How the State of Israel Is Bringing Its Analog History to the Web

It speaks an ancient language, repurposed. Now it's repurposing its own history.

Wikimedia Commons/Sustructu

It's a small league. Six teams. But this game's big -- 8,000 people have turned out -- and it's a classic underdog situation: The players have met four times before, officially, and each time, the same team won.

The year? 1935. The city? Tel Aviv. But you can watch the match -- between the Maccabi and Hapoel sports unions -- online:

The video's available on Youtube due to the new digitization efforts of workers at the Israeli National Archives. Last week, they began an English-language blog of archived material, where they'll post interesting material relevant to whatever's in the news. Israel's new Chief Archivist, Yaacov Lozowick, describes the effort in an interview with Yair Rosenberg over at Tablet Magazine.

Lozowick understands the Archives, both online and off-, to have distinctly civic ends. "The mission of the archives is to transfer the documentation of the government to the possession of the governed," Lozowick told Rosenberg. "[E]nabling the citizens to have free and easy access to their documentation -- within the obvious constraints -- will enrich the public discourse and strengthen Israeli democracy."

The blog's part of a larger effort to digitize all of Israel's analog state records. But to do that, they must first limit and grapple with their data set, by making a list of every Israeli government position and the functions of each. This is something that's never been done, as "the various levels of officialdom [might] fulfill some 100,000 functions." The whole process recalls a programmer's method, going through and defining all the functions it's possible to call before being able to use any of them.

The entire interview is worth reading, if only for a look at how institutional repositories of information continue to grapple with the Internet. Because this isn't a new behavior. Scanning archived material, posting it online, riffing on it: There's even a word for it. Back in April 2009, Tim Carmody (now a writer at the Verge) called it paleoblogging, claiming it part of the vast scholarly project:

[Paleoblogging] is the fundamental humanist endeavour -- taking knowledge that took a tremendous amount of energy and expenditure to achieve, and that would otherwise go UNknown, and giving it a new social life, a new audience.

When Carmody classified it, he was describing many small, often one-person paleoblogging campaigns, sustained by passion or the heft of academic institutions. But now Matt Novak's Paleofuture (mentioned in that post) resides on the servers of none other than the Smithsonian. Our own National Archives blogs one item from its shelves a day, and university archives cultivate Twitter to reveal how the past undergirds the present. There may be special resonance that the nation of Israel -- brought into being by rhetoric-driven action and sustained by the modern repurposing of a paleo-language  -- is now paleoblogging its own history.

And there's one more trend worth noting here. In his interview, Rosenberg muses that the archive's store "will soon become daily Internet fodder." A paleoblogger, indeed, needs to follow the news cycle: When a former Prime Minister died last weekend, Lozowick had -- by Monday -- located relevant papers, declassified what he could, and posted them with a short summary to his blog.

But paleoblogging is only part of a larger trend in which academics flirt with journalism and consider the newsworthiness of what they write: or, better put, the webworthiness of what they write. At a humanities conference last month, George Mason professor Dan Cohen wondered aloud about the scholarly article and the news hook:

Archivists are already attuned to the news: They're hunting for objects, and objects only become available in spurts. (Who knows when the next local politician will hold an estate sale?)  But as the academy bends toward the web, it's worth remembering that the web's habits allow both for the success of topical, "journalistic" content -- the analyses, punditry, and analogizing of a political blogger -- and the flourishing of shows like Radiolab -- defined by their sensibility and even aversion to the news cycle. Paleoblogging today is exciting, enriching, democratic. But in the future -- as whole archives become available -- its products might be assembled into something artistic, something beyond frenetic. The news peg of the archive could become downright monumental.