What to Keep
I noticed a philosophical divide among the many archivists I spoke with. Digital archivists were committed to keeping all the pieces with the mentality that you simply never know what you would possibly want at some point, while skilled archivists who worked with family and institutional collections said it was essential to pare all the way down to make an archive manageable for individuals who take a look at it in the longer term.
“It’s often very surprising what seems to matter,” said Jeff Ubois, who’s in the primary camp and has organized conferences dedicated to private archiving.
He brought up a historical example. During World War II, the British war office asked individuals who had taken coastal vacations to send of their postcards and pictures, an intelligence-gathering exercise to map the coastline that led to the number of Normandy as the perfect place to land troops.
Mr. Ubois said it’s hard to predict the longer term uses of what we save. Am I socking this away only for me, to reflect on my life as I age? Is it for my descendants? Is it for a synthetic intelligence that can act as a memory prosthetic after I’m 90? And if that’s the case, does that A.I. really want to keep in mind that I Googled “starbucks ice cream calorie count” one morning in January 2011?
Pre-internet, we pared down our collections to make them manageable. But now, we now have metadata and advanced search techniques to sort through our lives: timestamps, geotags, object recognition. After I recently lost an in depth relative, I used the facial recognition feature in Apple Photos to unearth photos of him I’d forgotten I’d taken. I used to be glad to have them, but should I keep all of the photos, even the unflattering ones?
Bob Clark, the director of archives on the Rockefeller Archive Center, said that the overall rule of thumb in his occupation is that lower than 5 percent of the fabric in a group is value saving. He faulted the technology corporations for offering an excessive amount of cupboard space, eliminating the necessity for deliberating over what we keep.
“They’ve made it really easy that they’ve turned us into unintentional data hoarders,” he said.
The businesses try, occasionally, to play the role of memory miner, surfacing moments that they think must be meaningful, probably aiming to extend my engagement with their platform or encourage brand loyalty. But their algorithmic archivists inadvertently highlight the worth of human curation.