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Magazines > Searcher > October 2008
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Vol. 16 No. 9 — October 2008
SEARCHER'S VOICE
Gaslight
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine

The Searcher's Voice PodcastThe pioneer genius of film, D. W. Griffith, once made a short silent film starring the first motion picture star ever, Mary Pickford. Little Mary had fled to a city from some backwater country hell-hole, pursued by an evil bumpkin who considered her his promised property. Mary thought she was safe in a civilized urban center, but – Gasp! Oh, NO! – her stalker had pursued her, traced her down, and planned to abduct her in the morning. Swamp rat went back to rest up in a cheap hotel room. He took off his shoes and coat, blew out the light, and lay down to sleep. End of Mary’s problem. The light he blew out was the flame on the gaslight pipe. So endeth all who try to harm “ America’s Sweetheart.”

Back in that long-ago era of gaslit streets in the late 19th century, the movement to create a federal archive slowly began, but “talkies” were here and D. W. had directed his last film before the National Archives Act became law in 1934. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) became a completely independent agency in 1985. The history of the other major agency recording the activities and content of federal government agencies extends back to an even earlier era, one of candlelight. In 1813, Congress set up the U.S. Government Printing Office to handle the information produced by and about federal government activity. The primary goal of the GPO was to spread the information to the American public. As always, though, archive and access are joined at the hip. You cannot succeed at one without the other. Right from the very beginning, the primary instrument for both archiving and access was the federal depository library program. GPO would send its publications to the libraries, relying on librarians to maintain an archive and open the content to interested patrons.

Wonderful. But here we are in the digital age and both agencies are reeling from the changes as web technology challenges them to build archives vaster than could have been imagined in a print era. After all, if the Internet Archive can run a Wayback Machine that claims to cover all websites (well, nobody covers it all, still …) all on its own with limited funds, why shouldn’t a government that can actually print money be able to handle its subset of the dot-gov domain thoroughly?

However, that same web technology has empowered all agencies to produce electronic documents and data collections at will, gutting many of the processes and motivations for involving the two archiving agencies. If you don’t intend to produce a print document, why send it to a “printing office”? If digital databases have replaced file drawers full of dusty records taking up needed space, why bother to pack anything up for shipment to NARA? Because it’s the law? Well, kind of, but that can depend on your view. Because it’s the right thing to do? You mean public interest? Well …

The origin for this column topic came — as seems to be more and more the case — from my experience in writing an Infotoday.com NewsBreak, in this case “Consortium — Minus NARA — Archiving Bush Administration Websites” [http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/nbReader.asp?ArticleId=50486]. In 2001 and 2004–05, NARA conducted a limited “snapshot” of all the federal agency websites, creating a record for what those sites showed at an administration’s “end-of-term.” NARA also conducted a congressional snapshot in 2006. (You can find the 2004 and 2006 NARA snapshots at www.webharvest.gov. By the way, the site is actually hosted by the Internet Archive.) When NARA decided not to conduct another end-of-term snapshot in 2008, five agencies stepped up to take on the task — the Library of Congress, Internet Archive, California Digital Library, University of North Texas Libraries, and the GPO.

One could say that it was all libraries and librarians that stepped up to the task. The two university libraries and LC bear the library name, but the GPO’s contribution to the project primarily lies in linking up its Federal Depository Library Program participants. And the Internet Archive, though a private, not-for-profit organization, would have to be categorized as a library in anyone’s book. Take a closer look at this project’s plans, as compared with NARA’s much caveat-ed efforts, and you’ll see something that could turn out a lot more thorough and more independently complete. It could also form the core of a greater, more permanent effort. One can only hope.

Librarians scattered across the country, working in different agencies, reporting to different authorities, and committed to the preservation and dissemination of public information can do a more thorough and secure job than just federal agencies alone. Working in partnership with those agencies would be nice, but the history of the Internet Archive shows that one can do the job even without them. We need to go after all federal website content, following changes and updates rigorously, and exploring ways to make the results more and more useful and productive. These days federal agencies are turning to “born-digital” documentation. One expert in the field whom I interviewed bemoaned the over-commitment of major research library budgets to the digitization of old documents instead of archiving the web-only content that could vanish overnight.

Digital content is wonderfully free-flowing, but sometimes it can flow away too fast. A flick of a switch, a click of a mouse, and something you know you saw yesterday is gone without a murmur. A global find-and-replace can alter an electronic document’s terminology in a matter of seconds. And no matter how strong their professional commitment, government employees are subject to political pressure from more powerful government leadership.

Speaking of gaslight, did you ever see the Ingrid Bergman/Charles Boyer movie of the same name? Boyer, the villain, tries to drive poor Ingrid mad — or at least get her so hysterical that everyone around her thinks her mad — by creating situations where things she knew had happened appeared not to have happened, where objects she had thought lost turned up exactly where they were supposed to be. Now, of course, I’m not saying that any federal government bureaucrat or elected official would try to alter reality or ever use digital controls to “gaslight” the public just to serve his or her own political or personal ends, but … well … better safe than sorry. Get me a librarian!

— bq


Barbara Quint's e-mail address is bquint@mindspring.com.
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