Why I Won’t Be Using The Word Archive Anymore

November 10, 2011

A segment on a recent episode of Radiolab discussed the work of experimental music composer William Basinski. As one line of exploration in the past, Basinski took classical or Muzak-type recordings, dubbed short sections of them and applied various distortions such as adjusting tape speed, and then made short audiotape recordings from the results. He then housed this tape in continuous loop cassette shells, such as one may find in museum displays. Played out over even just a few minutes, these snippets take on the depth and texture of a longer, more complex composition.

Interesting in itself, the story within this story is actually about how when, several years ago, Basinski was “archiving” these works (his word for what consisted of playing the tapes out to CD until it reached capacity while he made some tea) the oxide on some tapes began to flake off during playback. Instead of stopping the tapes, he let them continue to play until, gradually, all of the binder was gone. The audio captured is a haunting fragmentation and lurching decay of the audio signal which he fashioned into a series of works entitled The Disintegration Loops.

(function(){var s=function(){__flash__removeCallback=function(i,n){if(i)i[n]=null;};window.setTimeout(s,10);};s();})();

“Everything and Nothing” from WNYC’s Radiolab

While I have to admit that these works are quite moving, I also have to admit that the way Basinski used the term archiving to describe what he was doing also moved something within me to snap. This seemed to be the point at which some dawning realizations gelled, at which a nagging thought in the back of my head became a lens projecting truth onto the screen of my mind. Archive is a word that should be archived. Archive is a word that is dead.

You see, I believe that words have a weight to them, a density that increases and decreases across time. They become muscular through regular exercising, atrophied through disuse, chipped away at by re-appropriation, or grow slow and heavy with the burden of associations, their definition becoming amorphous and diffuse. In this way words become tools or cudgels or shackles, acting for us or upon us on the metaphysical and perceptual planes as such instruments would on the physical. In my view, archive and the words derived from it have been co-opted and negatively connotated, stripped of definite meaning and weighted with preconceptions.

I often run into the feeling out there from those outside the field that archives are inaccessible holes, deep in the recesses of an institution, the place where one dumps stuff one cannot stomach to discard but cannot really see a future use for…though even in such cases it may be preferable to stash those items away in a desk drawer one seldom opens and is not exactly sure of the contents, just because it’s such a pain to request assets back from the archivist. And the archivists, the guardians of these dungeons, are the Grendels of an institution — uncompromising hoarders of treasures, made grumpy by the joyous, uncaring excesses of man, preferring exile and avoidance of daylight.

But flip the coin, and archives become deep cisterns of knowledge and reusable content where an individual can discover their ancestry, remix a video, or learn about the fascinating history of People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive Award. It is also where an organization can develop new content out of old, push a retro or ‘classic’ marketing campaign, feed materials to the Web or social media, or derive a new product from old R&D.

Flip the coin again, however, and an archive is a portal to access digital surrogates — either public à la something like the Internet Archive or private (as in Kenneth Goldsmith’s wrong-headed claims) like one’s personal iTunes library. In this sense archive seems to just be used to refer to a collection of things that exist and are arranged together. These models may have an actual collection policy and preservation-oriented archive behind the scenes, or it may be based off of derivatives embedded or linked from other sources that may disappear at any time, or it may be an asset management and access utility pulling from one’s harddrive.

Flip the coin yet again and archive becomes a verb, some vaguely defined act that has been used to mean moving a file to a different folder on a server, sticking an item on a shelf or in a drawer to be accessed sometime…maybe, digitizing a work and putting it on DVD or online, or, in general, just letting someone else worry about the dang thing. Used in its lay or commercial sense, archiving something has less to do with quality and fidelity to originals than with removing clutter or establishing access via preferred platforms.

One may be impressed at this cornucopia of meaning, or proud at the sheer number of columns ‘archive’ would take up in the Oxford English Dictionary (Would we call that an archive of language?). However, my concern here is that this coin has too many sides, too many opposing facets, and that makes it invalid currency. The weighted or confused definitions mean that the ideas we attempt to communicate around discussing the work and importance of archives are often misinterpreted or unaccepted, their value lost in the exchange rate or enforced duty.

An archive can take on many forms and many roles that are not necessarily compatible or recognizable as the same thing from organization to organization. Similarly so, archiving is a broad collection of actions applied in degrees as a given situation demands or allows. I started off by saying I would not use the word archive anymore, but, really, there is a choice here about whether to cut and run or to dig in and work to better define and communicate the issues. It seems like an insurmountable challenge, but then again, I hear that archives are full of the stories of people making a difference.

— Joshua Ranger