Unborn Analog: Are We Losing the Past to Preserve an Uncertain Future?

By JeffHarrison


Much of the information people have been creating lately has been “born-digital,” meaning it was born on a computer or some other digital device. While this is convenient and certainly seems like a step in the right direction as far as access is concerned, it feels like we are losing something in the process. For things like news, posting directly to a website is great when one thinks about it. Newspapers are ridiculously wasteful. You buy one everyday and (usually) throw it out on the same day. I cannot think of a better candidate for digital reconstitution. However, the question we have to ask ourselves is will this news be readily available when it has become history, in fifty or a hundred years? Unfortunately, “that’s part of the danger of our digitized world — we don’t know how to store things for safe keeping hundreds of years into the future” (Heimbuch), and without this crucial information of how to preserve computer-generated content, it can be argued that we have no right to unload so much material onto the internet without backing it up with hardcopies.

The problem with digital information is not the fact that it is digital. It is the fact that it is ephemeral. Although it may last for several years in the digital realm, it will not last forever. While the same thing may be said of paper copies, the paper copies are not in a constant state of upheaval the way the digital world is.  It seems convenient that fleeting information and fleeting attention spans have popped up at around the same time. Today, knowledge is quickly gotten and quickly gotten rid of. Perhaps it is because we are able to so easily find information online that we now take it for granted. Before computers allowed us to store everything we could think of, a lot like Bush’s “memex,” we had a bit more respect for tactile information. Now, the more advanced computers become, the more of a throw away lifestyle we find ourselves accepting. We keep our phones for a maximum of two years and our laptops for about three to five years. We have come to almost revel in our excrement and we do it with a smile.

Derrida says it best in his book, Archive Fever: “What is no longer archived in the same way is no longer lived in the same way” (18). Because information has stopped being truly saved for future generations, we no longer see it as an important element of our lives.

In a way, archiving has become more about the process and less about the result. In other words, how we archive has become more important than what we archive. How do we archive? Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, etc. What do we archive? Anything that is on our minds at any given time. This can get rather tedious and frankly boring. Seneca’s idea that, “it does not matter how many books you have, but how good they are,” is partially true (qtd. in Battles 9). We throw most anything into the “universal” Archive by posting things on the internet. But we do this without realizing we are adding to the Archive. Obviously some of the things added to the internet do not necessarily have to be saved for others to read in the future. It is not paramount that everything floating around the World Wide Web always be readily available. That goes for information not created digitally as well. Still, by making all information digital, we have set up a system through which we will haunt people long after we are dead with information that was never meant to be eternal. If you delete your Facebook account, all the information is still there and will always be there. If you save a Word document, you can delete it but they do not make it easy. With so much stuff and no real way to weed all of it, “instant info can make us a whole new breed of hoarder,” Heimbuch says in her article, “7 Major Ways We’re Digitizing Our World, and 3 Reasons We Still Want Hardcopies.” She contends that because of all of the information at hand, people feel compelled to absorb as much as they possibly can.

While the idea of people wanting to learn is commendable, it appears to be trending, hip knowledge that everyone is most jacked into, such as the latest gadget, which will become obsolete in a few years. Richer, more fruitful knowledge is usually passed over in favor of Skynet’s newest toy. But we should never forget: The T-1000 was not user compatible.


Works Cited

Battles, Matthew. Library: An Unquiet History. New York: W.W. Norton. 2003. Print


That’s a Fine Wallet You’re Wearing: A Macabrely Hilarious Jaunt Through a New Jersey Archive

By JeffHarrison

The North Jersey History and Genealogy Center, which happens to be a part of the Morristown Public Library in Morristown, New Jersey houses multitudinous records of people not just from Northern New Jersey but from all over the state as well. Many of the documents range in date from around the late 1800’s to the 1920’s, although there are a vast amount of records that go back even further than that. James Lewis, the head of the Genealogy Center says that they are lucky to have a humidity and temperature controlled vault (which uses halon gas) because very few public libraries have enough funding for such technology. Within the vault there are an assortment of documents, including many now-defunct New Jersey newspapers such as the Democratic Banner, Jerseyman, and Iron Era. They also have a digital lab, which is extremely rare for a New Jersey pubic library. However, these nuances only scratch the surface of what the NJHGC has to offer.


Many people have heard of Tammany Hall and/or Boss Tweed, especially if you have seen the movie Gangs of New York, in which the historical figure has a prominent role. At the time of this “corrupt pol’s” reign, political cartoonist Thomas Nast was skewering him in Harper’s Weekly. Nast’s other claim to fame was “inventing” the version of Santa Claus we have come to know today, with his big, bushy beard and rosy cheeks. Although Nast was not originally from Morristown, he lived there for quite some time and raised his children in the New Jersey Town. The Genealogy Center owns a copious amount of Nast’s original artwork, as well as a large, original painting by him of Horace Greeley, the newspaper magnate, whom he also was not fond of. Another notable artist that the Genealogy Center has collections of is A.B. Frost, who is famous for illustrating the Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit books by Joel Chandler Harris, although, as Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook would say, the Thomas Nast collection is clearly the “privileged” one. On the other hand, one wonders if the Nast records were consciously given precedence over the Frost ones, or if it simply comes down to what has been preserved from the beginning and what is available.

Some things are painstakingly documented, archived, and preserved. Other things are seen as not important enough to even remember. Some things haunt us forever and stay with us, which, according to Jacques Derrida, is an archive in itself. Despite the fact that the Genealogy Center is bright and welcoming, there is a dark crevice lying within its vaults.

In 1833, there was a French immigrant named Antoine Leblanc, who worked on a family farm in Morristown for only a few weeks after having just arrived in the country. Feeling that he was unappreciated and underpaid (as in not at all), he decided to kill the couple and their servant. After he was caught for his crimes he was hanged and skinned. Why did they skin him? Well obviously to make wallets, lampshades, and book covers. These corpulent keepsakes are said to still exist and one of them is housed at the NJHGC where Weird New Jersey came and did a story about it. The Genealogy Center also has Leblanc’s death mask, which arguably is not as intriguing as the wallet, yet still quite eerie. Every year a retired judge does a presentation on the story.

Since we are talking about archives, it would be unfair to leave Jacques Derrida out of the equation. In Archival Fever: A Freudian Impression, he says that the archive, “keeps, it puts in reserve, it saves, but in an unnatural fashion, that is to say in making the law […] or in making people respect the law.” Archives and the power they hold have long been a scholarly issue and the reason one brings it up here is because the Antoine Leblanc wallet and death mask easily tie into this debate. These artifacts are a haunting reminder of an atrocious crime, as well as the atrocious way the criminal was dealt with. Thus, we are not allowed to forget the barbarity of man towards man and in turn, are subjected to an adverse view of mankind. This is a grim way of viewing archives individually or Derrida’s overall Archive as a whole and only works under certain conditions, as in when governments do not allow the people access to them. What we should take away from the Leblanc artifacts is something much less sinister; archives do not have instructions as far as what can and cannot be put into them.

Leblanc’s death mask reminds one of the skull of Hamlet’s poor Yorick. Coincidentally, the Genealogy Center is home to the Morristown Shakespeare Club minutes, which date back to 1878. The club is the second oldest in the United States and was founded by all women, which was very rare for the time. After each one of their meetings, the minutes are delivered to the archive, which deposits them in boxes and is currently in the process of digitizing them. In spite of this, the North Jersey History and Genealogy Center is a place where the printed page still takes precedence over the computer screen, which is quite refreshing.

Works Cited

Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. Print

Schwartz, Joan M., Terry Cook. “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory.” Archival Science 2 (2002) 1-19. Print.

If Bruce Wayne Had Chosen Another Path, Would He Have Become a Librarian?

By JeffHarrison



In today’s indeterminate world, librarians are like dark knights. They exist because they are needed, though not everyone may realize this or even be appreciative of it. But when they come out of the shadowy stacks to help someone, the librarian’s presence is always welcomed. Like Batman, they only have one rule, though it is much less fierce than to never kill; librarians will help the patron to the best of their ability and, as it is with the caped crusader, you will never need to thank them.

When you are running from trouble on the cold and dirty city streets, there is always a library nearby, welcoming you into its cozy book-strewn atmosphere. Perhaps this is as unlike the Batcave as one could possibly imagine, but within, you will still find detectives, always hunting down that one elusive book for their patron.

There is a certain alienation that comes with this profession, which was an idea first touched upon by Marcia J. Nauratil in her 1989 book, The Alienated Librarian. Though there are most likely no librarians who witnessed their parents being gunned down in Crime Alley by Joe Chill, thus burdened with a desire to mete out justice, the alienation felt by librarians comes from a sense of antiquatedness. With the onslaught of the internet, ebooks, and Google, many people assume that librarians have gone the way of the eight-track. Some might say that Batman is antiquated as well, the vigilantism seemingly of a world far removed from our own; one where gangsters and killers got more press than corrupt businessmen and politicians. Admittedly, one finds it hard to picture The Dark Knight roaming the streets of New York today when there is almost no need for his brand of justice. Ostensibly, there is also very little need for librarians. However, as one recent news story from the Washington Times about librarians championing the uninsured points out, this could not be further from the truth.

At this past summer’s annual ALA conference, it was announced that the librarians of the country would be rising up to help those who need to sign up for Obamacare beginning October 1st. In true Dark Knight fashion, the news article states that, “libraries will be particularly important in conservative states that are not making much effort to promote the health law’s opportunities.” Although this is not the vigilantism that comes to mind when you think of Batman, the fact is, that by informing the people of the community about their legal rights and providing them with the computers required to apply for this service, in their own way, librarians will be working outside of the system and helping those who cannot help themselves.

Going back to the problem of alienation, while working outside of the system may alienate those librarians that live in conservative areas from part of their towns, because it is something they know is a good thing, their alienation is not the anachronistic kind mentioned above.  On the contrary, by working towards a more progressive society, they are actually helping to absorb themselves and others into a more hopeful future. They are actually disproving Marx’s idea that mankind is making a history of “increasing development but also of increasing alienation,” making it the actual anachronism (Nauratil 15).

Bruce Wayne chose to become a symbol of hope for the people of Gotham because they previously had none. In the real world we do have symbols of hope, but they are a lot less theatrical and overtly impressive, which is why in recent years, librarians have been viewed so negligibly. However, simple yet substantial gestures like offering to help a single mom get health benefits because her employer refuses to give her full-time work or “even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a young boy’s shoulders to let him know that the world hadn’t ended” (The Dark Knight Rises 2012). These are the things people will remember most and look back fondly on throughout their lives.

Librarians, like the Dark Knight, are silent guardians. They watch over information, making sure that everyone has access to it. They too make sure there is justice in the world by providing patrons with the ability to sometimes work within the system and sometimes on its border. When we are truly lost, without direction and backs up against the wall, whether it be to find a way to get affordable insurance or sue a slumlord, librarians will be there, utility belt (computer catalog) at the ready. All we need to do is ask. No joke.

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