Charlie Tatum speaks with Rhizome’s Anna Perricci about the importance of preserving websites and how to get a start building your own archive.
At Pelican Bomb, we’ve always seen our online publication about contemporary art as a living archive, a record of artists working in and responding to New Orleans. When Pelican Bomb first went live in 2011, we described ourselves as “a contemporary primary document, reflect[ing] the transitional and transformative nature of place as related to the creation, dissemination, and consumption of visual art today.”
When faced with the task of figuring out how content on the Art Review might live on past Pelican Bomb’s close, we turned to Rhizome, a New York-based organization that has led the way in creating resources for preserving digital content like websites and web-based artist projects. Rhizome’s Webrecorder tool allows users to save websites in all their functionality, allowing others to visit pages even when they’re no longer online. Our Editorial and Communications Manager Charlie Tatum talked with Rhizome’s Anna Perricci about the importance of archiving and the ways individuals and organizations can start saving their digital assets.
Charlie Tatum: Why is it important to archive publications?
Anna Perricci: I could go on for so long on this topic, but the bottom line is that it’s important to archive publications for many of the same reasons it’s important to create and publish materials (online or offline) in the first place. Think about extending the impact of what you are writing in the near term, then also consider that what’s communicated today can be relevant for discourse in the future. It’s common for analysis and assertions about an era, movement, or individuals to be made partially based on what is published by or about them during their lifespans and afterwards. Depending on your interests, maintaining access to a community newspaper, or even an awesome series of zines, could be just as important as a preserving a whole decade of the New York Times.
CT: Pelican Bomb is closing this month. We’ve used Rhizome’s Webrecorder tool to save all of the content on the Art Review and our calendar of art-related events in New Orleans. When should one start to build an archive?
AP: I am so glad we are able to work together on this project and that these parts of Pelican Bomb will continue to be available via Webrecorder.io.
As soon as there’s anything worth publishing, there’s a good chance there is content worth saving (archiving), too. Capturing and archiving your web-based publication is just as important as backing up your most important files.
CT: How can someone go about that?
AP: You can capture websites using Webrecorder.io, then save those files in your registered user account and/or download a copy for storage offline. It’s easy to view your web archives online and you are able to share them publicly via Webrecorder.io. To access web archives offline you will need software that can open a .WARC file, the standardized file format for saving web archives, such as Webrecorder Player. Webrecorder Player is a free, open-source software also brought to you by Rhizome, and it can be downloaded from GitHub.
Beyond web archives, to get your archive started immediately, don’t feel bad about just dumping a copy of all the files you care about in a folder, ideally replicated in 2–3 different places (e.g. on your computer, on an external hard drive, and using a cloud storage service like Dropbox). Once you have a few dozen files it’s a good time to start making folders and subfolders to divide things by subject, theme, or date range if you’d like. Sometimes people will just keep one or a few big messy folders then only go through the contents when they are finishing a project or closing. It’s a lot better to have the option to select what’s worth keeping longer term in retrospect than to realize you’ve lost track of or deleted some really important stuff.
CT: In addition to the content itself—in our case, reviews and other articles—Webrecorder preserves the website’s interface. What is the benefit of that?
AP: The “look and feel” of a publication’s website is analogous to the layout and physical experience of handling a printed publication, for example a well-produced glossy magazine or printed newspaper. Webrecorder makes it possible to see precisely what Pelican Bomb looked like while it was an active publication. Seeing the stylistic choices of the designers and editors of Pelican Bomb provides important contextual information as well as a visual frame for the articles or event listings. Being able to navigate (or browse) between pages dynamically makes it possible to use the archival copy to replicate the experience of reading Pelican Bomb, even when websites might evolve into significantly different forms in the future.
CT: How does one determine what should be archived?
AP: That’s not an easy question but a really important one. Deciding what to keep can be framed a few different ways but there are no hard and fast rules to determine what definitely should or should not be in a personal digital archive.
For publications, prioritizing what’s saved can be based on what you think your readers today will most want to access later, for example the Art Review. I also recommended keeping a fully functional copy of the events calendar because I think this record of happenings in New Orleans is something future scholars and journalists would value. It’s my understanding that Pelican Bomb met a specific need to centralize this information and there is no comparable source that gives this view.
If you are able to figure out what you think is most important to preserve, that’s the place to start, and from there think about what other people might want to consult on an ongoing basis as well as what is truly lost, in the big picture, if this content is permanently removed.
CT: It’s easy to think of an archive as something individual. I’m keeping this because it’s important to me, personally or professionally. How can these archives benefit others?
AP: In terms of benefit, you can think from the perspective of scholars, students, or journalists. Your archive keeps your ideas and efforts out in the world and continuing to make an impact. There is information in your archive/your work that could be integral to maintaining the memory of you or your community, as well be part of academic or other published materials. It might seem kind of self-important to think that one’s own archive is worth saving but I assure you it is—and in the digital age it’s only you who can ensure your archive is created and updated.
For example, an art historian or journalist might be interested in the career of an artist and want to know when, where, and with whom that artist publicly showed their work. A thorough review of Pelican Bomb’s events calendar can provide this information for the context of New Orleans during its run, and the Art Review might have information about one or more of these events. The archive of the Community Supported Art shop also provides a fascinating snapshot of art works that could be sold online and what the price points were for those pieces. (The monetary value and provenance for artworks are common facts scholars seek when charting an artist’s career or movement’s trajectory.)
CT: Do you have any tips for writers and artists to start building an archive?
AP: Don’t worry too much about making the perfect collection, just do your best to keep track of the work that matters the most to you. This can be text documents and pictures as well as any web-published material or captures of social media you would collect with Webrecorder.io.
“Archiving” entails multiple steps beyond simply saving a file but having a backed-up copy of your work is the first step in creating an archive. You will reduce the chance of file corruption by only using letters, numbers, dashes or underscores in the file names (i.e. PelicanBomb-Interview_20181130.pdf). It’s not hard to automate back-ups and even use services like Dropbox to automatically upload photos from a smartphone to cloud storage when you open the app.
Last but not least, be very cautious about for-profit, closed-source services that offer you a free product to meet all your archiving needs “forever.” The business model for those products can be the monetization of your data (individually or in aggregate), plus these companies go out of business frequently.
I have been doing work on digital archives since 2004, starting when I was in an MFA program for visual art, then more so when I transitioned to professionally focusing on archives. There are no silver bullets or one-size-fits-all solutions but that’s part of why web archiving and digital preservation more broadly are so fascinating to me. You don’t have to want to be a professional archivist to keep a personal or project archive. Be your own archivist so you can remember your work, share it if you like, and have the option to let others ensure it remains accessible more permanently.