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Preserving pixels in Paris

Last month, I was in Paris for the IIPC Web Archiving Conference, a two-day event to discuss the preservation of websites and social media. It was my first time attending, and I was there with both a professional and a personal interest. This post has some thoughts and photos from the trip.

I met a lot of smart people, and we had some thoughtful conversations about the challenges of web archiving. Most of my experience is limited to small scale projects – single sites or personal archives – and it was good to hear more about how large organisations are trying to preserve this ever-growing chunk of our digital heritage. I tend to save specific, targeted chunks of the web, whereas larger archives try to capture as much as they can.

Big tech was a running theme. An increasing chunk of the web is consolidating onto large, commercially-owned social media platforms. A few years ago, those companies would have freely-available APIs for downloading content en masse, but no more – they’re all locked down now, and several speakers talked about how their ability to archive social media has been severely curtailed.

AI was also a hot topic, another product of big tech. As web archives grow and grow and grow, you need a way to search their contents and find the useful stuff. Multiple people showed off experiments using AI to make these large archives more tractable, like using AI to add more metadata to catalogue records, or creating automated summaries of archived TV footage.

A lot of the focus was on saving web content and creating large web archives, but less on what we’ll actually do with these archives. Who’s using web archives? What do they need? What research do these web archives enable? These feel like important questions to answer, if we want to create useful resources. I’d love to see more of a focus on that at future events.

With those reflections done, here are a few photos. Paris is a very photogenic city.

The conference took place at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, which is split across two sites. The drinks reception was at the Richelieu site, the home of the library for nearly 300 years. It includes a museum, which we got to look around before the reception:

A long, ornately decorated gallery with gold trim on the walls and colourful paintings on the ceiling. There are various display cases against the walls, and directly in front of me is the silhouette of a man standing in front of a large globe.
This is the Galerie Mazarin, named after the seventeenth-century cardinal of the same name. In the foreground is a celestial globe made by Vincenzo Coronelli, an Italian cartographer well known for his maps and globes. There were several other maps in the gallery, although I couldn’t always tell where they were a map of.
A close up of a book in a display case. The left-hand page is blank, while the right-hand page has a black-and-white line drawing of fantastical geometrical shapes, vaguely reminiscent of an Escher drawing.
This unusual geometric design is the work of the German artist Lorenz Stöer, one of a series of eleven illustrations he published in Geometria et Perspectiva in 1567.

The reception itself took place in the Richelieu’s salle Oval, a grand reading space that blends a historical design with modern library conveniences. When you think of big and impressive libraries, this is the sort of room you think of:

Looking up towards the ceiling. There's a large oval window at the very top of the ceiling, then smaller circular windows around it. Above each window is the name of a city; below it is an archway with bookshelves filling the archway. Each archway is wide, enough to hold six bookshelves.
There are sixteen circular windows around the ceiling, and above each is the name of a city famous for its contributions to civilisation and libraries. All the windows filled the room with natural light, so it felt warm and open, even though it was already evening when I took this photo. I bet it looks even better in the summer.
A large crowd of people looking towards a speaker at the far end of the room.
Even in a room this photogenic, the speaker had little trouble getting everyone's attention.

One of the nice things about going to a conference in France is that their clocks are only an hour ahead of the UK – close enough that I can sleep on my normal schedule, and get some extra time in the morning. Before the first day of talks started properly, I went for a bit of a wander.

I stumbled upon a lovely little park near the hotel:

A concrete path bisecting grass on either side, with various trees and hedges dotted around the park. The sky is blue and bright, but there aren’t many people visible – it’s too early for them to be up.

The talks themselves took place at the François-Mitterrand site, which was built in the 1990s. It’s a rather charming set of buildings, framed by four right-angled shaped towers at each corner of the site. The base of the towers are joined by a rectangular building, and the middle of the rectangle is filled with a dense wooded area.

A densely-wooded area full of green trees, and in the background are two towers which are shaped bit like a capital L. The towers are mostly glass and metal, with shorter glass and metal buildings extending from the towers and into the foreground.
I think the wooded area might be closed to the public – I never saw any directions for it, nor did I see anybody wandering around down there. But given the amount of greenery elsewhere in Paris, I don’t think anyone is missing out.
A view from the top of one of the towers down into the courtyard. You can see the base of one tower, and the walkways that lead to the entrance. You can also see some of the trees in the wooded area, which is below ground level.
The conference dinner was in the top of one of the towers, and looking down is what helped me understand the layout of the site – it was a bit confusing from ground level.

You had to cross an interior bridge to get from the main library area to the auditorium where the talks took place, and the space in between felt reminiscent of The Backrooms. I was simultaneously fascinated and vaguely creeped out, and I’m not sure whether to be glad or disappointed that I never found out how to get down to the area below.

A view from the top of one of the towers down into the courtyard. You can see the base of one tower, and the walkways that lead to the entrance. You can also see some of the trees in the wooded area, which is below ground level.
Where do you think those escalators go?

On one of the days we left the building for lunch, and stumbled across a window display full of old cameras and video tapes. It felt strangely appropriate, given the topic of the conference:

A window display with old video gear tastefully arranged -- including a VHS player, various tape cassettes, a large reel-to-reel film projector, and a few video cameras.

On my final evening, I went for a dusk walk around Paris. I enjoy walking around new cities as a way to get a feel of the place, and you see a very different city at twilight than at midday.

The entrance to the Bel-Air metro station. I’m standing on the opposite side of the road, looking across a pedestrian crossing into an open door on the other side. The interior of the station is lit up with a warm yellow light.
I love railway stations at night…
The entrance to the Bel-Air metro station. I’m standing on the opposite side of the road, looking across a pedestrian crossing into an open door on the other side. The interior of the station is lit up with a warm yellow light.
…and the elaborate cast iron entrances to the Paris Metro are really something.
A nighttime photo of a large rail yard with many parallel and overlapping tracks. A long passenger train can be seen in the background of the shot, largely visible from the light coming from inside the windows.
Most people would be disappointed that their hotel room overlooked a large rail yard, but I am not most people.
A water fountain in the middle of a roundabout, lit up in orange and purple lighting from below. Around the centre of the fountain are four creatures on pedestals (cats?) with water coming out of their mouths.
I promise I saw some things that weren’t transport related, like this fountain! This is one of the things I enjoy about being out when it gets dark – all the fun coloured lights you can’t see during the daytime.
An outdoor seating area, with open-air markets visible in the background, with bright and colourful lights.
Towards the end of my walk, I walked past some sort of outdoor area with food stalls, upbeat music, and a bunch of people having a good time. I walked past because I was excited to get home to bed, but I’m glad they were enjoying themselves and I got to soak up their vibes.

And finally, it wouldn’t be a collection of photos from Paris without at least a passing mention of food. I’m not much of a foodie, but I did enjoy what I ate on this trip. This is the delicious croque monsieur I had for my final lunch:

A toasted sandwich on a plate with a salad and a cup of vegetable soup.

I was only there for about four days – long enough for the conference and a day or so of leisure, short enough that I only needed a small bag. It was a good length of trip, a refreshing break, and travel was easy thanks to the Eurostar.

Every time I visit Paris I’m reminded of how convenient it is to get to from London, and I think I should visit more often. (And all of continental Europe; there are good onward trains from Paris.)

I hope I can visit Paris again soon.