There Will Be No Digital Dark Age

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Below is a post from Bertram Lyons addressing the alleged “Digital Dark Age.” If you have an issue you would like to write about for this blog series or a previous post that you would like to respond to, please email

[Update: Eira Tansey, from SAA’s Records Management Roundtable has written a response to this piece.]

On January 4, 2016, NPR published a story, “Will Future Historians Consider These Days The Digital Dark Ages?”, with the tagline: “We are awash in a sea of information, but how do historians sift through the mountain of data? In the future, computer programs will be unreadable, and therefore worthless, to historians.”[1]

As is often the case with news media, there is a noticeable absence in the way the story is framed. Read the tagline again. What is missing? It seems that the journalist ignores the fact that historians[2] have intermediaries called archivists who not only select and aggregate data for the future but who have also been heavily engaged in the question of digital preservation and digital acquisition since at least the 1980s.[3] We, as archivists, are not absent, and have not been absent from the action.[4] We are, however, hidden in the public narrative. This not being the first time that I felt frustrated to see archivists (and our sibling professions) left out of the conversation, I left a note on the NPR comment page for the article:

“Hi Eric. This is a nice story. Something we need to remember, and that did not come across in your story, is that this is an issue that archives, libraries, museums, funding agencies (IMLS, NEH, NSF), and many, many others have dedicated decades of time and millions of dollars into researching, responding to, and developing methods to prevent such a digital dark age. Nothing in your report is news to any practicing records managers, archivists, cultural heritage collection managers, librarians, or any others whose responsibility it is to take care of historical and informational documentation. It is great that NPR is promoting this issue, but please do not promote the issue as if only a few prophet-like or savior-like individuals are involved. From NASA to the Smithsonian, from Harvard to Indiana University, from the Internet Archive to the British Library, there is an army of practitioners working on this problem—and it will take an army, not just a few, to ensure we carry our digital information with us into the future. But we will succeed, just as we succeeded in previous generations by amassing an army of librarians to carry our books with us, and an army of museologists to carry our artifacts.”

I really am not sure how many people this comment reached. Maybe no more than 30 if I had to make a guess. But that is not the real point of this post. The point is not about my small response to this one report on NPR. One of the points I hope to make has already been stated: We are not and have not been absent from the digital preservation questions. We are, however, hidden in the public narrative. From emerging efforts to improve social media data collection activities such as Documenting the Now[5] to decade-old web archiving programs such as the Internet Archive; from the ePADD email analysis project at Stanford University[6] to the enduring work of the Digital Preservation Management Workshops and Tutorials,[7] as well as the Digital POWRR project;[8] from LOCKSS and CLOCKSS networks to the continued outreach of the NDSA; from the forensic methodologies applied in the archives domain via the BitCurator project[9] to the millions of hours audiovisual archivists the world over have already put into the process of avoiding the never-mentioned magnetic dark age;[10] the list of archive-based digital preservation and documentation initiatives goes on. Seriously, the list of projects and research alone could fill an archive, not to mention the enormous amount of actual digital content collected, selected, and processed each day by archivists, librarians, museum professionals, records managers, and many others in the collecting domains around the world. We are there, we are doing the work, we will continue to do the work, and we, most of all, must continue to communicate about our digital preservation work outside of the walls of the archive profession.[11]

However, even a few weeks into the future, I would argue with myself about the comment I made on the NPR site. I did not go far enough to address the important topics of selection and appraisal, nor the complexity of who collects and selects the documentation that will persist into the future. Which leads to the other point I hope to make in the context of a digital dark age: the concepts of selection and agency to collect are more salient today than the fear of lost bits. We critique the contents of archives today — the absences, the presences — because, as archivists, we know that appraisal and selection matter. Even as, today, we ask important questions about how these activities should change — focusing on what is selected for the archive and by whom, and to be stored where and for how long — we ask these questions to improve the effect archives and archivists can have on society, to reveal assumptions and biases in the practice of archives, and, in turn, to affect change within the archives profession itself.

The digital dark age will not happen in the way that the media predict it. We should not be blinded by a fear of the inability to ensure persistence of digital information. As I mentioned above, it is obvious that as a profession (and as part of larger communities) we are engaged in the technical solutions to that issue.[12] If we have any digital dark age, it will manifest, as has been the case in the past with other forms of information, as a silence within the archive, as a series of gaping holes where groups of individuals and communities are absent because there was no path into the archive for them,[13] where important social events go undocumented because we were not prepared to act quickly enough, and where new modalities for communication are not planned for. The digital dark age will only happen if we, as communities of archives and archivists, do not reimagine appraisal and selection in light of the historical gaps revealed in collections today.

It is the digital-ness of today’s world that may actually allow archives to reach out to and to document (or to support self-documentation of) the enormity and complexity of society in a way that has never been feasible before.[14]

Bertram Lyons is a Certified Archivist and senior consultant with AVPreserve, where he specializes in digital asset management, digital preservation strategy, digital repository development, and in the acquisition, management, and preservation of documentary, research, and cultural heritage collections.

 For fourteen years Bert has worked as an archivist for extensive archives, first at the Alan Lomax Archive and most recently at the American Folklife Center (AFC) at the Library of Congress, where he developed tools, policies, and partnerships around the development and management of analog and digital archival collections. His recent activities include the implementation of digital risk assessment standards in the assessment of digital preservation environments; development of digital collections management workflows, tools, and policies (including a new tool, Exactly); the design and implementation of a nation-wide, EAD-compliant, multi-user online cataloging platform for folklore collections, a project sponsored by the American Folklore Society and hosted at Indiana University; the design, development, and implementation of the U.S. International Standard Music Number (ISMN) web application for the Music Division at the Library of Congress, the U.S. ISMN agency; as well as the development of a collaborative workflow system for the congressionally mandated U.S. Civil Rights History Project, a born-digital oral-history partnership between the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

 Bert is active nationally and internationally with professional archival organizations such as the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives (Member of the Executive Board and Editor of IASA publications) and the Society of American Archivists (Chair of the Membership Committee). He has also received certification from the Academy of Certified Archivists and is a graduate of the Archives Leadership Institute. He holds a MA in museum studies with a focus in American studies and archival theory from the University of Kansas.

Bert is also an associate lecturer in the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he teaches Archive Appraisal & Theory, Digital Curation, and Web & Social Media Archiving. He will be serving as a new SAA DAS faculty member in 2016, teaching an introductory course on command line scripting for archive workflows.

[1] Retrieved from, 2016-04-27.

[2] Actually, many who write “history” today are heavily engaged in digital archaeology or digital humanities and, themselves, have the skills and capacity to reconstitute abandoned and/or obsolete data formats.

[3] An easy example is this list of the writings of David Bearman, stretching back into the 1970s, actually:, or Jennifer Trant, beginning in the 1980s, Really the list could go on and on.

[4] I have to thank Ed Summers ( for the reminder to revisit the excellent work of David Rosenthal on the question of the digital dark age:

[5] Read more:

[6] Read more:

[7] Read more:

[8] Read more:

[9] Read more:

[10] You know why? Because archivists.

[11] And, of course, there are many examples of this activity ongoing today, including efforts surrounding personal digital archiving, digital humanities and other academic collaborations, and research data management programs.

[12] We do need to continue to broadcast these efforts beyond the profession, however.

[13] Or there was no repositioning of an archive that exists within their bounds, within their control.

[14] I mentioned Documenting the Now previously in this post, but this is an excellent example of a combined  technological and ideological approach to address the absence of voices and experiences that have long been silent in the archive by refocusing collecting agency, reinforcing ethics and privacy, and redefining the archival record.

16 thoughts on “There Will Be No Digital Dark Age

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  10. Agreed that archivists don’t get a lot of credit for what they do. I’m not so convinced that we aren’t going to lose a lot of digital content. In particular, my work in this area leads me to believe that we are losing the opportunity to capture the digital “first rough draft of history” represented by journalism in born-digital formats. There are a variety of challenges to solving the problems involved in capturing and preserving this primary source material including outdated copyright laws, a vast lack of awareness, the economics of the news industry, a paucity of digital archiving resources, a dearth of prominent champions, myopic technology and the difficulty of addressing these issues in a comprehensive and meaningful manner. A small group of individuals, including archivists, are attempting to gather and organize the necessary stakeholders. The going thus far has been rough. Even among archivists and those in memory institutions, only a few are involved in finding a solution. Even fewer are the journalists, technologists, lawyers and other potential champions for this cause.

    From my vantage point, there is a good chance that huge amounts of news content, especially that published online, will simply vanish within a few years. According to The GDELT Project and the Internet Archive, ” Over just the last six months, between 7.6 and 14 million articles have been lost, which represents up to twice the total output of the New York Times over the last half century. That’s an incredible amount of news coverage that is being lost each day, forever. In some areas of the world the numbers can be considerably higher due to government censorship and interference in the press sector.” Are we working to change this? Of course. Will we succeed? The truth is we don’t know, but in the current race against the clock to preserve born-digital journalism, we are still in the starting blocks.

    Edward McCain
    Digital Curator of Journalism
    University of Missouri Libraries / Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute
    Director, Journalism Digital News Archive (JDNA)
    Founder, Dodging the Memory Hole forum


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