What’s Gone Is Gone
Mon, 09/05/2011 - 17:05
Haunted by losses that we can’t document
I wasn’t intending to write a “9/11” column, really. The 10th-anniversary rumblings have already begun as I write this, and I’ve started to ponder what I’ll do on the actual day (apart from pulling the covers over my head and muting the inevitable pregame and halftime goings-on during NFL opening-week games).
Then, over coffee and a scone one morning, I read an Associated Press story (“Mystery Surrounds Loss of Records, Art on 9/11’) about records and documents that were lost that day. Like everybody else, I vividly remember the blizzard of papers that cascaded down from the towers, some of which made it all the way to Brooklyn (AL, Oct. 2001, p. 20–21; Nov. 2001, p. 12–17), so the article didn’t come as a complete surprise.
Until, that is, I got to the sentence that starts “Twenty-one libraries were destroyed… .”
Really? I never knew that. The article lists a number of businesses and government agencies (including the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the CIA) that had offices in the area, so it makes sense that libraries would have been among the casualties. The litany of what’s gone—collections of documents on the history of trade, a trove of photo negatives of JFK stored for safekeeping, documents from the Helen Keller Institute, art from the site—reinforces not only the breadth and scale of what was there but of the diversity of collections in general, often precious and in some cases irreplaceable.
More perniciously, in many cases not only is material gone, but so are the inventories—so it’s not even possible to know precisely what is lost. And sadder still is the tale told in the article about the decade of “litigation, politics, and overall distrust surrounding the 9/11 attacks,” which has meant little progress or cooperation among organizations involved.
The cautionary, back-up-your-stuff-now aspect of this is obvious. I found myself dwelling on the notion of not fully knowing what was gone. Losing all those resources is bad enough; never being able to identify what it all was has a certain Library at Alexandria vibe to it.
Ultimately, this is a story about continuity. One of the reasons we have libraries, and particularly archives, is that they enable us to get on with it, to keep and maintain the records of what has gone before so they can be consulted when needed. The EEOC had to redo witness interviews and the original document creating the Port Authority is, presumably forever, gone. Yes, both these and other organizations have endured, but it can’t have been easy or fun.
It’s easy to blithely say that this is all much less troublesome in a networked environment. Physical records, often unique, are more susceptible to destruction, degradation, or just plain misplacement, that line goes, but on a distributed network they can be duplicated and searched easily. The put-it-all-on-the-cloud argument has some merit—assuming the cloud is reliable and well protected.
Sure, there are technological preventatives and remedies here, though not without peril. (Tried searching an intranet lately?) Add in some tried-and-true values like stewardship and conservatorship, a service orientation, and the importance of understanding and using the best and most viable technology for the situation and clientele, stir well, and there are lessons to be learned for us all.
Coincidentally—I assume—my work email was out for a little while this morning, so it was with a combination of relief and anxiety that I sat down to peck this out. It came back after a while, though not before I had a fever dream or two about, um, how somebody would tell me why the email was out and how I’d get stuff done without it … but that’s another story.
JOSEPH JANES is associate professor at the Information School of the University of Washington in Seattle.