16 February 2008

The Vault: A Mountain of Granite and Gold

Click on entry title to read the article discussed below ("The Vault: A Mountain of Granite and Gold" by David S. Ouimette in Ancestry Magazine, March/April 2005, Vol. 23/No. 2).

In summary of notes below, the Granite Mountain Record Vault in Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah, contains massive amounts of genealogical records of the LDS (Mormon) Church. The purpose and history--from first exposure to microfilm cameras in 1937 to the dedication of the vault in 1966, to the present--can be read as a fascinating and significantly understudied case study (see last chapter, Mountain of Names, 1985) in the cultural history of information and twentieth-century cultural life. The story of the vault can be read as an explicit and imaginative attempt to save ourselves with information.

One, the vault itself is an explicit and ambitious project in information storage, maintenance, and preservation. Today it holds an equivalent of a reported 3 billion pages of information, with more flooding in from microfilm and digital imaging cameras in over 45 countries--a tremendous example of information preservation by storing, as well as of information preservation as saving.
Vaults are not networks. With modern distributed digital networks, we tend to save by sending away, instead of gathering to oneself. These two models for information preservation--share or horde, send or bury, ether or ground--diverge, especially in the role of physical matter. In the vault case study, information is embodied; online content is copy and copies of copies--doppelgaengers of an ephemeral original. In the vault information is matter and it matters that it's matter especially to the staff of 65 people take careful pains to slow the onset of entropy and decay of the records.

Online information entropy exists too. The active, usable strength of links linking to other links is subject to distraction and shift over time. Matter decays; links break and activity dissipates. Severing a site suffocates links in the depths of the web, rarely to be crawled and never to be read by humans (see Michael Lesk's unpublished article here). That is, entropy online expresses itself not in the deterioration of material over time (as it is the case of the vault) but in the entropic unraveling of information organization over time. Clusters, not content, go slack.

Generations from now this post may exist somewhere in the dark matter of the net: and if you could find it, it would likely look exactly as it does today. However, barring fundamental advances in information ordering, the online card catalog--or search index--you would need to locate this exact post would have to be powerful enough restore, like a time-machine, some approximate of the early link network and infrastructure. It may be as impossible for microfilm to survive indefinitely as it is to create a complete search index of all information online. Both require constant recache-ing, continual physical effort on our part. Hands, mice, and microfiche.

Two, the vault's very existence, too, is predicated on an explicit and ambitious theological belief in the power of record keeping to preserve and save humans (Doctrine and Covenants Section 128, Revelations 20: 12, Malachi 4:5). In practice the LDS vision of global recording gathering has its limits, of course. Posthumous ordinance work (the theological reason for record gathering) is supposed to be an opt-out system. Don't want your family's names there, your request should be granted. Actually, LDS theology holds that the opt-out limitation observed on earth necessarily applies to the afterlife as well. LDS ordinance work for deceased family members, then, is a bit like an afterlife stock option. They can cash it if they want, or not. Or a bit like open-source work: accept or reject the edits; authorship by proxy and at a distance (online collaboration bridges space, LDS work bridges time as well); generosity as an incentive to collaborate. Both stock options and open-source collaboration are distributed models of information work--metaphors meant to favor the expansive theological worldview animating the vault. (Jack Balkin gets credit for sparking whatever is good in this thought.)

Three, the vault is also an artifact of cold war mentalities--the very opposite of an expansive worldview. Its 14-ton doors were built to withstand a nuclear blast. It's built in granite caverns removed from the neighboring Salt Lake City. During the height of tensions with the Soviets, the vault could literally preserve evidence of humanity from nuclear apocalypse--no theological theories about the afterlife involved. (Pat Frank's post-apocalyptic novel of small town US Alas, Babylon was written the same year, 1959, LDS leadership approved the $2 million project--that's $14 million in 2007.)

Four, the vault is evolving. It has plans to make not only index but full content publicly available online. This move to distribute information catches the vault up to recent conventions of saving by sending, almost--except for the fact, that is, that the vault is still an active storage site, still rooted in the bowels of the earth.

By the way, the byline calls the author of the article, David S. Ouimette, an "information architect," a curious and timely term apparently coined in 1976 by the architect and graphic designer Richard Saul Wurman. Modern advances in Richter scales and entropy studies make architects (both informational and landed) adjust to shifting fault lines.

Questions:

1. How did microfilm remain the medium of choice from 1937 to 1962? Were other options considered?

2. Were decision makers aware of the work of Vannevar Bush and memex?

3. Where else can we see information miniaturization (i.e. microfilm and microfiche, the individual pages of microfilm rolls) as a shield against nuclear Apocalypse?

4. How do theological institutions (like the LDS vault) and atheist societies (like Soviet documentaries, surveys, and economic reports) differ, if at all, in information preservation practices and policies?

8 Comments:

Blogger Jonah said...

I love the theme of salvation through record-keeping - I wonder what kinds of psychological needs are being expressed in these theological convictions. We better figure them out quick, as we embark on the age I am calling "the end of forgetting"...

A few technical and economic anecdotes you might be interested in. The past few years have witnessed a resurgence of interest in microfilm for very long term preservation. Turns out, analogue degradation is far more manageable than digital, where often you can either read it, or not - no fading.

Microfilm Preservation in a Digital World

Also, there was a piece in the times recently on the vast increases in costs digital storage entails:

The Afterlife Is Expensive for Digital Movies

Granted, they are now saving everything that used to get tossed off the cutting room floor, but it is still a non-intuitive finding.

February 17, 2008 at 8:39 PM  
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