Archives in the News: The Instability of Digital Formats

In a recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review, journalists were interviewed about their concerns over the instability of their digital work.  As we discussed in class, digitization is not the equivalent of preservation and when an online platform folds, its digital presence is wiped. The article asks a simple question: are journalists concerned that their work could disappear in a matter of seconds?

“The internet is more like an Etch-a-Sketch than a stone engraving—over time, some marks endure, but the rest are swept from the canvas.”

Tiffany Stevens, freelance journalist

The journalists interviewed had mixed reactions to the lack of preservation of their work. Some created their own personal archive, printing each of their articles and storing the physical copy. Others were relieved that their early professional work was erased from history and could not return to haunt them.

One journalist noted that she relies on the Wayback Machine and then, after a moment of contemplation, realized “that that’s still online, so if this website goes down, then all my archive links are also gone.”*

Many of the journalists saw the issue as just another manifestation of the ways journalism has changed in our time. Ultimately, the digital instability of their work was not an issue they were overly concerned with.

However, the issue of the instability of digital forms is not as trivial as some of these journalists might think. In fact, it can have serious effects on understanding history when our work begins to rely more heavily on these digital-first documents. Digital instability has also proven to have damaging effects on our politics.

Last week, a U.S. Senate memo, “An Overview of the Impeachment Process”, which provides legal interpretations of different Senate powers during impeachment proceedings, went missing. The URL for the document, which has been online since 2005, suddenly directed users to a “404 error message.”

The explanation for its disappearance has been that the information was consolidated into a new document, and the original must have been removed during maintenance. However, the old (now missing) document, “has been widely cited during the Trump Era, using its URL as a citation.”**

Used in official government proceedings, an oft-cited document no longer exists. Citations now lead to a “404 error message.”

In a moment when truth feels less tangible than ever, the disappearance of online media coupled with our increasing reliance on them, is a recipe for instability that extends past the lives of our digital documents and effects our history and our politics.

 

*Stevens, Tiffany. “Preserving work in a time of vanishing archives.” Columbia Journalism Review. November 5, 2019. https://www.cjr.org/q_and_a/lost-archives-clips-pdf.php. Accessed November 21, 2019.

**Wofford, Benjamin. “An Important Impeachment Memo Vanished From a Senate Web Server.” Washingtonian. November 13, 2019. https://www.washingtonian.com/2019/11/13/an-important-impeachment-memo-has-vanished-from-a-senate-web-server/. Accessed November 21, 2019.

The Politics of a Presidential Archive

President Obama is breaking from tradition. Unlike his predecessors, he is forgoing a traditional library and museum; a process used by past presidents to process their historical records and to “control their own legacies.”* Instead, the Obama Foundation is funding the digital processing, through NARA, of some of the administration’s unclassified materials. The rest of Obama’s records will be stored in other NARA facilities.

In lieu of a traditional library and museum space, the Obama Foundation is planning the Obama Presidential Center, a multi-use, publically accessible, community space located in Jackson Park on the South Side of Chicago. The center will include classrooms, meeting spaces, a branch of the Chicago Public Library, a performance space, and playgrounds; all designed for public use. The function of the building is path-breaking, as is the choice of location.

While it is common for a presidential library to be located in a place significant to that president, those places tend to be prestigious in their own right or remote in location. The South Side of Chicago is a highly stigmatized neighborhood, but one incredibly significant to urban history, African American history, and the Obama’s family history.

One of the goals of locating the center in Jackson Park on the South Side of Chicago is to increase community engagement and open up new job and education opportunities for community members. The center is expected to have 700,000 annual visitors who would frequent neighborhood businesses and revitalize the neighborhood, without gentrifying it. The Obama Foundation wants to strip away barriers of accessibility, improve the community, and redefine what a presidential library can be.

Obama Mock Up
A digital rendering of the proposed Obama Presidential Center.

Jackson Park was originally designed by Fredrick Law Olmsted and is a registered National Historic Landmark. Because of its historical status, the plans for the center are now under federal review and approval. Many, including community members, are concerned with how much the center will alter Jackson Park and the neighborhood as a whole.

But Michelle Obama asks for the community’s trust; that she and President Obama would never do anything to damage a neighborhood that is so close to their own heritage and family history. “We had to think, where do we put this resource?” she asked. “Well, what better place to put it than in our backyard?”**

For Anthony Clark, the author of The Last Campaign: How Presidents Rewrite History, Run for Posterity & Enshrine Their Legacies, the Obama Center is establishing a significant precedent for the transparency of presidential records. “Freeing NARA to process and produce those records without the interference of the Obama Foundation will be our best hope for learning what really happened during the Obama presidency,” Clark noted, “and, if others follow his example, future presidencies as well.”*

In many ways, the center will still be a place where the narrative of Obama’s legacy is being crafted, just through different means. While it will be interesting to see how the Obama Center continues to proceed, it is also intriguing to think of the precedents he is setting for future libraries.

One can only assume that the future Donald Trump presidential archive, if enough material survives for its existence, will revert back to a more traditional format for a presidential library, or will set new precedents based on President Trump’s own set of values and his perception of his legacy. If I were to wager a guess, his presidential library will be located somewhere near his Mar-A-Lago residence, and subject to the climate change threats that he continually chooses to ignore. But, only time will tell.

*Clark, Anthony. “Presidential Libraries Are a Scam. Could Obama Change that?” Politico. May 7, 2017. https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/05/07/ presidential-libraries-are-a-scam-could-obama-change-that-215109.

**Quig, A.D., “Obamas defend Jackson Park site at Foundation Summit.” Chicago Defender. October 29, 2019. https://www.chicagobusiness.com/commercial-real-estate/obamas-defend-jackson-park-site-foundation-summit

Finding My Grandfather in the Archive

My maternal grandfather, Richard Nolan was a pilot in the Air Force. He flew reconnaissance planes in Vietnam.

A few weeks ago, I taught a lesson on soldiers’ experience during the Vietnam War. To connect the history to my students’ lives, I asked them if anyone in their family served in the war. Six students raised their hands. They all knew that their grandfather’s served in some capacity but they had never asked them about their experience. My students’ homework was to go home and call their grandfathers and see if they were willing to share their story.

Both of my grandfathers served in the Vietnam War but neither are still with us. Thankfully, they were both fairly open with us and with my parents about their service, so I grew up knowing a little about their experiences. However, I still wanted to know more. Not having the option of talking to them, I turned to google. I searched my paternal grandfather’s name: Thomas Austin, and the title of his position during the war.

My paternal grandfather, Thomas Austin. He was the Senior Advisor of the Phuoc Tuy Province in Vietnam.

To my delight, I found a book that not only references my grandfather, but references several reports he wrote during the war. My grandfather was a graduate from West Point, and by the time he was deployed to Vietnam, too many of the men from his graduating class had died in combat that he was not allowed to be in a combat zone. Instead, the Army sent him to learn Vietnamese and in 1976 he became the Senior Advisor of the Phuoc Tuy Province. As part of his job, he submitted monthly reports on his province. I read some of his direct quotes in the text and immediately flipped to the footnotes to see where these materials were located. I found the following footnote:

LTCOL Thomas Austin, ‘Province report — Phuoc Tuy Province — period ending: 29 February 1968 (2), Box 1575, A1 731, RG 472, NARA.

I went to the NARA website, searched for the reading group and started digging through the finding aid. What I found is that the NARA website and their finding aids are extraordinarily confusing and difficult to navigate. It was seemingly impossible to find where the files were located or how to request them. I ended up reaching out through their contact page and am hoping to hear back.

My dad followed in his father’s footsteps and served in the military. He reveres my grandfather’s service and seeing those reports would mean a great deal to him. NARA holds military personnel files that are accessible for family research, but it is these more detailed primary documents of a person’s work that I think can provide the opportunity to really connect with a family member’s impact on history.

A page from my grandfather’s scrapbook

My grandfather returned from Vietnam he put together a scrapbook of photos from his time in Phuoc Tuy and the people he met with. These scrapbook pages have lived in my parent’s secretary desk, along with other family albums. But when I saw them recently, I thought back to the book where I originally found my grandfather’s records.

Another scrapbook page, filled with photos taken by and of my grandfather.

In the book, my grandfather is just another Army official whose records were consulted, but these scrapbooks tell a different history of his service in Vietnam. These accounts are filled with his personal interactions with South Vietnamese provincial leaders and citizens. His personal papers made me think of all of the family papers that exist outside of archives that would make our histories so much richer. How can we write a history of the experience of the Vietnam War without these rich sources being organized in a repository? Will these stories ever make their way to an archive? I am not sure what the answer to that question is, other than to continue to encourage my students to learn their own family history and emphasize how important their stories are to our collective national history.