New writing on e-culture

Challenges for online archives by Annet Dekker

French philosopher Jacques Derrida made the claim that ‘the mutation in technology changes not simply the archiving process, but what is archivable – that is, the content of what has to be archived is changed by the technology’. What he means is that not only the style of the content is different through new processes and production, moreover the relation to time and space, being reduced to mere seconds one can reach someone in every corner of the world, has effected the content. The knowledge that information reaches someone within a certain time frame, which could immediately influence a situation, has of course an effect on power relations, in decision-making and accountability.

It is generally known and accepted that archives construct a specific account of history, many things end up in an archive, but even more remain outside, to be forgotten. Questions like who is in charge of an archive, who selects, and for whom is the archive have been plaguing archives from the beginning. One could argue that the digital accelerates this process and at the same time is making these processes more transparent. Some claim that the Internet has become the archive of archives.

Digitisation has led museums, organisations, libraries and national archives to open their archives to the public, using the Internet as their interface. At times information is made more accessible in a way that people can add their own information, tag existing documents, or make relations between different documents. At the same time, the Internet audience is making their own archives uploading and posting their documents to peer-to-peer networks and/or large (commercial) databases. Derrida rightly assumed that technology has changed power relations, moreover with the open structure of the Internet ordinary people have the ability to be heard and influence existing content by adding their own. Such initiatives show multi-layered and multifaceted meanings of archiving. More than anything they exemplify that an archive is not simply a recording, a reflection, or an image of an event, but it shapes the event. Nevertheless old questions remain important, for example in what way the organisational structure influences the building and maintenance of their archive: How are decisions made, where is the archive kept, who is making them, and with what aims?

There are also a number of challenges that such initiatives face, ranging from technical (problems like software updates, browser changes, and server dependencies), to data historisation (often there is a loss of contextual information in which the cultural context of when, where and how a digital media artwork was originally created cannot always be recorded and documented in full), lack of knowledge and understanding of preservation strategies, and attaining (long-term) funding. Small-scale initiatives whose main focus is the preservation of software- and net art will come across or recognise these challenges. At the same time they are valid for a larger field. Especially at a time when everyone is making digital photos, saving them on their home computer or uploading them to large online platforms, when museums rely on citizens scientist or curators to help them improve the quality of their information and collections, or when digital games and software programmes are used to monitor progress or decay in daily live, thinking about the longevity of the digital is an issue. In other words when information does not have an analogue equivalent challenges on the sustainability of the data will become relevant for anyone who wants to hold on to what they have created.

In order to work towards a sustainable practice for preserving software and netbased (art)work the following should be taken into account in order to work towards solutions:
1. Ensuring an open and preferably networked knowledge transfer. This way other people can build on your work and you can lean on others. In other words, using open software contributes to the interoperability between software, or even hardware, which in the long run will limit the extent of data migration.
2. Documenting the working method in order to easily retrace steps in the future. Additional contextual documentation will complete the prospect of future access to the work.
3. Finding a solution that fits the organization and aims, but make the organisation and work people independent and at the same time independent of global conglomerates.
4. Stabilize funding, as much as possible. It is clear that the mutability of the digital domain makes it difficult to formulate overarching policies. In this sense it would be worthwhile to think for example of crowd funding, collaboration with other organisations, universities or commercial partners.
6. Trying out scenarios – solutions are bound to change in the future but when nothing gets done certainly the future will be bleak.

At the moment there are quite a few small-scale organisations that are experimenting with different strategies and methods. They are providing a growing network that creates new frameworks, encompassing multiple perspectives and spreading the responsibility for the preservation of cultural memory. This will allow for a public culture and knowledge infrastructure in which collective decisions can be made about what a society considers important to preserve.

This text is a shortened and slightly adapted version of Research: Archiving the Digital by Annet Dekker (with Rachel Somers Miles and Rachel Feuchtwang), Amsterdam: Virtueel Platform, 2011. For free download:

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