‘Back up soon’: toward an infrastructural understanding of digital archives and digital failure

Thomas White (University of Oxford) @___TomWhite___

In early 2018, as I began revising my doctoral research, I attempted to return to the digital version of a manuscript I had discussed at length: Cambridge, Trinity College, MS O.9.38 (more commonly known as the ‘Glastonbury Miscellany’). On clicking the bookmark stored in my web browser—a codicological metaphor with a reassuring sense of physical solidity—I was met with the following sight:
What Michael Betancourt calls the ‘aura of the digital’—its illusory ephemerality and limitlessness—can quickly dissipate when familiar paths through online resources are suddenly blocked.1 When a digital archive’s operability breaks down or is forestalled, its online interface re-emerges as a threshold, as a designed and maintained system that will afford access to what lies beneath only when all is well. In this instance, Scriptorium had been hacked and a lengthy period of rebuilding work was needed, during which time the project was fully incorporated into the Cambridge Digital Library. There, it became part of an extensive collection of digitised materials spanning many centuries and a substantial, well-funded technical infrastructure of digital reproduction and preservation.
In one sense, and despite the frustration it caused, the Glastonbury Miscellany’s period offline resonated with the manuscript’s own eventful history—the manuscript disappears from the historical record at numerous points in its life and is badly damaged. Yet it also raised a number of pressing questions around the resilience, or otherwise, of our digital archives. Working outwards from this brief medial history of the digital Glastonbury Miscellany, this paper examines how the burgeoning interdisciplinary field of critical infrastructure studies offers a number of important provocations for medievalists, particularly in the wake the Covid-19 pandemic. In particular, it turns to some of the social and ecological consequences of the increasing ubiquity of computation and digitisation. An infrastructural understanding of digitisation suggests that online archives may, in fact, be more vulnerable to failure and loss than their traditional counterparts, dependant as they are on a consistent electricity supply, paid-up subscriptions to third-party server providers (chiefly Amazon), well-maintained undersea cable networks, and forms of geopolitical stability that allow signals to travel freely.

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