Raw Archives and Hurricane Katrina

Several weeks ago during my talk on the “Possibilities and Problems of Digital History and Digital Collections” at the joint meeting of the Council of State Archivists, the National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators, and the Society of American Archivists (CoSA, NAGARA, and SAA), I received a pointed criticism from an audience member during the question-and-answer period. Having just shown the September 11 Digital Archive, the questioner wanted to know how this qualified as an “archive,” since archives are generally based upon rigorous principles of value, selection, and provenance. It’s a valid critique—though a distinction that might be lost on a layperson who is unaware of archival science and might consider their shoebox of photos an “archive.” Maybe it’s time for a new term: the raw archive. On the Internet, these raw archives are all around us.

Just think about Flickr, Blogger, or even (dare I speak its name) YouTube. These sites are documenting—perhaps in an exhibitionist way, but documenting nonetheless—the lives of millions of people. They are also aggregating that documentation in an astonishing way that was not possible before the web. They are not archives in the traditional sense, instead eschewing selection biases for a come one, come all attitude that has produced collections of photos, articles, and videos several orders of magnitude larger than anything in the physical world. They may be easy to disparage, but I suspect they will be extraordinarily useful for future historians and researchers.

Or I should say would be, if they were being run by entities that are concerned with the very long run. But the Flickrs of the web are companies, and have little commitment to store their contents for ten, much less a hundred, years.

That’s why more institutions with a long-term view, such as universities, libraries, and museums, need to think about getting into the raw archive business. We in the noncommercial world should be incredibly thankful for the Internet Archive, which has probably done the most in this respect. Institutions that are oriented toward the long run have to think about adding the raw to their already substantial holdings of the “cooked” (that is, traditional archives).

Our latest contribution to this effort is the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, which has just undergone a redesign and which now has over 5000 contributions. It’s a great example of what can be done with the raw, when thought about with the researcher, rather than voyeur, in mind. On this anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I invite you to add your recollections, photos, and other raw materials to the growing archive. And please tell others. We have a come one, come all attitude toward contributions, and need as many people as possible to help us build the (raw) archive.

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