Eira Tansey

PASIG 2016 talk: “The Voice of One Crying Out in the Wilderness: Preservation in the Anthropocene”

This is the lectern copy of the talk I gave at PASIG on October 28.  These were my slides (with apologies for how PDF conversion garbled the fonts). Thank you to the program committee for inviting me, and for the feedback and affirmation from the audience. I will be engaging with these ideas a lot over the coming months as I revise this talk for later publication.

Thank you to Hillel Arnold, Stephanie Bennett, Libby Coyner, Ben Goldman, and Erik Moore for their thoughtful remarks and editorial suggestions on the early drafts of this talk. I feel so fortunate and blessed to work in a profession with such generous colleagues.

Title: The Voice of One Crying Out in the Wilderness: Preservation in the Anthropocene

Eira Tansey



In less than 100 years, the raw materials of growth have transitioned from an economy based on natural resources to a knowledge-based economy.[1] Historically, economic growth was driven by the natural resources of seemingly abundant and untamed wilderness. Today, the knowledge economy is fed by the digital resources of seemingly abundant and untamed electronic records.

As our language of economic value shifts from natural resources to digital resources, as we talk more often about mining data stored in clouds instead of mining coal from a mountain, I suggest that we stop and ask the following question: what can our history with the ideas of wilderness teach us about managing a flood of digital information?[2] This deep reflection is critical to our survival as we enter the anthropocene,[3] a period in which human traces can now be found in the Earth’s geologic record, a period in which wilderness is perceived as scarce, and a period where an unceasing volume of electronic records have assumed the wild abundance once associated with unmapped frontiers.[4]

Abundance and Scarcity

America’s founding mythologies revolve around making the land bend to the will of the powerful. This process was sustained by the creation of records and archives that asserted that the land was a wild place: whether wild with humans to be killed or removed through treaties that would inevitably be broken, or wild with trees and rivers to be surveyed and divided up through land claims.[5]

Indeed, archives are so strongly identified with the land in which records are created and maintained that when the writers of the Declaration of Independence listed among the “facts submitted to the world,” they found King George had:

“[…]called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.”[6]

The implication is clear, that records not only accorded legal rights, but that those records had a particular spatial significance as well. To be alienated from access to one’s records is to not just have one’s rights in question, but to be divorced from the land of legal rights. However, time and again throughout history, those who create and control records effectively control the land, and records articulate who is allowed to have a legal relationship with the land — and who can exploit the land for economic gain. I can think of no better current example than what is happening with the Dakota Access Pipeline.

America secured its nation-state status through conquering that which the colonists defined as wilderness. This process could not have been accomplished without the copious creation and use of records through maps, surveys, land grants, government reports, diaries, and letters that told us who or what was at the edge of civilization, and what value could be obtained by destroying indigenous people[7] and altering the landscape into profitable use.[8]

As the seemingly abundant wilderness became scarce, an influential group of white Americans began to rethink wilderness. Influenced by Romantic notions of beauty, and led by philosophers like John Muir, wilderness was re-imagined not as something to be exploited, conquered or feared, but as a precarious and precious resource deserving of protection.[9] However, there were vigorous disagreements about how this would be carried out. A group known as preservationists wanted to protect land for a panoply of aesthetic and moral reasons, with the implicit assumption that the main benefits would be realized by white nature enthusiasts. In contrast, conservationists argued that protection could be realized through the highly-regulated management of natural resources for economic growth, however this approach to management rarely, if ever, drew on indigenous land management knowledge and practices.[10] Once again, records were created to advance the arguments of both sides.

In the midst of the Great Depression, American wilderness and American archives rounded a similar bend. In August 1933, a major executive branch reorganization resulted in a major expansion of the National Parks Service, and less than a year later, FDR signed legislation creating the National Archives. In both cases, New Deal-era management brought together fragmented and endangered pieces of natural and cultural heritage under centralized control.[11]

As we transformed land into raw material for economic growth, and as we produced increasing numbers of records for the expansion of markets and the state, we have arrived at the point where we designate wilderness as a scarcity requiring legal management, and struggle to control an abundance of fragile information.[12] A common thread unites those charged with environmental preservation and those charged with digital preservation: the idea that their work is the “last line of defense” between continued existence – of land or of records – and of destruction.[13] A mountain that is strip mined can be filled in with grassland but the stratigraphy is effectively gone. A digital dark age looms over websites not yet crawled and files not yet checksummed, as archivists race to fill the holes and gaps of our digital cultural heritage.[14]

Three Questions

So what can we learn from our relationship with wilderness as we attempt to control a deluge of digital information? I propose the following questions:

  1. Who do we preserve for?
  2. What should we preserve?
  3. Are we preserving for today or for tomorrow?

Over time, land and records preservation benefitted very narrow populations. The earliest national parks were set aside not for ecology or to benefit the majority of Americans, but for the recreational enjoyment of primarily white, usually wealthy, nature enthusiasts, sportsmen, and tourists.[15] Likewise, the earliest American archives were established not to preserve documentation for all people, but of privileged government interests and the transmission of elite memory.[16] Over the last several decades, an increasing awareness of ecology and the erasure of indigenous populations and people of color has led to new approaches to federal and state land protection.[17] Likewise, the expansion of the “archival multiverse” recognizes the need to represent those who had been historically excluded from archival memory, whether by new appraisal or collection strategies, or by the establishment of community archives outside of oppressive institutions.[18]

What we preserve reflects societal values of collectively-shared resources. Protected land frequently takes different forms; National Parks with varying levels of tourist development, national and state forests with large areas dedicated to logging and mineral extraction, and historic neighborhoods with residents and protected buildings. Land often passes through different types of protection designations over time depending on a variety of legal, cultural, and environmental factors. Likewise, archivists have based decisions on what should be preserved – a function we refer to as appraisal – on a variety of values and frameworks. Records are sometimes appraised based on their inherent value, or their usefulness to others, including scholars, institutional users, or society at large.[19]

Finally, is our drive to preserve motivated by today’s needs or tomorrow’s? By designating something for preservation – land, records –  we imply that it has some form of inherent value that outweighs the costs. And it is here that preservation of land and preservation of digital information face their greatest challenges: the tendency of American culture to value immediate profit or realize short-term gains with the assumption that “tomorrow” is something we will never have to deal with. Otherwise, how do we explain why we even entertain the idea of oil pipelines despite every scientific recommendation urging us move to non-fossil fuel power as soon as possible? Why do we continue to buy more storage to attempt to save everything digital, ensuring the digital replication of the massive paper archives backlogs archivists a generation ago worked so hard to eliminate? In both cases, we have constructed the risks to be something that won’t actually catch up to us in immediate ways, and therefore we ignore  the real impact.

However, the anthropocene demonstrates that  the chronological window between “today’s needs” and “tomorrow’s needs” is rapidly collapsing.[20] Scientific observations demonstrating how much faster the Earth is hitting climate records than originally anticipated shows us that what we thought of as “tomorrow” is arriving on the edges of “today.”[21] Choosing to preserve for tomorrow’s needs is preserving for today’s. As yesterday’s mines become today’s servers, and as data becomes the coal of the 21st century, abundance and scarcity alone cannot guide our preservation decisions. Friends: we must also consider for whom and why we preserve in the first place.


[1] Powell, W. W., & Snellman, K. (2004). The knowledge economy. Annual review of sociology, 199-220.

[2] Throughout this paper I deliberately choose qualifying words around wilderness such as “seeming”, “perceived”, and “ideas” to reflect the position of many environmental historians that almost no landscape has been free from human manipulation.

[3] It has become very hip in environmental and futurist discourse to cite the anthropocene, and I am aware of my reinforcement of this in doing the same. However, there is an emerging scientific consensus on an actual geological epoch called the anthropocene, with actual geologists coming to a commonly-agreed upon point at which human influence can began to be seen in the geological record. For more information, see https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/29/declare-anthropocene-epoch-experts-urge-geological-congress-human-impact-earth and http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/17/the-anthropocene-as-environmental-meme-andor-geological-epoch/?_r=0 . The official scientific working group dedicated to this work can be found at http://quaternary.stratigraphy.org/workinggroups/anthropocene/

[4] A small but persuasive group of archivists have previously made strong arguments for conceptualizing archival theory through philosophical frameworks of ecological health and sustainability. I owe a great deal of intellectual debt to those who’ve navigated this land before me: Abbey, Heidi N. “The green archivist: A primer for adopting affordable, environmentally sustainable, and socially responsible archival management practices.” Archival Issues (2012): 91-115, Loewen, Candace. “From human neglect to planetary survival: new approaches to the appraisal of environmental records.” Archivaria 1, no. 33 (1991), Moore, Erik A. “Birds of a Feather: Some Fundamentals on the Archives-Ecology Paradigm.” Archivaria 63, no. 63 (2007), Taylor, Hugh A. “Recycling the Past: the Archivist in the Age of Ecology.” Archivaria 1, no. 35 (1992), and Wolfe, Mark. “Beyond “green buildings:” exploring the effects of Jevons’ Paradox on the sustainability of archival practices.” Archival Science 12, no. 1 (2012): 35-50.

[5] Two of the seminal works on American wilderness theory are Roderick Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind and Bill Cronin’s responding criticism, The Trouble with Wilderness. Suffice to say that wilderness, at least in its American construction, is regarded by many environmental historians as an artificial construct. Early histories of wilderness are imbued with a historical outlook that at best, downplays or misrepresents the relationship that indigenous people had with the land at the time of European contact, and at worst, actively erases them from the narrative.

[6] Declaration of Independence, 1776 July 4, National Archives and Records Administration. http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.html

[7] These destructive actions also affected indigenous knowledge systems. An excellent account of recent efforts to establish tribal archives and decolonize American archival practice can be found in O’Neal, Jennifer R. “” The Right to Know”: Decolonizing Native American Archives.” Journal of Western Archives 6 (2015).

[8] There is an interesting strain in environmental history that cautions against declensionist thinking (see: http://niche-canada.org/2016/02/03/counterbalancing-declensionist-narratives-in-environmental-history/) but my archival training and outlook requires me to consider why records are created and for what function, and it would seem that early records created by colonists were primarily to function as introducing a legal function of control over the land.

[9] Roderick Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind, Chapters 8-10. Bill Cronin, The Trouble with Wilderness. : Environmental History, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Jan., 1996), pp. 7-28. Finney, Carolyn. “Black faces, white spaces.” (2014), pp. 28-29.

[10] The main figures often identified with each movement’s early period are John Muir (preservation) and Gifford Pinchot (conservation). Muir’s early writings disparaged blacks and Native Americans he encountered during his travels, and Pinchot was an advocate of eugenics.

[11] https://www.archives.gov/about/history/building.html and http://npshistory.com/publications/timeline/index.htm When the National Archives opened in 1934, it started with a massive abundance of records – 1 million meters, with a growth rate that increased during WWII. See Cook, Terry. “What is past is prologue: a history of archival ideas since 1898, and the future paradigm shift.” Archivaria 43 (1997). The most famous residing documents of the National Archives were not all present after its opening – the Constitution and Declaration of Independence did not come into the National Archives possession until 1952, following negotiations with the Library of Congress.

[12] Wolfe’s “”Beyond Green Buildings” is an excellent examination of how Jevon’s Paradox intersects with the archival “age of abundance”

[13] Ericson, Timothy L. “At the” rim of creative dissatisfaction”: Archivists and Acquisition Development.” Archivaria 33 (1991).

[14] While it is beyond the scope of this talk, both environmental historians and archivists have an evolving relationship with the concept of authenticity. Many environmental historians have shown that humans have a long history of manipulating and altering landscapes, and archivists since Jenkinson have questioned the idea of archives as infallible sources of truth.

[15] Many National Parks were created by actively removing indigenous residents, or forbidding tribal access to lands for sustenance and sacred purposes. See Merchant, Carolyn. “Shades of darkness: Race and environmental history.” Environmental History 8, no. 3 (2003): 380-394, and Spence, Mark David. 1999. Dispossessing the wilderness: Indian removal and the making of the national parks. New York: Oxford University Press.

[16] A particularly interesting case study of early American institutional archives concerns the first formally-organized state archives. These were established in the South, and very explicitly reinforced a Lost Cause white supremacist version of history. See Jimerson, Randall C. 2009. Archives power: memory, accountability, and social justice. Chicago: Society of American Archivists (pp. 94-97) and Galloway, Patricia. “Archives, Power, and History: Dunbar Rowland and the Beginning of the State Archives of Mississippi (1902-1936).” The American Archivist 69, no. 1 (2006): 79-116.

[17] Everglades National Park was arguably the first NPS unit established with ecological concerns as the primary factor (as opposed to scenic landscapes), https://home.nps.gov/ever/learn/management/upload/2008%20DRTO%20EVER%20Final%20Supt%20Annual%20Report.pdf . For more on the relationship between the NPS and tribal nations, see King, Mary Ann. “Co-management or Contracting-Agreements Between Native American Tribes and the US National Park Service Pursuant to the 1994 Tribal Self-Governance Act.” Harv. Envtl. L. Rev. 31 (2007): 475, and for federal/state land management and tribal nations: Wood, Mary C., and Zach Welcker. “Tribes as trustees again (Part I): the emerging tribal role in the conservation trust movement.” Harvard Environmental Law Review 32 (2008).

[18] McKemmish, Sue, and Michael Piggott. “Toward the archival multiverse: Challenging the binary opposition of the personal and corporate archive in modern archival theory and practice.” Archivaria 76 (2013).

[19]  Within the realm of archival theory and environmental history, American perspectives on appraisal and wilderness have respectively occupied notably controversial niches that have produced enormous quantities of arguments within the two bodies of literature. For this reason as well, considering them in parallel makes for an intriguing comparative analysis.

[20] My colleague Hillel Arnold also noted that there is a similar parallel of a collapsing window in the archives profession, with the increasingly short period of time in which to preserve the highly ephemeral records generated by historical events (e.g., social media archives of activist movements like the Arab Spring or Black Lives Matter).

[21] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-the-ipcc-underestimated-climate-change/

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