About two weeks ago, a fire started at the archive.org scanning center in San Francisco. No one was hurt and, within 48 hours, employees were back at work scanning materials. According to the archive’s blog, they lost hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of cameras and scanning equipment, but most of their data was unaffected:
Some physical materials were in the scanning center because they were being digitized, but most were in a separate locked room or in our physical archive and were not lost. Of those materials we did unfortunately lose, about half had already been digitized.
This episode has reminded us that digitizing and making copies are good strategies for both access and preservation. We have copies of the data in the Internet Archive in multiple locations, so even if our main building had been involved in the fire we still would not have lost the amazing content we have all worked so hard to collect.
The archive.org fire is the latest in a long history of archival catastrophes. A history of explosion, fire, and loss runs parallel to the history of film preservation. Paolo Cherchi Usai has written about what the fragility and flammability of film material means for the concept of cinema and the practice of film preservation.
The archive.org fire is worth considering against this history of material loss. For all of the anxiety that digital archives produce (e.g., what becomes of the original object in becoming digital?), the shift to digital preservation may ensure that at least something survives the fires of film history yet to come.