The Metaforum conference asked me to elaborate on putting archives on line, in order to solve the content shortage in cyberspace.
I came to this conclusion, because I am not only a archivist, but
also -and more- an activist and an investigating journalist at the
My work for buro Jansen & Janssen -more about it in a minute- made me not only a specialist on the endless problems of computerizing an archive in order to make it accessible. Jansen & Janssen also fought a ongoing battle to get background articles across. How to deal with monopolized media that are basicly not interested in serious research?
I am convinced Internet could play an important role in breaking information monopolies.
Earlier this year I wrote Beat the Dutch, Report from Amsterdam about Netactivism. This article was first published on the Nettime-list but also travelled around the world autonomously. It is not only a report on several amazing events concerning Internet in the Netherlands, but also an essay exploring the dimensions of Netactivism.
Back then, this is where I ended: 'If the use of Internet adds a certain value to a discussion or supplies a special dimension to a campaign, then something really beautifull is happening'.
Exploring Internet doesn't refer to finding your way in the labyrinth of html-links, passively zapping across static WorldWideWeb pages.
Creating content requiers an active search for new opportunities, to bring together surprising strings of information or unexpected coalitions. Netactivism greets the help of until now neglected features of Internet.
Back to the source.
Through the years Jansen has been collecting all kinds of
material on monitoring police and secret services.
Newspaperclippings, magazine articles, brochures and books formed the more conventional part of the archive. But we also specialized in monitoring special squads of the police which left us with a collection of frequencies, license plate numbers and adresses of interesting authorities. People appraoched us with stories about infiltration, with files of their lawsuits or dossiers about criminal investigation against them. Even secret papers from police and intelligence sources eventually found their way to our offices. This was usually the result of methods typical for the (Dutch) activist movement -breaking in and publishing- and we were always ready to give a hand analysing the material.
With the decline of the activist movement of the eighties, the origine of our archive changed slightly. We were now handed complete collections of people who wanted to find a home for a part of their past. (Most of it still waiting to be filed in carton boxes down the hall). With Internet came the totally unstructured digital archive of floppies containing interesting textfiles found somewhere in cyberspace.
As you understand, we felt the need of structuralize this chaos. As soon as we started collecting newspaper cuttings, articles, books and brochures we started using a computer to make the files of cuttings accessible. It might be usefull to stress once more that this was only a *part* of the collection of the Jansen & Janssen archive.
The history of buro Jansen & Janssen can be read as the history of
archiving with the help of computers.
Our first computer back in 1985 was an Apple-II, or rather two Apples-II's, made into one working set ;-). Like the electric typewriters I had been using before, I knew how to repair the hardware in case of minor disasters. I can tell you we had quit a few.
I vaguely remember a so called portable computer as well. She was called Vicky and had the looks and the weight of an oldfashioned sewing machine. She was the product of a non- traceble factory Victor and spend more time in and out of repairshops then with us. Replacing the harddisk -or the drives, I don't remember- didn't make it work: Vicky seemed to be DOS- compatible but was it not completely. Exit Vicky.
Then came the software. The first software we used was a very
simple database structure with a few search options, written in
dBase-II. The step to our first PC, an XT with two 5,25 inch
floppy-drives was a milestone in 1986. This asked for better
software. The best solution turned out to be to learn dBase III
programming myself in order to create an upgraded version of the
orginal programm. Basicly this software was very simple. The facts
about each article: title, date and source where connected with a
few keywords, and the name and code of the place it was going to
be filed, and could be found again. The first AT
computer -what a relieve, with a harddisk!- came along with dBase
Later attempts to refine the software focussed on the lay out and on trying to make it seem more intelligent. As the archive and the amount of people working there grew, the collection of keywords expanded like a malignant tumor. Alternative spelling, plural or not, use dots or don't, not to mention the equivalents, using different meanings for the same thing, or the other way around.
(Problems that may sound familiar while using search engines on Internet.)
The ideal software should make us help be more distinctive and rule out the options not allowed. With this tool the search options could be refined, and our computerprogramm would be the best there was. At least that is what our second programmer promised us. As did the third, and the fourth. From the very beginning we sought the help of people, friends who were really into computers. They were very good at giving us the feeling our homegrown software was peanuts, was not the real thing. Unfortunally each of them failed the communicationskills to understand what we wanted, and how to translate this into acceptable, userfriendly software.
Looking back, I think we were too early. The people that were willing to help us, in fact used us as a project to improve their own skills. Small modules got ready, but admitting the work was way beyond their level appeared to be impossible. To cut short a long and boring story of software engineers who left their traces in our office... Each of them had his own way of building up the structure of the programm, so we ended up with different versions that turned out to be not completely compatible. We went through endless sessions of shifting the keywords (thousands and thousands), only to find out the programmer managed to install a draft version of the definite list. Even when we paid them, they managed to keep promising to come up with something eventually. I got so sick of it I don't even know the nature of our present variation. I believe it is an adaption of something programmed in C by the second, unraveled and rewritten in xxx by the third and disapproved of by the fourth who prefers xxx.
And every time we hoped and wanted to believe it would really work this time. It never did. We should have stuck to the honest dBase versions...
This course of events had dramatic consequences for the work on
the archive. In the beginning we had a dream... of getting the
clipping archive up to date -One Day- and of adding modules to
include our brochure collection, not to mention the extending
library or all the unselected item mentioned earlier.
In reality we faced arrears that kept haunting us over the years. Waiting for a new version of the software often meant the old one could not be used for a while. No input in to the computer, meant no impulse to continue cutting newspapers and magazines. Of course there were enough reasons to ignore the necessairy paperwork, like exciting research or other outdoor activities. And we have managed to work away arrears of six months or more, several times...
But computerizing acces turned out to be a neverending story. We now have decided to accept the fact that some temporairy files and large dossiers on special subjects, will get a permanent status. Fifty or hundred newspaperclippings in one suspending filing folder. The seperate articles will never get the special treatment they used to get in the early days (sigh..) And even with these temporairy files we are behind.
The cutting of mainstream papers has become less important over the years anyway. With the entry of digital versions of papers, on line or on CDrom, the oldfashioned handicraft will be superfluous in no time. We'd only have to concentrate on the specialized press.
On the whole we've given up the ambition for completeness. It is no longer a goal to have our archive ready for presentation - at some later date. Jansen & Janssen is archiving present time issues. We are not a newsservice, or server. Lack of energy, manpower and money made us more realistic in our priorities. The work will never be finished or ready for presentation. It will be Under Construction permanently. This goes for both the archive itself as the software making it accessible.
But even if Jansen & Janssen would be able to put the archive on
line technically, we would decide against it.
I do however favour newspapers and magazines putting complete editions on line. Don't take me wrong, I do welcome reliable sources on the Net. But that is not the same as providing content.
In our case, the computer has never been more than *one* of the ways to search our archive. Going through the files by hand, always proved to be a rewardfull addition. Most parts of the library were not included in the system anyway, and through the years a shadow system of temporairy files and personal drawers made the queste even more complicated.
Finding sources is never enough. It is the combination of facts & figures that makes the story. It is the extra input of research that turns bare information into content. The point I'm trying to make is this one: without the librarian, without a guide, you're nowhere out there.
Never underestimate the Human Factor.
There are for instance various groups monitoring the extreme right parties and ultra nationalist groups in the Netherlands. They hold impressive files and archives on the whereabouts of virtually everybody who is linked with neo-nazi and nationalist people and their connections in Europe and abroad. The Anti Militarist Research Collective AMOK concentrates mainly on armstrade of the conventional kind. They have a huge library and clipping archive focused on militairy movements from the Cold War period and international warfare like the Gulf War. Other exemples are the Anti-Nucleair Archive, the Speculation Research Collective, and a number of individuals with a wide variety of specialisms.
Jansen & Janssen was not alone. We all faced similar problems and
tried to find ways to come to more cooperation. There was a lot to
discuss at the regular meetings.
One of the main issues was computerizing. A concrete result was the development of filing software that would be fit for all. Apart from the very familiar problems this project faced, it was not interesting for us to join. We had based our fysical storage system on the computer codes generated by our own softwaresystem. We were not willing to give that up, or to adept ourself to new ranking files. As a consequence we remained unconnected, no easy exchange of modules with information for us. Other topics discussed on the archivers meetings was the relation between collecting information and what to do with it. Making money was always a problem, but at the same time a non- issue.
We frequently discussed opening up our archives for visitors, for subscribers or for scholars. But Jansen & Janssen always decided against it because it would mean an incredible amount of work to get the archive up to date and to keep it that way. We were not prepared to invest that time, because it would mean that most of our manpower would be eaten up by this work. We prefered to spent our time on research and writing.
Even the production of regular newsbulletins or investigative bulletins never succeeded. I still regret that.
Professionalize the management of information is a skill we still not possess. We were forced to ask money for research from people who used to be fellow activists or friends now landed in the mainstream media arena. We couldn't survive on the give-one-take- one relationship, not financially. But in our hearts, we had rather kept things between us.
This so called unprofessional attitude also turned against us in trying to get our stories published. The mainstream media scene is unable to deal with us in a normal way. They just can't handle the fact that we cannot be labeled into a specific corner. We cannot be placed in the category of freelance journalists, because our work is too much biased. On the other hand we have proved to deliver reliable information, yet with a tiny trace of activism. Not asking big sums -or 'fair amounts'-of money seems to be unflattering as well these days.
Not everybody is taking us serious all the time, but is that a problem? The question is: do we want to be treated as grownups all the time, or do we prefer to be the joker of the neighbourhood every once in a while...
We need to find our own ways. And that is where Internet comes in.
This dual role is being reflected in the seperation between the
features that have become the most important on Internet, being
email and WorldWideWeb. Most people are active users of email and
passive consumers of Web-sites. And that's all.
The intermediate world of mailinglist or newsgroups is restricted to a more selective part of Netizens. Not to mention the telnet-libraries, the ftp-archives trapped in dust; and whatever happened to gool old Gopher?
More information on Internet doesn't necesairily lead to more content. Content is being generated by the people who work with this information. Piling up archives doesn't garantee people will get there and use them, no matter how attractive the entrance looks. It is the context that counts.
In my Report on Amsterdam I gave a few examples of Netactivism, of creative use of Internet. I will recall them here in brief, please check Nettime for extended versions of the stories.
Buro Jansen & Janssen recently brook the monopoly of the State
Publishing House by putting on line two parliamentairy reports on
criminal investigation methods and corruption. The first one was
very expensive, the second one pretty secret, 5500 pages in total.
It felt so good to break the monopoly of a -privatised-state
organ, and to use Internet to make information public that is
supposed to be public anyway.
This is what Internet was meant for, people said, and I couldn't agree more. In thinking about the meaning of this action, I guess the value of it is in adding a dimension. The breaking of this information monopoly could not have been done -at least not so easily, or not without problems with the law- without Internet. On the other hand, the action added something to the ideas of the use of Internet and so was very inspiring.
The best example of using Internet in a multifunctional way, is
the campaign against McDonald's.
This campaign is now focussed arount The McLibel Trial, which has pitted the mighty McDonald's Corporation against two unwaged environmental activists.
Internet was involved from the very beginning. Since the start of the trial, in June 1994, extracts from the transcripts of the hearings were being published on the Net, and McDonald's didn't like it at all.
Before McSpotlight, there already was the McLibel mailing list. Campaigners from anywhere keep each other up-to-date with all of the activities in the world-wide Anti-McDonald's campaign. Suburbians against McDrives, loothers in Kopenhagen, Ghandi-inspired Fins discussing with their local McDonald, India against the invasion of McDonalds - all connected through Internet.
The mailing list is a very good example of Internet adding a certain value to a campaign. The list connects otherwise relatively isolated protesters of all kinds. Internet helps to create a movement on a global scale. People who act in their own environment and with their own means, realize that their activities are part of a larger context.
Earlier this year the McSpotlight site was launged. A WWW-site with all the information about the longest running civil case in Britain ever, and more. Complete with an audio Guided Tour narrated by the McLibel 2, taking visitors round the key pages on the site - the case, the company, the circulum vitae of all the people involved in the trial and the coverage in the media.
The Campaign section offers groups from all over the world to present themselves and their material. Translations of current Anti-McDonald's leaflet can be printed out in any desired language. This service is something of the categorie 'added value', you could call it an Internet speciality. In combination with all the information McSpotlight provides, it is the first worldwide activist manual. Facts and figures available, as well as a platform for publicity and support from all over the world. Not to mention the surplus of the site as an easy way to keep the public and the press informed about what's happening in Court. The latest feature on McSpotlight - and as far as I know, this is the first time anyone on Internet has done this - in which, they use the 'Frames' browsing system to hijack McDonald's own corporate website.
The reason why I keep on rambling about McSpotlight is the innovative spirit of this site. It has nothing of the boring static formats I mentioned earlier. On the contrairy, McSpotlight presents a combination of virtually all available Internet features in one integrated environment. I guess the spirit lies in this combination. Background information can be presented in a creative way. An information monopoly has been broken, but not by putting facts on line without a context. The information is being used by campaigners worldwide. Campaigners who still rely on email and their malinglist to keep in touch. And on their own regular meetings and day to day activities in the real world.