That’s an exaggeration. Many of the cultural products Wired highlights and celebrates are the result of research in archives. These are things that make money, and that provide content for profit-generating companies like the publishers of Wired. I think this is important to point out because very rarely do I recall people talking about the contributions archives make to increasing innovation and contributing to the economy. The primary economic argument I remember being made in connection to advocacy for archives is that visitors to archives contribute to the local economy. But people who use archives create products that contribute the economy as a whole, and in many cases without the collections held in archives (and the archivists who make them accessible), those products would not exist.
From the December 2010 issue:
- “Retrobeer” – Brewers developing the “Ales of the Revolution” series used records in the New York Public Library and Thomas Jefferson’s farm records to create their recipes.
- “Our Cancer, Ourselves” – An interview with Columbia Medical School leukemia expert Siddhartha Mukherjee who “in his poignant debut, The Emperor of All Maladies, delivers a ‘biography’ of cancer.” While not explicitly stated, I would bet that Mukherjee did research in archives and special collections to learn more about early cancer treatments.
- “Indecent Exposures” – Highlights the work of Sandra Phillips, longtime photography curator at SFMOMA, and her exhibit Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera Since 1870 which “chronicles the history of photographic intrusion, from hidden cameras to celebrity stalking and recorded violence.” According to the article, Phillips found images for the exhibit by “digging through the National Archives and private collections.”
- “Danger Mouse” – The new game Epic Mickey draws on the history of animation and brings back “forgotten Disney characters” to craft a new edgier version of everyone’s favorite mouse. My guess is that Disney’s own archives contributed source material to this new product. (Oh, look, not on Wired, but here’s” a behind the scenes mini-documentary that talks about diving into the Disney archives for source material.”)
- And, not selling a product per se, but this issue includes an appreciation of the Buster Keaton film Sherlock, Jr (1924). The article doesn’t mention it, but in 1991 this film was added by the Library of Congress to the National Film Registry and you can watch the whole movie (streaming or download) at the Internet Archive.
From the current issue (March 2011):
- From an interview with James Gleick, author of The Information:
Kelly: This is your sixth book. How has the ever-increasing availability of information changed how you write books? Do you still go into libraries with stacks?
Gleick: Part of this book focuses on people from the 19th century such as Ada Byron, who was the first computer programmer. If you want to understand her life, you need to read her letters. Many of those have been collected and published, but some haven’t. To see those, you have to physically go to the British Library and then place an order with a pencil on a piece of paper and wait for somebody to bring you a package of letters like a sacred offering. I don’t know how much longer that world will work, but it’s lovely that it still does.
Kelly: Isn’t there a sort of loveliness in not having to fly 5,000 miles to visit a library but instead being able to recline in your pajamas and read a PDF?
Gleick: Not loveliness. It’s just faster, more efficient. I certainly made extensive use of Google Books for things that even five years ago I would’ve had to drag myself down to the library for. And my readers will be able to use Google Books to retrace my steps through my references in ways that wouldn’t have been possible five years ago.
- “Spacesuit Showdown” – Desribes Nicholas de Monchaux’s book Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo (which really does look like a great book) about the 1962 competition to design the first spacesuit. Based on NASA archives, no doubt, among others. And the Wired site also includes photos from the corporate archives of the winner of the competition, ILC Dover, Inc.
- “War of the Wands” – Compares the careers of the early 20th century magicians Harry Houdini and Howard Thurston, drawing on the book The Last Great Magician in the World by Jim Steinmeyer, who is, I’m sure, no novice at using archival sources.
Wired loves the history of science and technology and geeky new products based on history, both of which need archival collections for continued inspiration. So next time someone asks what archives are good for, why not talk about helping make products that contribute to the economy and inspiring innovation? That’s what Wired talks about.