Lost and Found: the importance of archiving for personal and cultural memory

Archive boxMy depression has returned and it does an amazing job of punishing the memory and subjecting me to self-doubt. As I sit at home, wondering who I am, I’m trying to remind myself of all that I’ve done in the hope this will help me recover a more solid sense of self.

It’s as though someone has rummaged through my mental folders and thrown their contents all over the floor, leaving confusion and disorder. I’m almost certain I have been robbed of something which goes way beyond my self-confidence. Its very likely that I have, but can I know for sure? Because if I ever did make an index or inventory, that’s one of the things which has now disappeared.

What’s harder is that a lot of the activity I might wish to recall has taken place in the online world and much of that has been moved or deleted over the years. So now I’m a mess of broken and missing links, and we all know how infuriating those are. ‘Page Not Found’ could be my default setting right now.

We’re nearing the end of February and the end of another LGBT History Month. This is also significant to my notion of self-identity, especially as I haven’t felt able to participate in the way I intended this year. If we don’t honour our cultural heritage, if we don’t take efforts to remember and redefine, so much gets lost. It’s quite common these days to hear younger people in LGBTQ settings say they have never heard of Sappho or the Stonewall riots. They are keen to find out and to learn, but you can’t know where to look or what you’re looking for if you don’t know what parts of your history have holes.

Not that I’m suggesting everyone’s history is the same. It certainly isn’t. Context and perception provide personalised histories with importantly diverse viewpoints. The process of uncovering, questioning, challenging, reviewing and reenvisioning is part of what can be celebrated during LGBT History Month. Sometimes a shaking up of society’s ‘normative’ folders and their subsequent re-ordering is exactly what’s required.

But where does this leave me today? I’ve been rearranging my own mental folders for a long time through therapy, believing in the neuroplasticity of the brain, and recognising how important it is to my mental wellbeing that old habits and connections can be deconstructed and rewired. This still doesn’t stop me wanting some things to stay in the same place, where I can easily find them. So I can revisit and highlight them and make new sense of them when I’m ready.

Some people are worried that their past actions will remain among internet archives forever and come back to haunt them when aiming to be taken seriously by employers. I’m actually more disturbed by the fact that some of my online history appears to have been lost or deleted permanently. I’ve always quite liked being a whole, transparent person online. My view is that if I put something out there it’s because I want people to find it, and that it contributes to me being a more trustworthy human being with a stronger outline. I have intentionally directed potential employers to look me up, and not just via a sanitised or overly boastful LinkedIn profile.

There are aspects of my online history buried in outmoded code and technology which may be rescued and restored again one day when a ‘safe’ and ‘sympathetic’ repository is identified. I am hopeful that this will happen with the archived version of the trAce online writing centre. I’m not alone with my sense of loss here. Many people from the trAce community of old are mourning this terrific resource. See the Facebook group at www.facebook.com/traceonlinewritingcentre.

I held a Writer’s attachment with trAce between November 2000 and February 2001 and remained part of the community until its closure in 2005. The attachment involved keeping an online journal to which I gave a road movie theme, demonstrating my love of the film Thelma and Louise. I also created my own online magnetic poetry library and invited others’ contributions. Most importantly, I met some fantastic people – in both physical and virtual spaces – and retain friendships to this day. So I will always have mementos of this experience, but there was something about having that history preserved in full, allowing me to browse through and reference at any time, which made the reminiscence of these people more real – and myself more real to me.

As the Facebook group states:

This open and generous group of people supported and influenced the development of new media writing worldwide and promoted lively debate about the impact of the World Wide Web on the future of text and literature.

The trAce website evolved its own distinctive artistic ecology. When it closed in 2005 as much of it as possible was collected in an archive website hosted by Nottingham Trent University.

Like the original website itself, the archive attracts many different kinds of visitors, including practitioners, researchers, teachers and general audiences.

Sadly, that carefully archived website is no more. Fortunately, there is still something to see thanks to the British Library’s snapshot, because the trAce website was archived as part of the British Library’s E-Publishing Trends Special Collection. However, these snapshots don’t include all pages and resources. I’m pleased still to find my name on this page and some parts of the journal will appear if you click through. I’m surprised by how much it means to me to have this proof that I really did create this work, as though its existence is integral to my integrity and my feelings of self-worth.

I’ve mentioned already how my online creativity has served to give me a stronger outline to present to the world. So that when parts are erased or just a patchy sketch remains, losing context and the flow of secure navigation pathways, it seems that I somehow retreat from myself and become a lesser version of me. As if I have to physically see my words and ideas reflected back to me before I can really grasp them and believe I generated them.

I played only a very small part in trAce’s history. Another lost project took far more of my personal energy, care and commitment between 2005 and 2008. This was the Woman-Stirred blog, a collaboration with four American women writers, which aimed to showcase lesbian and bisexual women’s cultural production, both new and from the past. My own digital contribution to LGBT History.

I understand how everything evolves and certain experiences are only transitory. The only constant is that things change. Life moves on. I get that. The Woman-Stirred blog went through various iterations and necessary changes of focus, and I had my own self-preservation reasons for moving on from it. But I would never have chosen the final deletion of all the original posts. I can’t remember when I first noticed it was no longer there. It could have been some time early in 2015 or further back in 2014, and I’m aware I am possibly still grieving its slipping away without warning.

Maybe I am grieving for the loss of some of my ambitions and dreams, however idealised they may seem now. Thanks to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine which allows a snapshot of a webpage to be captured as a trusted citation in future, I have been able to recover something of the spirit of Woman-Stirred. It’s here: the Woman-Stirred snapshot as of 18 May 2008.

What did the Woman-Stirred collective believe it to be in the beginning?

I’d like to see Woman-Stirred be many things at once: a connection to lesbian and bi women’s literary resources and markets, a forum for literary discussions, a collection of profiles of literary dykes and bi-dykes to provide role models and networking, a place to showcase and promote our own work, and even a bit of a queer women’s literary journal.

I also see Woman-Stirred as a beautiful garden of flowers and fruits. Some, like Lillian Faderman, are in full bloom. Some, like Charlotte Mew and Virginia Woolf, are pressed between pages of books. Then there are some of us who need to be tended carefully so that we will reach full bloom. I would like our garden to be a pleasurable and nourishing place where visitors can slow down and enjoy the sights, scents, and tastes of woman-stirred poetry, art, photographs, essays.

The way I understand Woman-Stirred is that we started off as a way to support each other and promote our work, through strength in numbers. But there was always an aim to go beyond that and look outwards. I see a shared celebration of lesbian and bi women’s writing – woman-stirred writing – as the foundation stone. There are many voices, our own among them, that we want to be heard. I remember that’s why I started writing poetry – in case my voice wasn’t heard, because there were times in my history, even, when it was a real struggle to find other woman-stirred voices.

I guess we want to point the way to other writers and artists who deserve more attention than perhaps they’re currently getting. Then celebrate or otherwise constructively comment when attention is given. We want to assist the woman-stirred browser to find something new – or if not so new and unknown (take Virginia Woolf, for example), perhaps see that work in a different light. Put the woman-stirred spin on it! That involves spinning other voices in and through our own. So we’re not just a quartet, we’re part of a network that sparks off in many directions. We are a resource, but I also want our passion and personality to come through, so that our commentary (plus that of guest writers) encourages more discussion – here and elsewhere.

From http://web.archive.org/web/20060206105112/http://woman-stirred.blogspot.com/2005/10/what-is-woman-stirred.html

Lofty ambitions, perhaps!

And why so meaningful to me now?

Because this is evidence of who I used to be, who I may possibly become again. Someone who feels connected, purposeful, and excited about life. If my online history evaporates, perhaps I see my hope fading with it.

The depressed version of me needs as many reminders as it can get that I am part of something larger than myself, that I have shown myself to have value, and that I can develop new potential. I need these prompts to help me feel I’m out there in the world, connected with it all, and not just living in my head.

Archive box photo courtesy of and copyright Free Range Stock www.freerangestock.com and Stuart Miles.

2 thoughts on “Lost and Found: the importance of archiving for personal and cultural memory

  1. I well remember the ‘Someone who feels connected, purposeful, and excited about life’. I hope she comes back soon. I miss her. This is a well-written and interesting blogpost. It introduced me to the trAce facebook page too. Thank you very much for writing it.

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