Doomsday Preppers

At heart, archiving is an apocalyptic profession.

Archivists are professional harbingers of doom. The job of an archivist, boiled down to its essence, is to preserve things that we believe the future will care about – a statement which implies an inherent from, but doesn’t specify it. So what are we preserving things from?  Everything and anything: obsolescence, decay, human error, catastrophe, random acts of God, anything else we can think of, and maybe some things we can’t. Our job is to assume the worst.

Most people figure their books, tapes, files and records are going to be there again when they want them (if they want them) without thinking too hard about it – and in a lot of cases, for the short term, that may well be true. Not every hard drive is going to fail in two years. But, as archivists, the question for us is not if the drive is going to fail. We know the drive’s going to fail eventually. Everything fails eventually; that’s entropy, and it’s a fact of the universe. The big question for an archivist is: when the drive fails, how do we make sure that doesn’t destroy the things we care about?

A lot of the discussion around climate change should feel familiar to archivists. Global warming, natural disasters, earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions (decay, human error, catastrophe): there’s definitely a sense of apocalypse to it. And just like digital preservation catastrophes don’t hit every institution, there are places in the world that won’t directly feel the effects of climate change – at least not right away, not for a while. Not every hard drive fails in two years. A lot of ten-year-old drives are still whirring happily away while I write this.

All the same, we know that there’s a risk the drive is going to fail. And for archivists, where there’s a risk, there’s a certainty: eventually, the drive will fail. We plan around it. We back it up, and back it up again.  We expend enormous amounts of time and resources on prevention and protection, because we know that while the short term might not validate us in that expenditure, the long term definitely will.

As archivists, we need to take the same attitude towards climate change. There’s a risk, and that means that there’s a certainty. Climate change is happening. Stuff is going to fail.

So how do we try and make sure this doesn’t destroy the things we care about?

It’s a pretty good question for an archivist.  It’s an even better one for a climate change activist.

— Rebecca Fraimow

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