Monday, June 5

Investigating the digital age, a nightmare for historians of the future

Until a couple of decades ago most communication between human beings was by letter. There were official and personal, political and diplomatic, commercial and private, literary and scientific letters, there were friendly, love and heartbreak letters. Over time many of them were lost or destroyed, but others ended up in archives, turned into an invaluable source of information for historians. Thanks to the letters, great episodes in history have been reconstructed, such as the Discovery of America.

Now the letters have been replaced by emails, SMS or whatsapps. The Administration addresses citizens through these channels and politics is cooked through

swipe of electronic message. In this way, the Prime Minister communicates with the King and his ministers, and also negotiates agreements, such as the renewal of constitutional bodies, with the leader of the opposition. History is being written today in digital medium. However, most of this documentation is not preserved and will be irretrievably lost if steps are not taken to prevent it. Historians of the future will find it very difficult to research our present.

One of the first to warn of this risk, in 1997, was Terry Kuny, who coined the term ‘digital dark ages‘(digital dark age). The then adviser to the National Library of Canada issued his warning to the International Federation of Library Associations and challenged today’s archivists to act like the monks of the Middle Ages who managed to preserve culture in monasteries.

The digital dark age

With the digital dark age, Kuny was referring above all to the information vacuum that had already begun to occur as the equipment, formats and software in which documents were being stored became obsolete. Something that almost everyone has experienced at some time when they have tried to play an old recording made on cassette, super 8, on video. 2000, beta, vhs, floppy disks or any other deprecated technology. Even the super-advanced NASA suffered in its own flesh the consequences of computer obsolescence when, ten years after its recording, it tried to analyze the magnetic tapes of the landing of the Viking space probe on Mars in 1976. The format was indecipherable and took months working to recover the images.

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But in addition to the problems of computer obsolescence, digital documentation faces other difficulties, as warns the archivist and researcher Virginia Ramírez Martín. “Digital documents do not preserve themselves, as was the case with paper, which was enough to keep them in a folder.” “Now we need to be aware of wanting to keep them, economic capacity to invest in devices and programs that allow access to documents over time and, also, periodically dedicate ourselves to selecting what we want to keep.”

All this requires a change in mentality, since “only what we consider to have value is saved, and the value that we gave to something that you could touch we do not apply to a digital document. In fact, the support has devalued the value of the document, “he explains. “Before, most grandmothers kept important letters, photos, and family mementos in a box. However, we do not keep the documents because, once they fulfill their mission, which is to convey a message, we believe that it makes no sense to keep it and it is possible that today they do not seem important documents that may be relevant in the future to see how. people lived at this time ».

Writers’ letters

The letters of the writers, for example, provide very valuable information, and not only literary, about the time they lived, as can be seen in the archives of Camilo José Cela or Miguel Delibes, or in the correspondence maintained by Benito Pérez Galdós and Emilia Pardo Bazán. As they did, it is very likely that Arturo Pérez-Reverte saved the paper letters received years ago, but does he keep his e-mails now? The archivist wonders.

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Ramírez explains that the letters lived their golden age during the 19th and 20th centuries and that this occurred for various reasons, such as “the greater access of the population to literacy”, the extension of the postal network and the improvement of the envelope. At that time, for example, a deputy or senator who was not going to attend a session in Parliament sent a ‘salute’ or a ‘hand kiss’ in which he excused himself because he was ill or because he had another commitment. «Now they do it by email, SMS or WhatsApp, which are not kept. And it is not that these documents are essential to understand history, because it is made of great events, but these details can give us a clue or help reconstruct particular events.

«The Twitter account of the President of the United States is kept for your reference. in Spain there are no strategies in this regard »

Before, when a relevant person from the world of culture died, “all condolences were sent by letter, but now messages are posted on social networks that no one is taking care of saving.”

The letters have fallen into disuse to the point that now, she comments in surprise, there are young people in their twenties who «have not received any more letters than those of the university or the bank. They have never received a personal letter and do not know where they would have to affix the stamp or fill in the sender or address if they had to send one. There is a generation that has no contact with letters, “he says.

Relevant information

Ramírez also warns that the content of the accounts created by the institutions on social networks is not being preserved. “In United States, the institutional accounts of the president and some senior officials are kept for your consultation». However, in Spain “there is no strategy that contemplates the preservation of the accounts of senior officials, and the truth is that they are offering relevant information about the institution they represent.”

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In relation to Twitter accounts, Ramírez emphasizes the fact that «we do not own the tool; we are users. And when Twitter decides to delete an account or delete images because they can hurt sensitivity or for whatever reasons, there is a part of that information that someone is making decisions about without being strictly their own. This lack of control over the tool means that we can lose information, “he says.

Historical heritage

In Spain “administrative documentation is perfectly regulated, although there are certain sets of documents that are not being preserved.” Specifically, the Historical Heritage Law establishes that “any documentation generated by public administrations is documentary heritage from the moment of its creation. In the case of documentation generated by some relevant institutions, such as political parties or unions, becomes heritage at age 40, and the documentation of the individuals, when it turns a century ».

In addition, the preservation of documents is “under the umbrella of the Administrative Procedure Law, which tells us how to create a file, what documentation can be kept and what documentation is not part of the file.” But nevertheless, «There is certain information that was kept in the previous files, on paper, and that now, in digital format, is not saved. This is the case of some drafts, minutes or some internal communications. In short, the questions that we would call protocol now do not leave a documentary trace and before they did, ”he explains. If anything, they leave multiform traces that we can recover through social networks or photography, but they no longer constitute the unit of a file, as before. And it will take a lot more effort for the researcher of the future to reassemble and compile that information scattered in different places.

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