12/28/20

The Last Archive, reviewed

I first read Jill Lepore’s A is for American in an undergraduate history course on the United States before the Civil War; the following year her book The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity was a key inspiration for my senior honors paper in which I tried to localize the historical memory of King Philip’s War around Bristol, RI, where the conflict ended following Metacom’s killing. She also wrote an article in The New Yorker in 2015 on web archiving and digital preservation that I assign to students and still recommend. When I saw the announcement of her latest venture, a podcast, I knew I had to tune in. It’s not like I have too much going on in the middle of this pandemic, plus the title was “The Last Archive,” so on-brand!

The stated goal of the show is to answer the question “Who Killed Truth?” over the course of ten episodes tracing a modern history of facts and evidence. I will admit that the first few episodes, on an unsolved murder case in Vermont, the lie detector, an invisible woman, and the invisible man, felt a bit scattered and without a clear focus. Perhaps it was a function of my thoughts on the current public health and political climate in our country right now but episodes 5-8 on computational election prediction, the polio vaccine, the failed attempt to build a National Data Center, and the 1977 National Women’s convention were spot-on in terms of tone and content. In each, Lepore provides historical context for urgent issues facing our society, giving the listener a better idea of how we arrived in a place where many people distrust vaccines but trust the private sector to manage vast stores of personal data about each of us. Episode nine, focusing on Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, climate change, and citizen science projects documenting bird deaths was a reminder that more people should read that book, and the final episode ties things together neatly and enticed me to pick up a copy of her latest book IF THEN: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future.

The podcast is livened up by voice actors reading some of the records used to write the episodes, and the show’s website provides additional info on the archives and sources used in the production. The final episode featured the Computer History Museum and the Internet Archive, among other repositories. I, for one, think the internet airwaves would benefit from more explanations of punch cards and the efforts to extract data off of them!

Is this indeed the titular last archive? I hope not, for my own sake as an archival educator and researcher. What it is, though, is a fascinating and engaging history podcast for anyone interested in how we’ve come to construct truth and knowledge in the modern United States. Give it a listen, it’s well worth the addition to your COVID-era media diet.