Childhood memories of the Chihuahuan Desert give way to an imagined desert: the haunting landscape of the archived, abandoned web.

My father is a quiet, visioned, and deeply intelligent man. When I was a child, he taught me Morse code, BASIC, and how to read the colored stripes on resistors. Scattered amidst his plans of Tesla wind turbines were his plans to build an adobe house by hand. When I was in second grade, he moved us all out to the base of the Organ Mountains, smack in the middle of the north Chihuahuan Desert, where he started making bricks of red clay and straw.

Just on the other side of the Organ Mountains was the White Sands Missile Range and the White Sands Test Facility. It was not uncommon that large jets would come streaming overhead, faster than the speed of sound. If you were around and cognizant in the 1980s, you may remember the undulating and ever-present threat of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. When the supersonic aircraft would fly by, we would hear a tremendous boom as the sound of their movement caught up to us. My brother would often get very serious when this happened, telling me that it was just a “sonic boom,” but that it could also be a nuclear attack. We would then go hide under the kitchen table and wait for the fallout.

Like many children living during those times, there was a very real possibility in our minds that the end times could be just around the corner. Being a planner, I spent many hours imagining different scenarios in which the population of Earth was decimated in a nuclear holocaust. In many of these scenarios I was a lone, miraculous survivor, left to fend for myself. I wasn’t too worried about this because in my mind I was the queen of the desert. I knew all of the trails like the back of my hand. I had mastered the art of diving unscathed, at top running speed, through barbed-wire fences. I built numerous secret forts in mesquite and creosote bushes. I could catch lizards and “horny toads” by hand faster than anyone around. I was a scrawny, scrabbly, nine-year-old survivalist and I knew that I would be just fine.

Most often in these extended fantasies, I would leave the desert, make my way to the biggest library I could find, and set up camp within. It was my greatest dream to live in an abandoned library, with nothing but time and books. I dreamt of reading every single book in the library and knowing everything there was to know about life and existence.

Walking now in my mind through that imagined landscape, I feel the echoes of a civilization lost. As a child I delighted in the notion of unfettered access to the world of recorded knowledge, but now, as an adult, that world feels somehow vacant and hollow. Something very important was missing there. What was it?

I get this same sense as I am “walking” through archived websites. I wander through the walls of text and the blinking, animated gifs. Old, flashing headlines remind me of flashing neon in some abandoned city. The old websites seem haunted by the ghosts of the people who created them. I’m sure that most of the people who created the sites are still alive, but it’s the ghosts of who they used to be, of the time we used to live in, that haunt the pages. I am especially struck by this when I visit web pages I created in the late 90s. My ghosts are captured there in the glowing, rendered bits.

If this is the case with mostly static websites, imagine then what it’s like to wander preserved virtual worlds. I haven’t been to Second Life in a while, but I shudder to think of what it would be like to visit. What would a preserved World of Warcraft be like when there are no people filling the space, chatting, fighting, building? What will Minecraft be like in twenty years?

As archivists, we are tasked with preserving the past and the present for the future, but how much of the true picture can we actually preserve? It seems that despite our best efforts, the most we can possibly accomplish is to save the files and the spaces where only the echoes and reverberations of life ripple out from the screen. Just like my end-times fantasies as a child, I realize that even with the wild abandon of having access to everything recorded, it’s just not the same without the people.

Heather ryan

Heather Ryan is an Assistant Professor at the University of Denver’s Library and Information Science program. Her PhD is from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in Information and Library Science, and she focuses her teaching and research on archives and digital preservation. She has been a Long Now Foundation Research Associate since 2007.

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Portrait by Roman Muradov