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August 15-21, 2007

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Technology News - Annalee Newitz

Technology News

Foxing in the Archive

By Annalee Newitz

PAPER ARCHIVES are dangerous. For the past several weeks, I have been standing knee-deep in paper untouched by human hands for decades, sorting through decaying files and strange pamphlets, breathing so much dust that I cough all night afterward. Matters are even worse for archivists and librarians who work with materials that are older than a century. They report that spores and mold on materials give them headaches, short-term memory loss, diminished lung capacity and severe allergies.

Back in 1994, an archivist working with century-old materials in an antique schoolhouse wrote an email to a conservation listserv that sounded so ominous it could practically have been the introduction to a Stephen King novel. "For several months, I sorted through water-damaged ledgers and artifacts. Many were covered with a black sootlike dust," she wrote. "After a few months, I noticed I was losing my balance, my short-term memory was failing, and I began dropping things."

Years later, after her lung capacity had dropped 36 percent and her memory was damaged permanently, a doctor finally diagnosed her. She had been poisoned by mold on the archival materials that she had devoted her life to preserving.

A letter published in Nature in 1978 points out that old books and papers actually develop infections, colloquially called "foxing," that look like a "yellowish-brown patch" on the page. That patch, explain the letter writers, is actually a lesion caused by fungus growing on the book "under unfavorable conditions." Today, most libraries recommend that conservationists working in archives with old materials and books wear HEPA masks.

My archival adventures this month don't involve foxing, or brain-damaging mold. I am preserving a historical paper trail that's too recent to have gone toxic. In fact, I am in the odd position of trying to organize the papers of an organization—Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility—whose entire mission since 1980 has been to promote the ethical uses of technology and to build a pro-social, paperless future.

With all the dangers of paper archives, and all the love for computers at CPSR, why bother to preserve the organization's papers at all? Why not, as one member of CPSR asked me, just scan everything and create a digital version of CPSR history? There are a million reasons why not, but all of them boil down to two things: scale and redundancy.

Over the past quarter-century, CPSR has accumulated 65 crates of papers and nine tall, metal filing cabinets full of records. Some of the papers are cracking with age; some are old faxes or personal letters on onionskin paper; some are pamphlets or zines; some are poster-size programs; others are little, folded stacks of handwritten notes.

There are photographs, floppy disks, VHS tapes and even a reel of film. Even if we had all the resources of the Internet Archive, a nonprofit that is scanning books onto the web at a rapid clip, the CPSR scanning project would take weeks. More importantly, we aren't scanning regular papers and books. We have so many kinds of archival material that we would need specialists who knew how to scan them properly without damaging the originals.

Plus, how would we label each item we'd scanned? Every single one would need to be put into a portable, open-file format and labeled with data by hand to identify it. That's a project that could take months if done by a team of pros—and years if done by volunteers. So part of creating a paper archive is simply a matter of pragmatism. It is easier to preserve history on paper.

More importantly, though, we need a paper backup copy of our history. I love online archives as much as the next geek, but what happens when the servers blow out? When we stop having enough power to run data-storage centers for progressive nonprofits? And even if digital disasters don't strike, history is preserved through redundancy. The more copies we have of CPSR's history, in multiple formats, the more likely it is that generations to come will remember how a brave group of computer scientists in the 1980s spoke out against the Star Wars missile defense system so loudly that the world listened.

When it comes to preserving history, every digital archive should have a paper audit trail.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who is not just the president of CPSR but also its archivist and janitor.

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