How is the history of a nation remembered? Well — it all depends on what you keep. We’re talking about recipes, your old record collection, wedding dresses, newspapers, family letters or even your own personal diary. These are the types of documents future generations depend on to understand past American culture.
On this episode, Joanne, Ed and Nathan talk about the people who decided to take it upon themselves to collect stuff they knew people would care about someday — even if others thought they were weird.
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NATHAN: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.
ED: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory.
JOANNE: Welcome to BackStory, the show that explains the history behind today’s headlines. I’m Joanne Freeman.
NATHAN: I’m Nathan Connolly.
ED: And I’m Ed Ayers.
JOANNE: OK, so Nathan, Ed, I want to introduce you to a historical character who I’m particularly fond of.
ED: I’ll look forward to meeting him or her.
JOANNE: He’s a little quirky but really interesting. Picture this. It’s Washington, DC. It’s 1802. A man named William Plumer has just been elected to the Senate from New Hampshire, so the capitol is his base. Now imagine– Plumer’s a guy. He’s kind of tall. He’s kind of thin. He’s not really a flashy dresser. In that sense, he’s kind of New England-ish. So Plumer moves to the capitol at a time of pretty intense political divisions. His party, the Federalist, had just been booted out of power by Thomas Jefferson’s Republican Party.
ED: So I guess not everything has changed in Washington since 1802, huh?
JOANNE: No, definitely not. So he arrives in Washington, and he’s grouchy. He already feels like he’s an outsider and everything that he loves might be crashing to ruin.
So, early in his term, Plumer is wandering around the halls of the capitol, and he stumbles across a lumber room and peeks inside.
ED: I’m sorry, a lumber room?
NATHAN: Ed, I actually have one of those in my house. No.
JOANNE: Don’t we all have lumber rooms?
ED: So it’s a kind of storage room.
And he peeks into this lumber room, or storage room, or whatever you want to call it, and what does he see? Documents. He sees manuscripts. He sees papers. And they’re all over the place. We know this because he writes about this in his diary.
MALE SPEAKER: The documents principally lay on the floor without any order, covered and mixed with dirt, plaster, and rubbish.
JOANNE: So Plumer is horrified.
MALE SPEAKER: The water in every rain that falls runs through the roof and wets these papers. They will soon be destroyed. They are trodden under foot by workmen. The quantity of water on the papers, the dirt and filth in the chamber, has rendered it unhealthy.
ED: These are the original documents?
JOANNE: These are original documents. You know, it’s not the formal journal of the House and the formal journal of the Senate, which are kept by a clerk. It is drafts of things, probably copies of reports, or notes of proceedings.
NATHAN: The stuff that we would like, as historians, basically. The database stuff.
JOANNE: Exactly! The stuff that has all the nifty detail, and the crossings out, and all of these documents that clearly have something to do with the working of Congress. But nobody cared about them, and they had been thrown in this room and forgotten.
NATHAN: Wow, so that would be like finding John F. Kennedy’s memos in a leaky closet or something.
JOANNE: Exactly. And Plumer has an epiphany.
He decides that he’s going to make it his mission to preserve these kinds of working documents, to collect the history of the government, to keep all of these things that are disintegrating and vanishing and somehow become the guy who pulls them all together and hangs on to them for the future.
[? NATHAN: ?] Wow.
JOANNE: He is obsessed. He collects papers from the lumber room. He goes to the library and copies things. He asks congressmen to give him things. Apparently, every day for two hours, he would do his research to collect documents. After a while, Republicans got a little suspicious about what this Federalist was doing rummaging around in papers. So he began to memorize things and copy them down at night so that he could have a full record of Congress, from 1774 all the way up to the early 19th century that he’s writing about.
NATHAN: That must have been a lot of paper.
JOANNE: It was a lot of paper. He ends up with an archive of 500 bound volumes.
JOANNE: But he also then begins to record what he sees and what he hears. He writes down all of these amazing things that we wouldn’t have otherwise, that we wouldn’t know otherwise.
ED: Like what, Joanne?
JOANNE: So, for example, he happens to note down on a piece of paper that the clock in the Senate is set a half hour fast on purpose, so that the Senate can end every day in time for the senators to get to the horse races on time. They don’t want to miss the horse races. And then he says, I actually think that’s for the better, because the less the Senate can do, the better it is for the country.
[? NATHAN: ?] Wow.
JOANNE: We would never know that otherwise. He takes notes on what he sees when he’s invited to go and have formal dinners with President Thomas Jefferson. He talks about how Jefferson would very strategically set his table with these little props, like stagecraft, scattered around the table so that hopefully the conversation would veer towards what he wants it to veer toward. So there’d be a vial of water from the Mississippi River, or a piece of what was known at the time as the mammoth cheese, which was this massive, 1,200 pound cheese given to Jefferson as a tribute.
ED: I can see how that might come up.
NATHAN: Made of mammoth milk, presumably, right?
JOANNE: And then, poof! They’re talking about Lewis and Clark. Or, well, this cheese was given to me by appreciative farmers. You’re in the room at this dinner party, sort of watching the operation of politics in a way you might not otherwise have.
NATHAN: And he’s keeping all of this in his own personal collection.
JOANNE: He’s got stuff in trunks. He has massive amounts of stuff based on his time in the Senate. And then, also, after he’s out of the Senate, he continues on with this kind of behavior for 50 years.
ED: So Plumer’s an interesting guy. Did all his hard work end up making a difference?
JOANNE: Ed, you’re asking me, so what?
Is that what you’re doing?
ED: Well, kind of. But I thought that I used more words
JOANNE: OK, here’s the so what. He’s collecting things. He’s collecting not the formal journal of the House or the formal journal of the Senate, which record what’s voted on, and who voted for what. He’s collecting all the behind-the-scenes working. He’s recording the working of the institution and all the sorts of things that might not be seen as important, but that actually show you the process of governance. He clearly feels that the history of Congress and the history of early America is just vanishing before his eyes. I think at one point he says it’s fleeting down the current of time to oblivion.
JOANNE: And someone has to rescue it. He uses the word rescue. Because it really is a feel for the time, the look of the time. The sort of ground-level reality of what’s going on is part of what Plumer leaves behind.
OK, so I’m going to get down to brass tacks here. I’m a historian of the early republic. So, to me, William Plumer is really an unsung hero. He helped preserve a fuller and more accurate image of early American history for future generations– history that really wouldn’t be available otherwise.
NATHAN: So today we’re bringing you a show about people like William Plumer. These aren’t ivory-tower historians like your BackStory hosts. They’re ordinary citizens, people who collect and catalog the minutiae of daily life around them, things that might not be around centuries, or even decades, later. All of us, not just historians, depend on these folks to understand the past.
ED: We’ll explore the power of historical artifacts. And we’ll hear about the types of things that BackStory listeners collect and save. We’ll also talk to someone who’s trying to archive the internet.
JOANNE: William Plumer was a pretty unusual character in early America. With the nation still young, charging into the future, and cities modernizing at a rapid pace, most Americans didn’t think too much about the nation’s past. They focused on its future. For more on this, I turn to someone who studies it.
SETH COTLAR: My name is Seth Cotlar, and I teach history at Willamette University.
JOANNE: Cotlar says if a 19th-century American visited a Revolutionary War battlefield, they would probably just encounter apathetic farmers.
SETH COTLAR: People would come by, curious about these places, and would ask people about them. They’d say, oh yeah, I guess something happened here. I don’t know. Maybe it was over there.
Ask Bob. I think his farm is where they were fighting, or something.
JOANNE: Even some of our most revered historical sites were in danger of being flattened.
SETH COTLAR: Independence Hall– I think at one point they were considering just tearing it down because it was in the way of new, modern construction.
JOANNE: Why? I mean, it’s hard to imagine these places being really taken for granted in that way. So what do you attribute that to?
SETH COTLAR: I don’t know. Do you have theories about this? I mean–
JOANNE: Well, it’s a really interesting question. Maybe it really is that it isn’t the founding yet, to them. It’s just that stuff that just happened.
SETH COTLAR: Right. And the nation itself doesn’t feel monumental and grandiose yet? Perhaps that’s it? That it’s like a junior varsity country?
JOANNE: But that started to change by the 1820s. That’s when Americans realized that objects, and people, from the 18th century were starting to disappear.
SETH COTLAR: And then when Adams and Jefferson die on the same day of July 4th 1826, 50 years to the day after the Declaration of Independence, it leads again to this sense of the passing of this generation, who bequeathed to us this nation in which we now live.
JOANNE: Americans started snapping up biographies of George Washington and other political figures as part of this new appreciation for the past. These biographies were mostly written by elite men of property who knew the founding fathers. But less famous people began collecting stories from the past, too. They called themselves antiquarians
SETH COTLAR: Was it the age of antiquarians?
JOANNE: Yes. This is, indeed, the age of antiquarians. Now, Cotlar told me about one of the first antiquarians, a Philadelphia bank clerk named John Fanning Watson.
SETH COTLAR: In his 30s or 40s, probably, in the late 1810s or early 1820s, he just became obsessed with what he called ancient Philadelphia and the olden times and started collecting information in his spare time. And apparently he also did some of this on his work time, as well, which made the manager at his bank not very happy with him. One of his–
JOANNE: Well, and like what? What was he doing during work?
SETH COTLAR: He was probably looking over old books and taking notes on them, or– gosh, I don’t know. He certainly wasn’t browsing the internet.
JOANNE: Much of the best information on ancient Philadelphia– which, by the way, was pretty much the 18th century– was preserved in family letters stashed away in trunks. So, in the hope of saving some of that stuff, John Fanning Watson started walking around the city, knocking on the doors of prominent Philadelphians.
SETH COTLAR: And he would just go knock on the door and say, hey, did you know that your house was 100 years old? And, by his account, If we can trust him, people would be really excited about this and would want to know more and would start asking him questions. So I think he felt himself like he was sort of the Pied Piper of the olden days. He would try to go around and get other people excited.
He also liked to go around interviewing people, old people. He basically deputized a bunch of other people, who– hey, if you run into someone in their 80s or 90s– the list that I found had, like, 30 questions on it. It involved things like, tell me about Blackbeard and what you know about Blackbeard. Tell me about natural hair and the first time you ever saw natural hair, which I assume means men without wigs, not wearing wigs.
SETH COTLAR: He asked about carriages, to tell them about carriages. He asked them whether or not young people stayed out as late back in the days as they do now, whether people had porches on their houses or not. It was very much the stuff of what we, today, would call cultural history or social history. He wanted to know about the texture of daily life in the city of Philadelphia in the late 18th century 30 or 40 years in the past, with this sense that it was just really different. What it looked and smelled and felt like just was really different than what it is now.
JOANNE: But so he’s giving these lists, seemingly, to his friends to ask old people. So it’s not even just– a historian might say, oh, I want to understand what this period was like. But this is bigger than that, right? He’s collecting on a much wider scale, right?
SETH COTLAR: Right. Yeah. And there really is a sense that he wants to preserve this. He strikes up these conversations with people on a canal boat, and it turns out that this person just happens to have fought in the Battle of Saratoga. And, oh, look, they happen to have a bullet with them in their pocket!
SETH COTLAR: [INAUDIBLE] And they just give him this stuff. Sometimes it’s kind of hard to believe, like, really? But there’s a way in which, when he when he starts asking these questions about the olden times of people who he meets, that frequently he meets with the response of, wait a minute! You’re actually interested in this? Well, let me tell you– And then people just kind of unburden themselves and start talking about this. It was almost like– not a taboo– but it was almost something that people were slightly ashamed, or felt was devalued, talking about this past of 40 or 50 or 60 years ago.
JOANNE: So we know that Watson certainly wasn’t the only person running around and collecting pieces of wood from old houses and pieces of clothing, and asking people about hair. But why don’t you tell us about some of the other people that were doing the same thing?
SETH COTLAR: Yeah, so there was a whole network of these local historians that began to emerge in the 1820s and ’30s. And they became aware of each other as a kind of loose community of antiquaries. Probably the most important antiquary– and that’s what they called themselves, they were antiquaries– of the 1820s and ’30s was a man named Christopher Columbus Baldwin, who was the first professional librarian of the American Antiquarian Society, which today, the historians in the audience will know, is probably the most important archive for studying the history of 18th- and 19th-century America. Christopher Columbus Baldwin took it upon himself to try to collect every single thing printed in North America before the time he was living.
SETH COTLAR: In other words, he would hear about some old tavern in Boston that apparently had a full year of the Boston Gazette from the 1760s. And he would go to Boston and go to that tavern keeper and give him money to get that one year of the Boston Gazette that they didn’t have in their collection. He has this great account in his diary where he spends a week in Boston in August, sweating bullets in an attic going through all of these papers, part of which included part of Cotton Mather’s diary, which he saved from oblivion, because it was about to be just thrown out and burned because the person who had lived in the house had died. And he took all that stuff. And he rented several carts with– I think it was something like 2,000 to 3,000 pounds worth of materials–
SETH COTLAR: –and trucked it all back to Worcester, Massachusetts to be housed in the American Antiquarian Society.
So I think they almost felt themselves to be a bit like the collectors of things that other people would do important work with. And Watson himself says that’s exactly what he intends. He’s just collecting as much stuff as he can, in really no particular order, and other people will then make of it what they will.
And that’s kind of interesting. His capacious understanding of what counts as history is something that makes him feel really modern to us– that he cares about what people’s hair looked like! I don’t think he knew why anybody would care, and I don’t think he even knew why he was interested in it. He just knew he was curious about it. And, thankfully, he was, because now, if we want to write about the history of hairstyles or the history of fashion– for example, one of the things he did in his manuscript version of the Annals is that he clipped sections of the dresses that women wore to the Meschianza in the 1780s in Philadelphia–
JOANNE: –which was this grand ball. It was a big dance, the Meschianza.
SETH COTLAR: Right, this big dance held by British officers stationed in Philadelphia, which is an event that a lot of historians have subsequently written about as this window into the culture of Philadelphia in the 1780s. And a lot of the raw materials that we use to do that were collected by people like John Fanning Watson.
JOANNE: So I have a question for you, Seth. So how do these people feel about the past? Are they collecting all these things because they’re longing for that time, and they want to go back to that time?
SETH COTLAR: I think that there’s an element of that. There’s a degree of melancholy about this, a sense of loss, that can’t be made better. But I think they understood that that past was not coming back. They understood that the railroad was here and was here to stay. What they’re registering is, when change happens, it produces both new things that are liberating and wonderful in some ways, yet, in the process of producing that new, it also destroys things from the past that we also maybe really like and really want.
And so it’s a way of kind of naming the harm that comes with change. The ideology of modernization tells you, you’re not allowed to feel that way. We’re not allowed to be sad and mournful for the days of walking between towns, or whatever it might be. That’s just silly, devalued nostalgia. But yet there’s also pleasure. This nostalgia always has– it’s always a mixture of pleasure and pain.
JOANNE: And all the more pleasurable, as you say, because they know they can’t have it again.
SETH COTLAR: Yeah, there’s a kind of bittersweetness to it, and a kind of acknowledgement of the pain of change, but without this kind of humorless desire to just stop it in its tracks and keep everything the same.
JOANNE: Seth Cotlar is a historian at Willamette University. He’s working on a cultural history of nostalgia in early America.
ED: It’s time to take a short break. When we get back, how we reconstruct the past from the stuff that people save.
NATHAN: But first, a word from today’s sponsor.
JOANNE: OK, so Ed, Nathan, before the break we heard about these people in the 1820s, these self-described antiquarians, who saved items from the past.
NATHAN: Over the past few weeks, we asked our listeners what items and artifacts they collect. Here are some of their responses.
JANINE HIGGINS: I’m Janine Higgins, a collector of bones. Bones are beautiful in their form and for their function. I have black bear and bird bones, bobcat, whitetail deer, beaver bones, and wolf and jaguar bones. I find these bones on my hikes. I study these bones for my work. I’m a wild animal artist.
JEFF WAXMAN: I collect coins because a coin tells a story. And I like the short stories best, the coins of countries that no longer exist, monarchies or colonies that barely ever existed. I heard the Croat writer Dubravka Ugresic speak one night 10 years ago about a Balkan man she knew who had lived in six countries without ever moving house. Our boundaries and our fortifications and checkpoints and mines scar only the surface. But the metal that we pull from the earth and make into coins keeps telling stories long after a nation and all of its citizens have died.
STUART LUTZ: My name is Stewart Lutz, and I live in New Jersey. I love buying great pieces of Vietnam War history. I collect both sides, the Vietnamese and the American, the pro-war and the anti-war. I feel like a curator and a preserver of such an important event.
ZEV FELDMAN: My name is Zev Feldman. I’ve been called the Indiana Jones of Jazz or the jazz detective. I wake up every morning on a mission to find the most important jazz recordings that have never been released– a long lost Thelonious Monk studio album from 1959, or never-before-heard 1968 recordings by Bill Evans. It’s a never-ending journey. There’s a real sense of urgency for me to find and release these important recordings for the sake of generations to come, before they’re simply lost and not found.
NATHAN: That was Janine Higgins, Jeff Waxman, Stuart Lutz, and Zev Feldman. Thanks to all the listeners who reached out.
ED: Joanne and Nathan, I have a confession to make.
ED: I spend my life thinking about all these dead people, and I don’t have anything that’s old or any desire to own anything. I don’t even like old stuff. What’s wrong with me?
JOANNE: Now, I’ve got to get specific here. Like, nothing? You don’t have a craving to own a book that belonged to someone that you’ve written about, or something like that?
ED: Not very much, to be honest.
JOANNE: Not so much?
ED: I’m willing to believe it’s something wrong with me. But when I talk to people who work in the Civil War field, a lot of people have a lot of stuff. And there’s a lot of people with private collections and things. And I always feel somewhat inadequate when I talk to them because they want me to be excited about this gun, or about this epaulet, or whatever. And I don’t really touch the past through these means.
But if we didn’t have people like that, the three of us wouldn’t have things to write about very much, if somebody hadn’t gone back and selected these things. I’m just wondering, what is it about the gene of someone who collects, and what is it about that those of us who interpret the record of the past? I mean, where do you fit?
JOANNE: Well, but I think the record of those who interpret the past isn’t even one-dimensional in that way. I wouldn’t say that I am a collector. But I do know a colleague whose entire house is furnished in early-American furnishings, very deliberately. I’m not that person, but I am the person who needs to own something that the person I’m writing about owned, just so that I can sort of have a piece of that person with me when I’m writing. So I want something that has meaning, meaning to me. And maybe that’s part of what we’re talking about today, things invested with meaning, rather than just things.
NATHAN: No, absolutely. I was reminded of the fact that during the Middle Ages people trafficked in these relics. This could be the finger of the Virgin Mary. This could be the cross, or a piece of the cross, that Jesus held. And, certainly, we never go back that far on BackStory. But the desire to keep something that has a certain kind of magic, really, from the past is not in any way, shape, or form a new thing.
I, in contrast to Ed, actually have a fake artifact that I really, really like. And I bring it with me everywhere. So I have, in my possession, a replica of a colored-only waiting room sign. And I use it in classes. I use it when I go on the road to give talks. And I use it because it really does trigger a response from the audience to see an object that may well be real. And I don’t try to pass it off as being real. If anybody asks, I’m happy to tell them it’s a replica.
But it’s that kind of locked gaze that the sign gets from the audiences when I pull it out that really does attest to the fact that, for many people, their engagement with the past is material. If they can see something that’s really real from that period, it makes everything that you say subsequently much more believable. You know?
There’s a problem that many historians have where we sometimes think that everything ought to be text-based, or that people’s relationship to the past is similar to how we write, or if we can present the documents and the footnotes then it’s all going to be fine. But there’s something much more visceral, I think, that those images speak to. But I, personally, am not going to decorate my entire home in mid-20th-century Jim-Crow-era stuff.
ED: So you made the point that I was thinking [INAUDIBLE] our faith, professional academic historians’ faith in the word. And wherever those words are is good enough for me, if they’re in a book or on a screen. I’ve gotten into passionate arguments with people who argue that, unless you’re actually breathing the dust off a document, you can’t really understand it. So tell me this– are you struck more by our similarities to these collectors or by our difference? Are we part of the same family, with just different fetishes?
JOANNE: I think the people who we’re talking about today have some kind of an emotional sense of the importance of what they’re doing that’s invested in that stuff. And I guess I would say, as a historian, I also have a sense of mission or importance, or something that drives me beyond just wanting to play with documents and write things. So I would say, when I first was writing my first book and I came across Plumer, what touched me about him was his gradual realization that history was fading and that someone had to do something or it was going to go away. And he had a sense that there was value here, and he needed to collect it and pass it on. And I don’t think that’s that far removed from what we do, is it?
ED: Well, here’s a question for you folks. William Plumer is there finding the documents of the founding of the United States on the floor of the lumber room. We can see how he might think there was something important. But today, after so many generations of people saving and archiving, the Library of Congress, is there any need for this sort of thing anymore?
NATHAN: Oh, it’s absolutely imperative. It’s one of the principal tasks facing us now, as we’re losing more and more people who were part of the early part of the 20th century, the mid-20th century. There are entire eras that need to be reclaimed and captured.
JOANNE: And voices. And kinds of voices.
NATHAN: And voices, absolutely. The William Plumers of the world, if you’re listening now, there are actually stores of documents that are very valuable that are just about to be lost to us, and it’s really important that our listeners appreciate that they need to get going and save [INAUDIBLE] some of this stuff.
Just to give you an example, so Zora Neale Hurston, who famously wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God, who was a very important folklorist of both African-American and African diaspora culture– Hurston’s career spans from the time of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s through the mid 20th century. And Hurston, as was true of many African-American artists, spent much of her life living kind of hand-to-mouth and basically died in near-poverty and was left in the care of the state. Her personal papers are in the archive of the University of Florida, the special collections. And they have literal burn marks around the edges because they had to be fished out of the flames of the group home that she lived in in the final years of her life.
NATHAN: They were going to destroy letters, drafts of essays, tons of material, just as part of general housekeeping.
JOANNE: Nathan, you just became Plumer in the lumber room.
NATHAN: I’ll wear it proudly. I think I share dear Mr. Plumer’s sense of indignation and urgency, frankly, about– we need to save this very fragile relationship we have with the near past.
NATHAN: Podcast listeners, we’re looking at you. We need your input on an upcoming episode. We’re working on a show about military enlistment, so we’re curious. If you’re an active service member or a veteran, why did you join up? What drew you to the armed forces? We want you to share your stories. You can record yourself on your smartphone or computer and send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can just write us and tell us about it. Just don’t forget to include your name and where you’re from. We’re looking forward to hearing from you.
ED: We’re going to turn now to a much more modern artifact, the internet. Every day, people leave digital footprints of their lives when they send e-mails and text, tweet and post articles and upload photos. So while 19th-century Americans such as William Plumer and John Fanning Watson went out of their way to collect personal information, has the internet solved the problem of historical preservation? We called Jason Scott, an internet archivist, to find out.
JASON SCOTT: Parts of the internet will, by some people’s vision, last forever. And we’ll never get rid of it, and it will be all of our old dog photos, and it’ll be every terrible thing we ever said to somebody. Turns out it’s just not that.
JOANNE: Scott says some digital content does vanish, and we’re not just talking about old dog photos. When the Rocky Mountain News folded in 2009, its Pulitzer-Prize-nominated digital series disappeared from the web. Scott says this sort of thing happens pretty often.
JASON SCOTT: As time goes on, people take down websites. Services go down. People change things. Newspapers change things. The front page of a newspaper web site will change constantly all day. And, of course, we will see all of these cases where people want to take things down, either because they’re trying to change their message– you’ll have a business that supports a candidate, and then the candidate does something awful, and then, surprise, there’s no record of that anymore. Good luck–
JOANNE: It’s deliberately gone, right.
JASON SCOTT: Right
ED: Scott works for a nonprofit called the Internet Archive. It rescues websites and other digital content from the internet before it gets deleted. He also runs an online volunteer group that saves web pages that might otherwise vanish. The Archive maintains an enormous stash of music, books, movies, and software. It also has nearly 300 billion searchable sites in what it calls the Wayback Machine, a fond tribute to Mr. Peabody and Sherman from the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon.
JOANNE: On this wayback machine, you can visit Bob Dole’s 1996 campaign site or click around CNN’s old OJ Simpson trial page. Scott says maintaining these old web sites is important because unlike old newspapers, these kinds of materials are not sitting around in someone’s attic.
JASON SCOTT: One of the interesting paradoxes with digital information is how it is so easy to make a copy, but it is also so easy to destroy and lose something forever. If you defund the library, and you take the books and you shove them into a shipping container on someone’s backyard, and you go back later, there might be some mold. But you’ll probably be able to look through most of the books and be pretty happy. But if a company goes under and they were the catmemories.com, and you go in there and you go like, well, how are my cat memories now, the answer is, oh, those hard drives are off. We sold them. They’re gone. There’s no record of this anymore.
JASON SCOTT: And that’s just a different world.
JOANNE: When did you realize that the internet, or that technology, wouldn’t be permanent?
JASON SCOTT: I was doing this sort of thing when I was 11, back in 1981. The reason why was my parents got divorced. And I learned very quickly, hey, maybe you can’t depend on everything you see existing after you take your eyes off it. So I was printing out things from computer bulletin board systems and early online services, and kind of storing them away on floppy disks.
JASON SCOTT: And, when the internet came along, I was kind of, I bet I could look up all the information on those old places I used to call when I was young. And there was none, so I put up a website where I put up everything I had. And, in doing so, I stumbled backwards into becoming a librarian and historian related to online world. And the work I do with volunteers– a lot of them internalize that message. So, the minute we see a company has bought another company, suddenly there’s this rush of trying to copy everything about the soon disappearing entity–
JASON SCOTT: –before all the other people come along and say, well, we don’t need to keep this up, and we don’t need this old message. And, of course, the Internet Archive is doing this very interesting crawl through all of the world of everything all the time, because you can’t know, truly, what’s going to be important. And so they’re watching for anytime someone tweets about a YouTube video, or when there’s news articles being published that are changed, and they’ll try to track those. And it’s just random.
JOANNE: So the randomness is, on the one hand, bad because important things inevitably slip away. But it’s also kind of wonderful because you get the texture of things in a way that you probably couldn’t do on purpose. Or, if you did, you’d have to make that your life project.
JASON SCOTT: Right.
JOANNE: I shall collect the texture of life in the late 20th or early 21st century.
JASON SCOTT: Right. And people are going to be like, they really thought they were important, didn’t they?
JOANNE: Yeah, true.
JASON SCOTT: We try not to curate too hard. And does it mean that we’re drowning in a Citizen-Kane-like warehouse? The answer is, probably. Probably pretty crazy in there.
It’s incredibly fun to go to a place like the International Museum of Axe Handles, which I’ve just made up, and have this canonical collection of axe handles that has been carefully curated. It’s another thing to go to a museum of every kind of tool. And they don’t quite know what everything is in there, and you don’t even know what half these tools are. And some of them are from dentists, and some of them are from landscapers. We are really in a good world for serendipitous exploration.
JOANNE: Is there something that you saved that had particular meaning for you, that you thought, oh, thank heavens that this was saved?
JASON SCOTT: In very early internet, we’re talking pre-web, there was something called the Internet Underground Music Archive. And this was three guys from Santa Cruz who were musicians, who were making their music available online in the form of downloadable audio files. And they turned it into a website when the website came to be. And throughout the ’90s, they were kind of a mainstay of music, especially unsigned bands. And then the dot-com boom happened. They were purchased. And then that company just slowly murdered the web site over the course of the next eight years and closed it down in 2009.
I was given tapes of that web site. And we put it all back up, 450,000 tracks of music from 35,000 bands or something. So it lives again. That’s great.
JOANNE: Wow. So it’s alive again. Yeah. So you’re doing all of this work, preserving all of this stuff, on some kind of technology. So the question is, how do you know that at some point in the future people will be able to read your technology?
JASON SCOTT: Oh, we super don’t. We absolutely don’t. We are absolutely doing a huge bet. We’re hoping that technology, and interest, and long-term storage, and everything will conflate into a functional, retrievable library. This is a huge bet.
When I summarize history and historians and saving archives, I’m like, you’re going, dun-dun-dun-dun-dun so that, in 1,000 years, they’ll go, dun-dun! And you have no idea if that’s going to happen at all. But by making everything we’re gathering available back as soon as possible, as widely as possible, we’re hedging against that bet. And we’re providing value to the world, regardless.
JOANNE: So in a way what you’re saying is, in the same way that you’re showing how the past matters by collecting it, and you’re saving it for the future– but that the present matters, too.
Jason Scott is an archivist and software curator at the Internet Archive.
NATHAN: That’s going to do it for today. But you can keep the conversation going with us online. Let us know what you thought of the episode. And we’re still collecting enlistment stories from service members and veterans, so tell us why you enlisted. Just go to BackStoryRadio.org, or send an email to BackStory@virginia.edu. We’re also on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter at BackStoryRadio. And if you like the show, and we know you do, feel free to review us at the iTunes store. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.
ED: This episode of BackStory was produced by Andrew Parsons, Brigid McCarthy, Nina Earnest, Emily Gadek, and Ramona Martinez. Jamal Millner is our technical director, Diana Williams is our digital editor, and Joy [? Thompson ?] is our researcher. Additional help came from [? Sequoyah ?] [? Kirylo, ?] Emma Gregg, Aidan Lee, [? Courtney ?] [? Hispania, ?] [? Robin ?] [? Blue, ?] and [? Elizabeth ?] [? Spade. ?] Our theme song was written by Nick Thorburn. Other music on our show came from Podington Bear, Ketsa, and Jahzzar. Special thanks to Zak Shelby-Szyszko at Resonance Records, Emily Yankowitz at Yale University, and to Johns Hopkins University Studio in Baltimore.
JOANNE: BackStory is produced at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Major support is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.
FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia and the Dorothy Compton Professor at the Miller Center of Public Affairs. Ed Ayers is Professor of the Humanities and President Emeritus at the University of Richmond. Joanne Freeman is Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University. Nathan Connolly is the Herbert Baxter Adams Associate Professor of History at the Johns Hopkins University. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. In.