The Ice Palace Guards (Here’s to the Legal Archivists)

/ / Legal Research

They protect our future by guarding our past from fires and floods. From hell and high water. And most frequently, from apes with chisels and hammers.

I attended a fantastic presentation about archive digitization at SEAALL/SWALL’s annual conference this month, themed Big D: Data, Discovery, and Dicta. Erik Beck of Colorado Law described how archivists protect digitized treasures, from moving a laptop upstairs to save research from a 2013 campus flood to dispersing digital files in different formats across multiple continents. He compared in partial jest patrons in the library to apes with hammers and chisels in an ice palace who might either  “carve crystal swans… or shatter your ice table.” Beck honed in on the importance of making resources available for doing great things, while protecting unique material from injury and tampering. For our part, Ravel and Harvard Law Library are collaborating to preserve American case law by digitizing the school’s corpus of case law for free access worldwide, and storing physical backups in a salt mine in rural Utah where primates can’t get to them. Great archivists are innovating constantly to protect big data, and daydream about ideas like using cloud storage hosted in dispersed and isolated electrical grids to keep irreplaceable information safe. The contiguous United States has two major and one minor electrical “interconnections”; as Beck described them, there’s East, West, and Texas.

Patrick Flanagan of Texas A&M Law, speaking after Beck, explored the importance of trust. Should we trust archivists and their technologies? Can we trust their successors? Force majeure and acts of God do not excuse performance when you’re the steward of the rule of law itself. As a nation of evolving laws, we need to preserve our past to protect our future. In this legal past are written our shattering sins (see Korematsu v. United States, Plessy v. Ferguson), our reconciliations (see Brown v. Board of Education), and our ice swan redemptions (see e.g., 42 U.S.C. 1981).

Most of us don’t think much about the time beyond our lifespans, but archivists must plan daily for the millenia to come, and all the unimaginable threats to society. A lifetime warranty may sound great for a washing machine, but it’s of little help protecting our rule of law. Flanagan emphasized the importance of earning and placing trust, and that’s critical.

Though the topic of the presentation was protection from file degradation and natural disaster, many minds were drawn to something darker. The most perverse threat of destruction comes from intentional destruction by us, the apes themselves. At lunch after the session, some of us discussed what Aurelian’s men did to Alexandria, and what happened two millennia later at the great library in Mosul in 2015. Covering the past is one way to manipulate the future, and archivists are protecting us from malfeasants who won’t be born (or built) for thousands of years. As we accelerate toward greater connectivity, we also risk making it easier for perverse actors to seek it out globally.

Here’s to the apes guarding the palace. Working in private enterprise, we’re always looking for ways to innovate, and archivists help us remember our mission is about civilization, not just business. But just because they’ve dedicated their professional careers to the library, doesn’t mean the librarians aren’t secretly in it for the Lamborghinis. See, e.g., Erik Beck, Patrick Flanagan, Margie Maes, Beth Williams, Common Guidelines for Digitization: A Community Effort (April 14, 2016) (Unarchived remark presented out of context — sometimes you just had to be there).