Archives and Entropy: The Closed System

Terry Abraham

The concept behind this paper was first presented in the course of a talk on "Assembling and Organizing a Collection" given at a Local Records Workshop for the Washington State Historical Records Inventory Project, Bellingham, Washington, August 17, 1977. It was subsequently reworked into a publication entitled "Entropy and archival disorder." Provenance 11:1(Spring 1984)94-99. Further contemplation and reconsideration of the topic produced the following.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics, a part of that arcane body of knowledge of how the world works, is little understood outside the bounds of the scientific community. Disdain for things scientific among non-scientists and its converse (broadly overstated in C. P. Snow's famous "two-cultures" essay) tends to maintain that division. To some of those with a scientific bent, it is a demonstration of non-scientific thinking to attempt to apply, for instance, the principles of physics to an unrelated subject such as economics.

This has not kept humanists, poets, even social scientists, from reaching into the bag of scientific tricks for an image, an illustration, or a sensibility. Thermodynamics appears to be one of those concepts often used as a model for speculative thought. Much of this incorporation has been at an abstract or allegorical level. It is very difficult to integrate thermodynamics and political systems on a one-to-one basis. Often what is done is to apply the concept as a theoretical framework for a way of thinking about process and about change.

Henry Adams was one of the first to attempt a meld between a group of scientific concepts and a specific humanistic discipline. His 1910 report "To American Teachers of History" (Henry Adams. The degradation of the democratic dogma. NY, Macmillan, 1920. I am indebted to Karyl Winn for calling this to my attention) attempted to demonstrate that Darwinism, thermodynamics and modern scientific thought must influence the teaching of history as a scientific discipline. He argued that historians must rearrange their prevailing world-view or forever be consigned to antiquarianism.

Some of those who have specifically borrowed from thermodynamics for their concepts are art historian Rudolf Arnheim in his Entropy and art: an essay on disorder and order (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1971), Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen's The entropy law and the economic process (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1971), and Jeremy Rifkin's Entropy; a new world view (NY, Viking, 1980). Usually, however, only enough is borrowed from the primal laws to provide an intriguing philosophical construct.

For archivists, entropy and the Second law of Thermodynamics have both a philosophical (or non-scientific) function and a material or practical role. Since it was proposed in 1850 by the German physicist Rudolf Clausius, the Second Law of Thermodynamics has undergone periodic changes of definition in order to make it more precise and descriptive. In its simplest analogue, the Law can be stated as follows: "In a closed system, energy always goes from hot to cold." This statement has two parts: first, that the system is closed, it is complete in and of itself. There is no opening, no entrance, no exit. Second, a process takes place and it always goes in one direction, from hot to cold. Heat is, of course, only one manifestation of energy, but it will provide us with a model for all forms of energy.

A simple analogy of the second law is known as the Cosmic Sink. Water, for which read energy, always runs downhill. Uphill can be read as hot and downhill as cold. Heat is active energy and cold is the absence of energy. Thermodynamics, in this analogy, equates the water level with heat energy (thermodynamics). All the energy in the system (in the universe) is headed for the Cosmic Sink. It is all trying to reach a uniform and colder level.

The effort required to raise water to a particular level, such as a municipal water tank, is stored as the potential energy of the water running out of the tank. It contains some quantity of energy in a potential state. As the water is released the potential energy is consumed. The state of non-energy created by this release is entropy.

Entropy is the heat-death of the universe. Since the average temperature (a measure of energy) of the universe is a bare degree or so above zero Kelvin (that absolute zero where all molecular motion stops); it is apparent that any temperatures above that are purely local aberrations. And, according to the Second Law, the tendency is for those local aberrations to slow, to cool, to stop, to die, and thus to join the common level of expended energy. For instance, any energy expended to construct a building is stored in that structure until it collapses, falls, and its molecules separate and go their separate ways. Raising the structure decreases entropy, its decline and fall increases entropy. Over the whole system, however, these are only local increases and decreases; the level of energy (the entropy level) throughout the whole system is both constant and very, very low. Therefore, it is common to speak of entropy, of an increase in entropy, as the running down of the universe. (If the universe is running down and entropy is increasing, then we have neglected to include the concept of a closed system. If the system is indeed closed, the level of entropy is and always will be the same; the decrease in the energy of the universe, its "running down," is a purely local phenomenon. However, we must not overlook the possibility that the universe is an open system and that some new source of energy will be introduced and, so to speak, wind things back up again. This is considered unlikely.)

The entropic running down of the works applies equally well to the natural tendency of things to go from organization to disorganization, from order to chaos. For instance, the building in the previous example went through a sequence of disorder (a pile of lumber), order (the building) , and disorder (a pile of scrap wood). An ordered entity requires a quantity of energy to create and maintain itself as an entity. Once it reaches an ordered state, it will, without further infusions of energy, gradually become disordered. As organisms, we eat to live. If we discontinue fueling the organism, it ceases to live and eventually disintegrates. From high-energy order it moves in the direction of low-energy disorder.

There are two basic applications of this concept to the world of archives. The first is to the physical material, the paper product (or other medium) with which we generally deal. A quantity of energy is expended to push certain chemicals and assorted fibrous products together to make paper. Most paper today contains a quantity of unstable molecules which have more than just a slight tendency toward disorder, or, at least, a lower energy level. Unfortunately the lower energy level they are seeking is, when fully attained, no longer what we would call paper. The state of higher organization that is useful as paper is but one step in a long complex process from cellulose in tree fibers to compost. Earlier papers, of essentially unbleached rags, were much more stable and their movement to a lower energy level is at a greatly reduced rate. Such papers from the fifteenth century look as good today as when new some five centuries ago.

We have discovered in recent years that the deterioration of paper resulting from its inherent acidity can be hindered if not reversed. The process involves a massive infusion of additional energy to first stabilize the breakdown and second, to buffer it against further deterioration.

Where does this energy come from? We tend to act as if it is available in an open system; i.e. that the energy is freely available. The Earth, for example, is an open system; an outside source, the Sun, constantly pours additional energy onto the surface of this planet and we use it in multiple ways. Our dependence on fossil fuels is possible because we have been able to mine stored energy from the Sun. Coal and oil are but examples of ancient sunlight.

An archives is also an example of an open system. The energy available for the archives to consume is supplied by its organizational macrosystem. If, in speaking of paper deterioration, we presume a closed system where no outside source of energy was available, then any attempt to deter the decline of a particular piece of paper by applying energy would require taking that energy from another piece of paper. For there to be order here, there must be disorder there; the system must stay in balance.

What is true of the materials of archives is also true of the intellectual content. Information is stored energy. The creation of information requires an energy expenditure. The filing of the information entails an energy expenditure. The maintenance of the file involves an energy expenditure. All of this must be outside energy, energy from outside the local system.

The transformation of archival records from order to chaos was amply described by a young historian whose introduction to the world of archives involved a body of records which had not received those periodic infusions of energy necessary to maintain the files. He was interested in the records of extinct mining companies of the Cascade Mountains of Washington State. In one abandoned office building he found all the records of the company which had been left behind when they closed the doors twenty years earlier. When the mine was closed the records were in filing boxes on a series of shelves against one wall. When he re-opened the door decades later, the constant effect of mountain winters had penetrated the roof, smashed the windows, tumbled the boxes from the shelves, the files from the boxes, the papers from the files. The wind had swept through and thoroughly shuffled the documents. Order to disorder. The records were fulfilling their required movement from a state of high energy to a state of low energy, just as water will, when left alone, go from hot to cold.

At this point, facing a large pile of plastic garbage bags full of damp and somewhat moldy papers, the archivist may question the energy required to bring records nearing the bottom of the entropic sink to a higher energy level. Without question, the expenditure of energy required is both considerable, and, given the long term increase in entropy, always temporary. During a period of declining budgets, itself perhaps entropic in nature, archivists must carefully conserve their expenditures of energy, time, equipment and funds. Considering archives as, institutionally, a closed system, with no internal sources of energy, then the future is necessarily bleak. The principal input to the archival system is always (or nearly always) disordered masses of paper at a very low energy level. They have expended the bulk of the energy originally invested to place them in order.

Short of a massive infusion of outside energy, archivists must rely on two basic tactics to control their energy expenses. The first tactic most commonly used is to severely limit the activities involved in processing the records. The decline of calendaring as a method of description was just this sort of conservation of resources.

Nevertheless, new areas of savings must be identified and tested. The whole scope of energy inputs must be recognized and evaluated. A partial listing would include appraisal, arrangement, description, and inventorying. The energy input process may also involve removing paper clips, cellophane tape, acidic folders, duplicate papers, rubber bands, and the odd sandwich, chocolate bar or peanut brittle. It may involve replacing or copying materials from high acid papers to low acid papers. Microfilming has also been tried as an alternative.

Once shelved, on steel shelves in acid-free containers, bibliographic access is enhanced through cataloging and reporting to others, internally to administrators and/or externally to national and regional data bases. The energy expenditure of the archives does not stop at this point. Maintenance of overhead structures, temperature and humidity, flood control and other activities will always prove a net drain on the resources of the archives. In addition, the use of the material, by scholarly researchers or administrative staff, requires an expenditure in shelving and unshelving and providing facilities for research. Not to mention the expenditure of time and effort by the researchers. (It is seldom realized that this research cost is a cost which can be decreased by an increased expenditure on the part of the archives, and contrariwise, increased by decreased archival expenditure.) All these costs, these energy inputs, whether calculated in terms of energy expenditures or cash outflow, will continue for uncounted years. And it is within this established pattern of energy inputs that archives have the greatest control and potential for savings.

The second tactic used to control energy expenditures is to attempt to reduce the energy loss the records endure on their way to the archives. In part this is a matter of shifting the expense outside the archival system, or changing from a closed system to an open system.

The original creation and organization of a file of records is an expense borne by the originating office. As the records decline in use and are slowly shifted away from the care and attention of the office staff, they begin the inevitable cycle of neglect and decay. Properly scheduled records, administered by an experienced records manager, have been identified for disposal or preservation long before this point has been reached. In an efficiently run office records of archival value are shipped off to the archives before too much entropic decline has set in. The shipping of the records, boxing, labeling and transporting, is an energy expense which may or may not be charged to the archives.

Unfortunately, this is most often the area in which the archivist has the least control, and the least potential for energy savings. And, as well, the potential savings may not make more than a slight dent in the long-term energy expenditure of storing and servicing the records.

If we step back from this rather dismal viewpoint to a more societal perspective, we can consider the energy expended by the archives as a channel for a certain quantity of energy dispensed by the society as a whole. Civilization has developed on the foundation of its written records. However offhandedly, archives are considered a greater societal good and as such, worth the expenditure of some (albeit small) portion of the society's total energy store.

The existence of almost 3000 functioning U.S. archival repositories (Directory of Archives and Manuscript Repositories in the United States. Washington, NHPRC, 1978.) is at least an indication of the value our society places on the role of archives. The fact that the level of support has not kept up with the archival system's needs is, while related, a matter of an entirely different analysis.

If we step back even further to a more universal or galactic point of view, we can then see that for each expenditure of energy to organize a body of records, somewhere in the universe that energy is being taken from records already organized. If we increase order here by arranging records, somewhere in the universe a similar sized group of records is being disorganized; the Second Law of Thermodynamics requires that the galactic energy equilibrium be maintained.

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