Digital Memory is Shaping our Future


Painting from the Chauvet cave shaping the Paleolithic memory (and now ours). via Wikimedia commons

I have borrowed the title for this blog from the sub-title of a great book When We Are No More by Abby Smith Rumsey. And the subtitle is the critical part of her book’s message. Because we are entering an age of digital culture and digital society, the digital archives and memories that we are now creating will be crucial sign-posts and tent-pegs for our digital future. We often think about archives as guides to the past, but Rumsey’s claim is that they are even more pointers to our future. This is especially the case for digital culture because it is the digital objects, the digital resources and memories that survive from one year to the next, from one generation to the next, that will shape the next generation’s view of itself and its place.

Abby Smith Rumsey writes very clearly but she is also a great presenter, so I recommend her Google talk on the subject of her book. She emphasises how digital archiving is still a neglected field, and that we are quite beholden to the work of public bodies, private enthusiasts or charitable undertakings some of them making crucial investments: for example, Carl Haber saving music and ethnographic voices, the Internet Archive, or Europeana.


The camera used with IRENE software by Carl Haber to reconstitute Alexander Graham Bell’s voice from physical traces too fragile for contact recovery

There are many private efforts and individuals working to save stuff and it was good to see, a few days ago, a mention of the Hyman magazine archive in the New York Times. This is very much a solo effort and a collection that now exceeds any reasonable attic — since it now occupies a south London warehouse with its 120,000 issues from 5,000 titles. Hyman’s open-armed effort is admirable, but as a private venture it is not easy to see how it will evolve towards a model for widespread access. The team are gradually digitising their collection, but with copyrights largely in place it is unlikely that the archive will be able to provide full scale access to scholars and enthusiasts. Of course, Exact Editions welcomes such a private initiative, but our interest in preserving and making digital archives accessible has a different model. We are showing that digital archives can make money for the publishers who are sitting on them. We believe that the archive should grow and move into the future along with the magazine, issue by issue. New issues become back issues, and the future is shaped by issues that came before.

We take seriously Abby Smith Rumsey’s claim that digital memory is shaping our future. The future for magazines is certainly going to be digital — and the back issues and the coming front issues are also digital. Very few of today’s magazine editors, publishers and designers can tell us what the shape of this digital future is. But it is coming. Putting a magazine’s print archive into a digital format is one obvious step towards defining and shaping what that future will be. This was something that almost all magazine publishers missed 10 and then 8 years ago when the iPhone and then the iPad was launched. Even now we sometimes have to persuade publishers that their archive is of great value (though many editors know that, but find it hard to express).

Exact Editions is helping publishers to make this step into the future by capturing the past and the evolving present, and odd as it may seem one of the strongest cases for making a magazine archive right now, is that archives sell. At his point the previously sceptical publisher shifts her gaze and clears her throat. Complete archives are especially important in an educational or research context. Not every magazine is of use to scholars, students and researchers (yet, and here our publisher reaches for a glass of water) but for those that are, the institutional library market is a promising source of additional revenue and brand visibility. Digital magazines can be easily searched and they are more accessible and so more valuable, and much more useful, than the print copies that are still important and carefully stored on library shelves and stacked in off-site repositories. Magazines are obviously full of data, not just stories, pictures and advertisements, but data about subjects and arts that we find perpetually interesting. Digital data has value. Making magazines digital and complete is a way of enriching the past and the future. As Rumsey says “Today we see magazines as natural facts. We do not see them as memory machines with lives of their own, though that is exactly what they are. As soon as we began to print our thoughts in those hard-copy memory machines they began circulating and pursuing their own destinies. Over time we learned how to manage them and share them, and ensure that they carried humanity’s conversations to future generations. We can develop the same skills to manage and take responsibility for digital memory machines” (Rumsey When We Are No More p. 177, marginally edited — where she says ‘books’ I have put ‘magazines’). Magazine archives are digital memory machines stuffed full of data and art that we can project into the future and that can become more widely available and useful.


Applying Webstamp the software Exact Editions uses to ‘proof’ and manage digital editions