Few things are harder to start than a narrative of the thing you “do” and what all the ramifications of it are. For people who don’t make it the center of their lives, your thing is already hopelessly complicated and gaining enough of a foothold to feign interest is olympic-level effort. For people who do make it the center, your description fills them with a never-abating dread that you’re going to get the explanation “wrong”, or that you’re going to give the Outsiders a bad impression.
So let’s begin at the beginning, again.
My parents’ divorce, taking place in the realm of the beginning of the 1980s, was not in any way friendly and in fact rather contentious. I wasn’t yet a teenager, and I was the oldest, and most notable for the purposes of this story, my mother gathered up her children and scooted off to first a hotel and then a location with family, without telling my father where she had taken us. In modern parlance, the term is “child abduction”, although I’m sure my mother didn’t think that’s what she was doing. Ultimately, connections were made, a nasty divorce proceeding happened, nobody was shot, stabbed, restrained, or attacked.
But in many presentations I’ve given, I mark the moment of being scuttled out of the family home into the great unknown of Outside The Neighborhood as being when my focus and awareness of the world fundamentally changed, because as she put things into the station wagon and tearfully told her kids to get ready to go, she also asked us to take what we needed. Which is a difficult question for someone in the realm of ten years old.
I needed a blanket and my dog.
Woven into the simple declaration take what you need are a host of world and perspective-changing understandings of what you and need are. Let’s not overplay the trauma aspect of it all, and focus on the concepts being dropped on me and my siblings, which first and foremost is a crumbling of rock-solid foundations. Foundations of family, to be sure, but also possession, consistency and location. Home was no longer an immutable realm, but split into multiple locations, one inevitably a favorite, with the other a shadow of the concept of home. Possessions stopped becoming things you could walk out of sight from and be a hundred percent sure (maybe 90-95 percent sure) they’d be there when you came back. And most effective on me was the idea that lack of effort to maintain the talismans and protocols of representation would result in a void. Put more simply: You’re the keeper of yourself and of what matters. There is no consistency that will protect you.
Like a lot of knowledge, this came at some level of heavy price, although I again stress the price is one many others pay at much greater cost. The fact remains that both my parents bent over backwards to provide opportunities, to ensure comfort and food and connection as best they could, and while I can sit back in my fifties and leave notes as to my parents’ actions in their thirties, my own thirties were spent in hacker conventions, shooting films and stumbling through my own home life, so I’m quite the unqualified judge.
This is all to say that when Chris Boufford showed me an acoustic modem in his grandparents’ spare room and how, by calling another number in Mount Kisco and putting the receiver of the phone into a cradle you’d suddenly get words on the screen, I had lived a life up to that point where two thoughts came almost simultaneously:
This is amazing.
I need to save this before it inevitably disappears.
I couldn’t have known that in the years afterwards, I would in fact collect so many artifacts from this thing, this concept of the Bulletin Board System, that I’d meet many of the people responsible for it existing, that this pile of artifacts would get a name and a branding, and that I’d collect it all so hard that I’d end up being associated with the concept of it for a lifetime. But I definitely understood, taught as I was during that painful childhood lesson, that inaction would be tantamount to approving its destruction and disappearance.
Calling as I did to many BBSes in my teen years, I’d focus on the textfiles, the message bases, the downloadable files, because they felt, I think, like special missives from beyond my little life and easily kept on floppy disks. When disks were the main way to store computer data for home users, you would encounter two kinds of people: folks who kept a small, special set of floppies representing what they needed, and others who had vast, terrifyingly large collections representing not what they needed but what they thought should be held in trust. I’ve gone through a lot of these collections over the years, and have seen rooms full of these things, hundreds and sometimes thousands, representing homemade bunkers of data. I had my own bunker, and while it was only a few dozen, the relative smallness of textfiles meant that each disk could hold many, many examples of these artifacts I thought deserved whatever long life I could provide.
At what point does a hoarder of data, driven by a sense of loss and of fear of same, turn from a mere accumulation of piles and end up with something resembling an archive?
I can point to various choices I was making in my teenage years with textfiles as the whole endeavor being more than just a private copy of things I liked: creating capsule descriptions of the textfiles for my own BBS, giving them unique extensions (HUM, PHK, HAC, PRO) to classify them in general genre headers, and attempting to keep the authorship and context of the files in the form of “buffers”, just saving all the output of a BBS to keep a record of where the files came from. I can find in my stacks actual essays I’d written about what these files were, and throwing my own writings in amongst everyone else’s so my own works wouldn’t be lost.
My college years were where all of it could easily have come to naught. New city, new goals, explorations and discovering my new set of interests could have led to my younger days and their collections being scattered to the wind. In a series of lucky maneuvers and chances across that period, I did not lose my textfiles and floppies and printouts, and they persisted for about 8 years in my hands and in the hands of a friend, David Weinstock, who kept things I was “done with” and critically asked me if I wanted them back. And by the time he asked, I did want them back. My own collection and archive, itself, came at the same risk of entropy and disappearance but the spinning wheel fell on “save” and I had them all again.
In my twenties is when I start creating The Warrens.
I don’t have a lot of handy photos of all the Warrens, and maybe that’s a compilation I need to add back here as I find them again. But over and over again, I turn wherever I’m living, or a single room within it, into a cramped, filled-to-the-brim, often deeply concerning space of materials. These will be favorite books, personal collections of memories, computer hardware and software, and an ever-growing set of amusements and pieces into my own functioning workspace. “Work”, in many cases, being the day-to-day activities of a geek browsing online things or playing with some sort of toy or tool, but surrounded by all the possibilities and options at arm’s length should my shifting focus switch to a new attraction.
I create Warrens a lot. Casting my net backwards, I count six of them, and each one a tiring memory to me, as I consider how much effort it took to build them up, and then inevitably pull them apart.
While it’s fundamentally silly to think each Warren was going to be the absolute last, there was definitely an approach and plan with each one to improve what came before. Bins instead of piles, thematic groupings instead of simple shelves of one kind of medium, and so on. Ultimately, though, they all have had flaws and they’ve all had a lifespan. My life changes and the Warrens soon collapse like a circus tent and travel to the next stop.
The site called TEXTFILES.COM caused me to regard not only my collection but the contributions of others, and the resulting documentary that I shot about bulletin board systems put me in a lot of homes with a lot of similar Warrens, and somewhere along that continuum, I found myself constructing an awareness of the types of items being collected by me and others, and giving them classifications. In more and more cases, I started to take on others’ collections as well, which forced me to think about it even harder.
Here’s what a few decades of this cobbled together in my mind:
When we end up with our physical and digital piles of material, there’s a couple grand classifications that help parse what we’ve got, and for some folks, they need this to process the next steps to take, especially if they’re overwhelmed. And those classifications are things that are you, things held in trust, and things held in indifference.
Things that are you tends to be stuff that you’ve created, be it writings, photos or saved data that represents projects or memories, and which is relevant as your trail of effect through your lived life. E-mails you’ve written, images you’ve made, and the inevitable works we consciously or unconsciously create as people. These items are not necessarily precious, but they are often rare – you have the only copy or item, only you maintain it. And in fact, only you may see any value in it or understand what it is.
Things held in trust are items that may or may not have deep meaning or relevance to you, but which you acquired from without – the downloaded programs, or bought books, or a six-foot statue you won an auction for years ago. You didn’t make these things, and there may be many copies of them, or you again might have the only one: but if they’re not part of your functioning life, then I consider them “held in trust”, as a caretaker keeps maintaining a garden or structure, towards some future.
Things held in indifference are all those pieces of life that acquire around a certain personality – ranging from discarded envelopes from packages you got, to motherboards and loose screws from machines long gone and pamphlets from trips and travel that you shoved into a suitcase and then forgot about. Some personality types (say, someone who remembers that time long ago he had to give up everything to take what he needed) might impulsively acquire things and then forget about them almost immediately. These collections can overlap with the items held in trust or the things that are the person’s own creations, as well.
When I give advice to people on what to do when they wake up one day and realize they have 2,000 CD-ROMs or piles of magazines they’ll never read, or stacks of VHS tapes of shows they bought 20 years ago and now will never watch, is help them reach the “end of the story”. People want a story, and they want the story to have a happy ending. I advise them on how to frame that story:
..but then, after asking a number of message boards and confidantes about what to do about this multi-gigabyte zip of Wojacks, the collector uploaded them to a website, finally resting knowing this long-gathered precious trust of meme juice would survive another generation. The End.
..but in a shocking twist, it turned out there was a weirdo working for an Archive of the Internet who wanted these stacks of CD-ROMs and floppies, and they offered a home which immediately cleared up that part of the garage, allowing the lawnmower to finally be stored inside, The End.
…having discovered that there are plenty of National Geographic issues to go around and there was no need to keep them around, our hero contacted a local old folks’ home and donated them to the residents’ library, where they were happily passed around and enjoyed for years to come. The End.
What is now past a decade working for the Internet Archive has meant that I’m working in both physical and digital concerns, and each one has challenges and its own peculiar qualities. Millions of items are being shipped to large warehouses controlled by Internet Archive, and millions of files and “items” are being added to the online presence. In some cases, they live in both places, existing in boxes in pallets in shipping containers in rooms in a building, and also inside a .zip file inside an identifier inside a search result on a website.
I’ve concocted ideas, then, on Archiving.
It’s probably as good a time as now to say that I am not universally beloved as a figure or authority. I am not a professionally trained archivist, but I’ve spent my entire life somewhere in the discipline, and it is not hard, if you seek them out, to find people who consider my very existence in the field to be a cavalcade of gaps in judgement by the world and by, perhaps, destiny itself. Why, in a world overflowing with top-notch expertise by individuals educated by some of the finest academic programs and concerns, would this street-wise dandy be considered the one to listen to?
Well, for one thing, I’m fuckin’ hilarious. But I also think it’s because I come to a lot of my conclusions and efforts from the point of view of ad-hoc need and not because I read somewhere that it’s where I should be putting my resources towards. I made a documentary about bulletin boards because I was concerned many of these people would die and there’d be no record of them and their perspective; and I was right. Doing this work put me in touch with lives and people who had collections that lacked a specific interest by established institutions, and so I was the one who helped keep them around, or even take them personally. And when the time came for me to join forces with Internet Archive, I was already strongly my own thing and it was a partnership, not a subsumption.
And so from this situation comes a pile of general credos and rules of thumb I’ve picked up in my travels:
Where possible, save the original. Where possible, digitize the original or maintain a digital copy. Ephemera and transient content is just as important to maintain as products and projects. Digitize at the highest resolution and fidelity possible, but realize you’re never going to get it perfect and keep the originals around, if you can. Make digital copies as widely available as possible, all the time, so it finds its value to people seeking it.
It seems pretty basic stuff, but some of it is hotly contested and virtual ink spilled by the gallon about process, style and considerations along the way. It’s what works for me, and on the whole, it’s been a succcess.
In this world-view, one of the critical parts of the whole aspect of “archiving” is making that digital copy of something physical or analog, using tools and equipment to do so. Naturally, “Born Digital” items merely need to be kept around and maintained, but items that are sitting in another medium or container need to make the leap over the Air Gap into virtual/digital reality and that’s where it gets complicated.
I’ve been asked, in all manner of ways, what the most difficult part of the process is – is it tracking down items to work on, or finding the right order, or devising which video container codec is best for a ripping of a VHS tape, the DPI of a paper scan, or which equipment stack is best for the job?
No, none of that.
It’s the crushing loneliness.
It’s the functional experience of facing down a pile of things that are in one format, and doing whatever steps are taken, over and over, to convert them into another form: the loading of the papers into the feed reader, the stacking of CD-ROMs into a ripping device, the constant movements of putting tapes into tape players and turning the capturing software on and off, typing in the filenames with metadata information as it’s done. Doing it endlessly, facing down hundreds and sometimes thousands of components in a single “collection” with lots of potential for mistakes, do-overs, unexpected failures, and all the bumps in the road for what seems like a very straightforward task.
It’s slowly grinding through a backlog of promises and easily-said agreements to turn This into That, and then finding hours, days, and weeks of your life drained out of you, resulting in barely enough data to fill a percentage of a modern hard drive.
The secret-not-so-secret is a lot of this work falls under “it should be paid for”, because it requires just enough mental capacity as to not be automation-ready, but the minute-to-minute joy of it is absolutely minimal, repetitive, and only enjoyable in the rear view mirror looking back at all the stuff you did. The occasional bright gem of something truly interesting and weird won’t make up for the hundreds of times you’ll be getting a necessary but basic item hoisted into digital, and after enough time, you just wear out.
When I started digitizing VHS tapes en masse, I did a bunch of research and asking a number of people how they approached the task, and an interesting theme of conclusions came out: Most were working with a specific set of items, and most of them burnt out after 20 to 50 tapes. Almost nobody went past that amount, even when they had many more to do.
My solution, then, was to Stream.
For the years I’ve been doing the fundamentally boring VHS and U-Matic tape ripping as part of my projects, I’ve almost always had a stream going on Twitch. It’s at https://twitch.tv/textfiles and it has ranged from a non-camera showing of what was being digitized to a full-on just-short-of-a-televised-show experience, while I move through piles of cassettes stacked to the ceiling from donated sets.
In this way, I’ve digitized (at this juncture) over two thousand videotapes, with many more to come.
The initial work was being done out of my actual apartment, which made sense until it really, really didn’t.
The nature of this sort of project is spare parts, awaiting cardboard boxes, and a mildew smell that starts to hit you when you walk in. At some phase of life, this is tolerable, but just like separating things that are you from things held in trust, it’s better to have a dedicated workshop away from a living space.
So, I started renting an office.
It’s in one of those facilities where they have dozens of rental rooms and has a set of group amenities like a kitchen, copy room, and even meeting rooms. Obviously, it cost more than just stuffing everything into my home, but the separation has turned out to be particularly healthy, both in terms of knowing what lying around is my own stuff, and what is destined for long-term storage after being digitized.
After consulting with my friend Kyle, I re-imagined the entire “streaming” approach to be focused on the image, and having it both look good, and look informative. The result is striking:
People have asked what the huge monitor is, behind me. I’ll answer that one straight off – it’s a cheap LCD TV, purchased for my apartment and long-since superseded by others but still working enough to look fine on a camera. The lighting is from two $25 LED lights designed for the purpose, along with a webcam aimed down the maw of the U-Matic tape device, since I have to keep the top off anyway (constant cleaning). The camera recording me is a mirrorless DSLR (a few hundred dollars) in constant monitor mode, and sending it all to a HDMI-to-USB Camlink.
Some time in the future, let me go into further detail of The Setup and the Toolchain, which a certain segment of audience can’t get enough of, and another can’t stand a smidgen of.
Instead, let me say that what’s obvious, looking in the context of my full life with this endeavor, is that I’ve built yet another Warren.
Cameras and framing are very deceiving. The room is tiny, barely 70 square feet. The day I toured the facility and was sent the stack of paper I needed to sign up for a year of long-term residence, they included a “typical” picture, which is either my office or the one next to it, and the difference is striking:
Because of the equipment, it runs very hot in there. Because I’ve got all the projects going on from so many sources, it’s also a bit noisy. Filters on my studio microphone prevent my audience from hearing the never-ending humming.
Composing the dull, generic room that I was given into the cyber-scape of fluorescent dreams that now appears on the Twitch stream has been a multi-year project. Tapes and other products move in, get processed, boxed up, shipped out. Streams have been a few minutes or many hours, depending on what I’m focused on and what time permits. And because I have a dedicated space, I can be very loud, very intense, and be able to speak freely on subjects without worrying I’m ruining anyone’s living conditions or sleep. It has worked spectacularly.
But again, the real purpose of this Warren is to share – to share with people online (thousands of them, over the years) with what I’m up to, to have conversations or debates through chat and phones, and to be able to conduct myself in a way that doesn’t feel like a prison sentence, even if the space I’m functioning in resembles a jail cell a little too much.
I know this set of decisions and designs is not for everyone. Not everyone wants to yammer constantly while doing their job to a shifting, weird audience of onlookers. Not everyone feels they need multi-colored lights and a massive background video to conduct themselves, but not everyone is processing thousands of videotapes all their waking hours, with a dreary consistency that would have long-ago wrenched all joy and delight from the occasional discoveries. Even with my motivations to archive and share being life-long, and my individual cramped spaces being laboratories that I use to experiment and improve my processes, it turns out that isolation didn’t give me focus – audiences do.
Here, in the contemporary time of my archiving life, really an archiving lifetime, is me now trying to turn the promise of endless stacks of media and materials into digital form, to make them reachable to the world, before something, and there’s more than a few somethings up to the task, takes me out of the game. It’s a life born of a tragedy, but that tragedy caused perspective, and that perspective has given me an awareness of how much has been done and how much is left to do.
From my cramped Warren launches hundreds of recorded moments, and maybe, with the help of a kind set of eyes, I’ll get a lot more of the work ahead done.
The twitch stream is at https://twitch.tv/textfiles. See you there.