Creating a digital legacy

My entire three-year archive of writing from my first paid gig has vanished. This includes my first time covering the NYFF, and ND/NF, the years 2010-2013, the whole period is gone. I just happened to check one of the links today, because i often reference back to them, to find a Page not found. (Before you say it: Yes, I know about the Wayback Machine. Give me some credit. But as everyone should know, who goes to the trouble of looking for the article if the link is dead? This has real impact for writers, if your links are included on IMDB or other sites. Go to IMDB or Wikipedia: lots of dead links. You’ve been erased.)

The site I wrote for was eventually bought by a much larger site, which is still around, and somehow my archive (around 150 pieces) remained on the site (for ten years) even though I stopped writing for them. The new site’s focus is solely politics. In fact, “politic” is part of the site’s name. Not hard to guess which site it is.) So maybe they did a redesign and all the links are dead, or maybe they just cleaned out the archives and my pieces were a casualty. Who knows.

I wanted to write something on Farhadi’s Everybody Knows so I went to go check my review of A Separation, which I saw at the 2011 NYFF – and boom, “page not found.” Then I checked all the links. 2011 was such an amazing year, Melancholia, This Is Not a Film, Also gone is my obituary for Jim Gandolfin, which I read some years back at an event at Housing Works Bookstore (sitting with my pal Steven Boone, who also read a piece at the same event!). It’s an important piece if I do say so myself, and he was an important actor. I focused on his performance on Broadway in Carnage, an essential piece of the puzzle.

I thought “Shit, it’s all gone!” Just out of curiosity, I went into my blog archives, because I often write my stuff in draft on the WordPress interface. In this way, I found the majority of the drafts. The rest I found in emails exchanged with the two wonderful editors of that original site, because sometimes I’d send reviews in the body of an email. I found the Jim Gandolfini piece, which I know for sure was there at his last birthday, because I link to it every year.

I think I snagged most of it, and am going to rebuild these pieces on my own site – because … why do I bother with this? Because it’s my legacy. It’s three years of work and it was the first time I was paid for writing and it was a very meaningful experience. Also lost was my first interview with a famous person – Ron Eldard – which I voice-recorded on the side of the road in West Virginia, because that’s when he called me, so I pulled over and took the call and taped it. A major moment. I found that one in the body of an email I sent to my editor, while I was in Memphis. I was so unprepared, because I thought the interview was a bust, that I didn’t have my laptop so I typed out the interview on my phone.

I’ve already begun the process to rebuild these things on my site and I wonder … is this worth it? who cares about this stuff? An interview with Ron Eldard. A review of Melancholia.

I care.

This is the dangers of digital publishing. It may sound overblown to talk about my legacy but this is my work and my work is how I have found meaning in a world that’s disappointed me. My work was redemptive. Not the work itself – the writing may be all kinds of flawed – but HAVING the work to DO was the saving grace.

I’m glad I found all of it. I’d rewrite a lot of it now. They were my first forays into this racket. But there are a lot of good pieces. I’ll be adding them here periodically because I just need to have them. And then … I will slowly begin the process of printing stuff out. Not just those pieces. But everything.

What is the solution to situations like this? There are many ways to handle it and I am lucky I have this place here, where I can “store” stuff if I need to. Other writers don’t. (Yes. I know about Authory, which I am considering as a backup.) We are going to lose so much in the future. Younger critics already show such recency bias it’s like nothing that happened before 1998 has any relevance. They don’t even CHECK to see if someone else said exactly what they’re saying now, and maybe they need to link back to it, or incorporate it into their new thoughts.

I’m not talking about my work specifically, like the world will be a lesser place because my interview with Ron Eldard has vanished into the digital abyss … but … in general. We already have lost so much cultural memory. Even my own site isn’t safe. When I die, it will vanish within a couple of months because I won’t be paying my bills for the hosting. If it’s not “on the web” it may as well have not happened at all. We have been discussing this on Facebook for a week, a bunch of writers, and people tell all kinds of horror stories but also have had ideas and solutions. It’s worse for some people. There are people who wrote for The Village Voice for 20 years and have lost everything. Poof. Gone. There are others who started out in print, but when everything switched to digital, their pieces didn’t make it. If they didn’t keep copies, they’re screwed. My friend Dan showed me a stack of black binders, filled with hard copies of every single piece he’s written in the last 20 years. This is going to be one of my projects for 2020. Do it a little bit at a time. When I’m dead, this place will vanish. I got some good ideas about what to do about this on Facebook which I will look into.

What is the solution?

I always think of the Leslie Harpold situation. Some of you might remember her. She was an early adopter of in-depth personal online writing. She had a popular blog and she was an incredible writer. She died suddenly in 2006 – nobody knew how, and it was cloaked in mystery. Pneumonia, ill health, there was some fear it was a suicide. But none of this was confirmed. I’m just describing what was worried-about at the time. She was clearly not well. Her devoted readers were devastated by her death. A couple months later, her blog vanished. Poof. That archive was meaningful history, particularly since she had been blogging since the 90s. The Library of Congress holds her pieces on 9/11, citing it as important history. So at least THAT’S safe. She was hugely influential and if you don’t know about her it’s because cultural history is being dissolved in the proliferation of voices – and everyone feels like history started yesterday. Well it didn’t. Once upon a time there was a woman named Leslie Harpold and she helped create the world we live in online today. Some of Leslie’s friends reached out to her family, asking if anything could be done – passwords handed over so her site could be reborn, domain paid for, her readers were willing to pay for it so her writing would not be lost to the world. I still remember her yearly advent calendars. They were exquisite pieces of writing and memoir. Her family said no. They had no interest in getting her blog back online. If you’d like to read a couple of pieces about Harpold – because the situation made everyone recognize the dangers we are now facing digitally with what is disgustingly called “content” – here are a couple:

Why Leslie Harpold’s site disappeared

On the fifteenth anniversary of her death (last year), another piece came out: Leslie Harpold and the Problem of a Digital Legacy.

Leslie Harpold’s entire archive – gorgeously written – is gone. Forever. Only a couple of pieces linger on in the Wayback machine.

And I guess I DO find the world to be a little less bright without Leslie Harpold’s writing.

I am not equating my review of True Grit with something culturally essential. But it is my work and I care about it and I would like it to survive.

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24 Responses to Creating a digital legacy

  1. Scott Abraham says:

    This multi-disciplinary problem has been nuts.
    Musician/engineer Steve Albini works exclusively analog. Says magnetic tape is the only way to go if you want your audio accessible decades later, and can name the best and brightest digital hardware and formats that turned useless in ten years.
    George Lucas said if a film isn’t archived on a three strip negative and stored in a Nevada salt mine, you’re gambling. And he’s the godfather of digital cinema.
    NASA really needed tech info from the Apollo program era, but the pocket protector engineers were dead or dying, the documentation was lost, the hardware and punchcards buried in a closet.

    However, vinyl records have come back, massively. I see hope there.

    • sheila says:

      // NASA really needed tech info from the Apollo program era, but the pocket protector engineers were dead or dying, the documentation was lost, the hardware and punchcards buried in a closet. //

      wow, for real?

      This is such a huge problem. I regret switching over to iTunes and getting rid of my cassettes and/or vinyl. My music collection is in a very precarious position – in the hands of a landlord – AND there are mp3s I uploaded which aren’t available anywhere. I’m not sure how to handle this. I’m trapped.

      I won’t use Spotify and I have no interest in signing up for a service where all music is available to me at all times. I am a collector. I like having my collection. If I want more, I’ll buy it.

      ALSO with iTunes, they make it impossible to get rid of something you don’t want anymore. Ugh. I really regret my short-sightedness in re: music.

      Vinyl resurgence is great news. I will never get rid of my DVDs. I still have VHS!

  2. So glad you’re doing this. Your site is excellent. I refer people to it all the time.

  3. Jessie says:

    I’m so glad you were able to recover most of the pieces, Sheila, and that they’ll see the light of the internet again. Our online work and lives are so ephemeral and fragmented and host-dependent. I’m no archivist but if you need a hand with some grunt work sing out!

    • sheila says:

      // I’m no archivist but if you need a hand with some grunt work sing out! //

      I may take you up on that.

    • sheila says:

      Redundancy is key. Things can’t just live on my site.

      I got a recommendation on FB to see if my blog archives and collection of writing could be donated to my alma mater (where my dad was a librarian for 40 years – and, ironically, also the archivist who headed up the digitization process when things were moving that way – he knew that small academic journals and published dissertations were going to be lost to history if they weren’t digitized. Many librarian resisted this – but he was forward thinking about it).

      When I meet with my accountant for taxes, I’m going to talk to him about all this.

    • sheila says:

      I think of the Wizard of Oz episode of Supernatural – I think it’s that one? – where Charlie comes to the bunker to work with the 1960s era computer and figure out how to get it online. It’s really precarious when technology moves so quickly. You lose the machine – you lose the information.

      Whereas in the olden days – lol – if a library burns down, say, you can still find the damn books somewhere. They still exist out in the world.

      • Jessie says:

        I may take you up on that.
        you know where to find me!

        We’ve been visiting a lot of display homes lately in prep for building and none of them, not a one, has been decorated with furniture — or had significant built-in cabinetry — for holding physical books and dvds etc. There’s the odd concession here and there with built-in shelves, huge and widely-spaced platforms for displaying ikea objet d’art. meanwhile I’m dreaming of my mezzanine library.

        What a fascinating idea to donate the archive — keep us posted!

        • sheila says:

          Jessie – I know what you mean about old homes with these built-in features that are so cool – there’s actually one in my new bathroom – this triangular-shaped three-shelf built-in thingamajig – it’s part of the structure of the wall. with shelves and everything. The house was built in 1901! so there are some weird quirks like that – but yeah, they just don’t build things like that anymore!

          Good luck on the house building – very exciting!!

  4. Melissa Sutherland says:

    I’ve been trying to figure this out for years. I go to look for something and it is gone. I don’t know why I thought you must print out everything. With that, of course, there is the fear of fire. And storage is expensive. Years and years ago when I worked for the NYC office of the American Film Institute, the subject was film disintegration. I hate to say it, but it is always something. I hope you will be able to reconstruct everything. And George Lucas is right.

    • sheila says:

      Film disintegration is a huge issue.

      I don’t mind paying for in real life storage. There are irreplaceable things – like my writers notebooks and my 25 years of journals – which I lug around in plastic crates from place to place.

      The online writing though … I’ve had a good scare now and will work to rectify.

  5. Todd Restler says:

    I care about it too.

  6. Todd Restler says:

    I care about it too. Major food for thought.

  7. mutecypher says:

    You’re building a wonderful legacy. It’s great that you’re able to capture a lot of what you have done.

    • sheila says:

      So glad, in retrospect, I used my WP backend to write my drafts but I am going to stop doing that – because … I don’t know, using Microsoft Word feels more stable than a blog interface.

      will have to adjust my process and am giving it some thought.

  8. sheila says:

    any and all suggestions welcome. Unless you’re telling me to find stuff on the wayback machine. I’m talking about suggestions moving forward.

  9. mutecypher says:

    Are you happy with how your blog is saved now? There’s a really nice WP plugin called Print My Blog that will allow you to download into html and easily copy into MS Word. You can even download by category, rather than bulk, or by date range. Saves images and comments and so on if you select those options. Given the size of your blog that may take some time to download! A brief description is here. And there’s an option to save as an eBook. Which I assume could be printed as well. I hope this isn’t as dopey as “use the wayback machine.” Saving in print seems like the sturdiest thing – at least that I can think of. Which is why I suggested the eBook-to-print thing.

    Possibly saving on flash drives and storing in a safe deposit box. DVD readers are becoming unusual so archiving on that media doesn’t seem like a good strategy out over time – unless you stick a DVD reader in the archive/safe deposit box for later use. They aren’t too pricey any more. Both of those rely upon the USB interface staying around though.

    But if you can get your alma mater to take it then you would get an archivist to give you the best advice. Plus that would be cool.

    • sheila says:

      Interesting – I did not know about the plug-in. That sounds like a labor-saving option – and there are definitely categories I’d want to save. all the birthday posts – in the “On This Day” category – this represents literally hours and in some cases years of work – and I’m proud that my blog has kind of taken that turn and generates itself in its own little calendar of tributes.

      I’ll look into the plug-in – and can I hit you up with questions if anything comes up?

      My blog is backed up on the hosting server – but again if anything happens to that company, I’m … screwed. I live in fear of the hosting service suddenly vanishing one day. It’s how it happens. Poof. It’s over. They’ve been around since I switched over to my own domain and that was in 2003, I think so … there is continuity there. But STILL.

      Thanks for the suggestions!

      and definitely going to look into some kind of formal archive with my alma mater – the connection with my dad and the library is a good “in” as well. A tree was planted outside the library with a plaque on it for him. so … it’s an option, hopefully.

      • mutecypher says:

        /I’ll look into the plug-in – and can I hit you up with questions if anything comes up?/

        Of course.

        There are also WP plugins for downloading your full site (just go to the install plugins tab on your admin page and search for “archive”). They typically download as zipped xml files, they won’t be easy to just read but can be used to rebuild your entire site if something does happen at the host. They save all the links and the rest of “how it’s built.” So you could do that to give yourself some immediate peace of mind if you want. It wouldn’t require the picking-and-choosing of the Print My Blog thing.

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