This Friday I attended a productive and unexpectedly fascinating workshop at UC Berkeley, aimed at developing a model policy for archives that host images — often disturbing and graphic ones — from war zones and other areas of violent conflict. In particular, the Iraq war is generating a lot of such footage (it’s the first war in which many of the participants carry portable video cameras), and archivists understandably feel conflicting responsibilities about how to handle the deluge of material. On the one hand, they don’t want to be in the position of helping terrorists disseminate recruiting material, nor do they want to further hurt the feelings of family members of those whose deaths are shown in some of these videos and still photos. On the other hand, they’re archivists, after all: their mission is to preserve and make available all the information they can, not to judge what might or might not be valuable to future historians.
The meeting was organized by Jeff Ubois , who has worked with the Internet Archive  and other repositories of digital images. The Internet Archive has to deal with these kinds of questions every day, and wanted to stop making their decisions ad hoc and in isolation from other archivists in similar situations.
Peter Brantley of the Digital Library Federation has already written a detailed blog entry  about the workshop, I won’t repeat here his excellent description of the discussion and its conclusion. But I would like to talk a little about why the issue is so complex, and how it is that sixteen people can spend seven hours in a room debating just this one topic, in the end producing just a 67-word draft policy that basically says “We’ll take feedback from users, we’ll try to do the right thing, and we’ll try to err on the side of more access rather than less”. I think it was a good outcome, too: this was one of those rare instances when one can say that the process was more important than the result and really mean it.
I started out the meeting thinking “Well, obviously if a family member or loved one asks an archive to take down footage of their child being tortured or blown to bits, that’s an easy call: take it down. How important can it be, after all, that it’s worth adding insult to those already injured so much?” Annalee Newitz of Techsploitation , while understanding that sentiment, responded that the historical record has a value too. That footage might be the only footage of some important event (say, the equivalent of a My Lai massacre, though Annalee didn’t use that example), and it’s simply not good enough to have a policy that takes into account how much someone will be hurt, without also taking into account the intrinsic worth of archival materials to future historians and researchers.
That really got me thinking. What is the intrinsic worth of these kind of materials?
A person who grows up in a war zone — say, a child growing up in Baghdad today — may see things on a weekly basis that others never encounter in their entire lives. The child in a war zone does not “see” them on a computer screen, but in life: in the street, on the way to school or to a friend’s house. But even an image on a computer screen is much closer to real experience than a description would be. One thing this meeting made very clear (partly via the small but effective selection of images sent around to prepare participants for what they would be dealing with) is that a verbal description of an image simply cannot have the same impact as the image itself. I’ve heard gory descriptions of public beheadings before, but what will stick in my mind forever is certain video footage I saw exactly once. It’s not merely that it’s more graphic than a prose description; it’s a different level of sensory experience altogether.
I think this implies that there may be no way to understand what that child in Baghdad is going through except through seeing what’s actually happening there. Thus there may be no way to understand the adult that child will become, except through these images.
A decade or two from now, we may be wondering why it is that Iraqis have chosen (or at any rate acquiesced to) a new tyrant of more or less the same type as Saddam Hussein, who was himself more or less the same type as Joseph Stalin and many others throughout history. If that day comes, the footage we have from Iraq today will go a long way toward helping us understand how it happened. Even today, a number of people in Iraq are starting to say that as bad as it was under Saddam, it was better than now. I realize it may not be a majority — and I hope it never becomes one — but that even a statistically significant portion of people would say that should be a clue that something has gone badly wrong. And I’m not sure how a historian would get inside their heads, now or in the future, without access to images of what those people were exposed to. Interviews with foreign correspondents and “embedded journalists” won’t cut it. Even interviews with natives won’t do the job. You have to come as close as you can to the real experience, and for that, these archives are the best we have. We censor them at the risk of our own understanding.