music of many centuries, and writes songs and stories of this one. First published, 19 July 1999. Arts4All Newsletter Issue 2.

Copyright © 1995-present Anne M Carley / Be Well Here & Co. All rights reserved. For questions about the materials, and reprint and other permissions, email us.

All articles here, including those previously published elsewhere, are the property of the author. Please mention this website,, when quoting from any of the work presented here. Updated links appear wherever possible throughout these materials. Old links that no longer point to live information have been deleted or deactivated. References to print sources (with no web links) were not available online, last time we checked.

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