Observation: The Center for Book Arts

By Carissa

This observation was undertaken in three parts: a visit to the working studio and gallery space, a meeting with their Collections Manager, Theo Roth, and an exploration of their online catalogue. Continue reading

Observation: The Internet Archive and the Question of Abundance

By keneilb

Historians, in fact, maybe facing a fundamental paradigm shift from a culture of scarcity to a culture of abundance. Not so long ago, we worried about the small numbers of people we could reach, pages of scholarship we could publish, primary sources we could introduce to our students, and documents that had survived from the past. At least potentially, digital technology has removed many of these limits: over the Internet, it costs no more to deliver the AHR two 15 million people than 15,000 people; it costs less for our students to have access to literally millions of primary sources than a handful in a published anthology. And we may be able to both save and quickly search through all of the products of our culture. But will abundance bring better or more thoughtful history? (Rosenzweig, 2013)

In the recent past, information wasn’t as available as it is today. In today’s age we can hardly imagine what it is like to not have constant access to information. The moment we think of something we don’t know the answer to or someone asks us a question we might not know the answer to we can immediately pull out a mere device such as a cellphone to look up the answers practically instantaneously. Information is constantly at our beck and call, and with the tremendous growth in technology we have many ways of accessing it, storing it, and archiving it, whether it be through computers, laptops, phones, tablets, and even glasses. In addition to that, there is still the “old school” method of simply going to a library and finding the text you need, which now is much easier to browse since you can do it from home, have a book placed on hold for you so it’s ready upon your arrival to the library. Insane! But not really, because we are so used to it.

Rosenzweig asks the question as previously quoted, “But will abundance bring better or more thoughtful history?” I like to agree with Jason Silva on this one. Jason Silva is a futurist who puts a positive light on technological advancements and how humans can and will interface with them. In one of his videos on the YouTube channel Shots of Awe, he talks about one facet of how technology is shared, through the Internet, and describes how it actually increases the flow of curiosity and creativity. Many people believe that technology is making us lazy, that the Internet makes us simply look for an answer and then just move on without much thought. However, Jason Silva makes a good point that the Internet actually offloads some of our mental faculties, so that we can focus on even more things. What he means is that by being aided by the Internet to get an abundance of information quickly, we can spend more time on greater things, such as more thought towards what we have learned from it. So I believe that the answer to Rosenzweig’s question is that abundance will indeed bring better and more thoughtful history.

As previously mentioned, technology has made even using the library quicker and more efficient. We wont be saying good-bye to libraries any time soon. But, not only can you access physical items through a library, but also one of the most widely growing areas is digitizing resources. Now we might not always have to set foot into a library if we are looking for a quick e-source such as an e-book, journal article, etc. Most libraries offer access to these things, specifically academic libraries. It’s gotten so far that there are some libraries that might not have a specific physical location for their patrons to come in, but rather they exist online. One such place is the Internet Archive, at https://www.archive.org

The Internet Archive is a non-profit Internet library that started in 1997 with the purpose to “include offering permanent access for researchers, historians, scholars, people with disabilities, and the general public to historical collections that exist in digital format.” Many may already know them for their Way Back Machine that has 439 web pages saved from different periods of time, but they also store formats from texts, video, audio, software, image, concerts, and collections.

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Way Back Machine

The Way Back Machine was fun to explore. It was quite interesting to see websites such as yahoo, and amazon in its early stages. Yahoo, for instance was in no way visually appealing, and worked like a directory with a general list that branched off into more lists until you could narrow it down to the sites that you were looking for. It shows the gradual increase in our interfaces and how the Internet became much more user oriented as time went on, making it easier for humans to interface with it.

Old Yahoo

I also went ahead and created my own account for their website. The heading of the account creation page states, “Get a Virtual Library Card”. They treat their website as a library of its own, and your account is considered to be your Library Card. Having an account allows you to access other functions of the website. This includes favoriting, reviewing and rating items. The Internet Archive’s collections has a very straight forward browsing tool. When on a collection, each item has its own box which shows the item type, how many times its been viewed, how many times its been favorited, and how many times its been reviewed. This creates a very unique community, because with a physical library a patron doesn’t have any access to how many times an item has been viewed or how many people like it, or what people think about it. With this available to patrons, it can help them browse for popular items or less popular items or read up on what people have to say about it. Having the ability to write a review also allows patrons to leave very helpful tips. Through my observations, I’ve seen patrons give advice as to where to go to find more information on an item, as well as correct an item and informing the Internet Archive team about missing information from an item. At the bottom of each item you can also find what people have found after finding the current item. This creates a trend that can be very helpful for those with similar taste in books or whatever the item type is.

I’ve noticed that not all items are full text, but many are. I’ve even searched for “The Jungle Book” and was able to find the full original movie from 1942 and was able to watch it all for free! https://archive.org/details/JungleBook. There were also some very interesting finds just from browsing, like audio from NASA launches to be listened to in full. There are also tons of images archived on this website, even including your favorite music album covers.

As I browsed the site I was in awe of all the history we are able to store and access because of sites like the Internet Archive. But behind it all was the nagging question of how permanent can all this truly be? Their purpose states that it’s a permanent place, but in actuality all of this is stored on servers, computers probably in different areas and links back to other sources that they might have received it from. It would probably be really difficult to lose all of these files, but I can’t help but think that it is still possible. Technology is always growing and changing, leaving old methods of storage nearly obsolete; such as computers today not having a floppy disc drive to read files stored on a floppy. So, having archival websites like this one is a massive historical tool that can help many people to learn from the past and present. It probably wont be going anywhere for a long time, but I believe efforts should be made to observe ways to store these things in an even more permanent way, so that people in the future will also have access and not just for our time alone. This, too, can have issues with space to store so much information, but the trend seems to be that we are inventing smaller and smaller spaces of storage. Who knows how far we will go.

References

Internet Archive. https://archive.org. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.

Rosenzweig, R. (2003). Scarcity or abundance? Preserving the past in a digital era. The American Historical Review, 108(3), 735-762.

Issues of Responsibility and Opportunity in Digital Archiving

By rbron246

Thinking a great deal lately about the concept of the archive and specifically digital archiving, I recently spent a morning in the Condé Nast Research Library and was interested to see how/where these issues might be at play. In conversation, the senior librarian informed me that the library operates separately from the archive and described the difference as such: the archive serves as the center for preservation while the library provides access to information. While this sounds like a simple and practical divide, the idea was further complicated when I asked about articles published only online. Who handles the preservation of these articles that must make up a huge contribution to the collection of these media brands? She smiled somewhat ruefully and said she wasn’t sure. Not only did the library have no involvement with this process but the librarian actually said she was too apprehensive to even ask questions. With only three librarians, and one other part-time staff member, she said they didn’t have the resources to tackle that issue if it was raised. I was interested in this division between the archive and library and asked some further questions about photo requests, receiving yet another vague response. The librarian informed me that they had “some photo records” and could respond to “some” requests leading me to believe that the divide between the two departments isn’t quite as strict as was originally portrayed. The interaction got me thinking about issues of responsibility in terms of digital archiving.

Condé Nast has digitized the entirety of Vogue from the very first issue, an expensive undertaking that was outsourced to a different company. Currently, a yearly subscription costs $3,250. Digitizing is expensive and time-consuming and corporations like Condé Nast must decide what paper materials to digitize while also considering how to incorporate born digital materials into their archive. As of now, it is quite unclear how that is being handled.

The archive as a physical collection and theoretical concept forms a basis for much of scholarly research and when examined brings up issues of authority, authenticity, ownership, and policy. Attempts to define these objects of study get at the very nature of the disciplines they serve. Associate head of the humanities library at MIT, Marlene Manoff names various concepts of the archive such as the “social archive, the raw archive, the imperial archive, the postcolonial archive, the popular archive, the ethnographic archive, the geographical archive, the liberal archive, archival reason, archival consciousness, archive cancer, and the poetics of the archive”—a list which speaks to the way this concept has permeated many fields (11). Derrida in his influential Archive Fever, claims that the archive produces as much as it records the event. “The archive has always been a pledge, and like every pledge [gage], a token of the future. To put it more trivially: what is no longer archived in the same way is no longer lived in the same way” (18). Within this context the structure of the archive also determines what can be archived, and history and memory are then shaped by the technical processes of “archivization”.

These technical processes have seen huge transformations with recent advances in information technology. Manoff claims that the methods for transmitting information shape the nature of the knowledge that can be produced, and points to social theorist Adrian Mackenzie’s claim that the centrality of the archive to cyberspace stems from the fact that existence in virtual culture is premised on a live connection. In Mackenzie’s phrasing, “to die is to be disconnected from access to the archives, not jacked-in or not in real time” (10). In this culture of connectedness, there is a new kind of instant archivization where the moment of production and preservation happen at once.

This situation leads to two potential opposing issues. On the one hand we are producing very vulnerable digital records at an alarming pace, however; if digital archiving efforts prove effective we could end up with a more complete historical record than ever before, an information overload.

Information consultant, Terry Kuny, commented on this situation fifteen years ago,

As we move into the electronic era of digital objects it is important to know that there are new barbarians at the gate and that we are moving into an era where much of what we know today, much of what is coded and written electronically, will be lost forever. We are, to my mind, living in the midst of digital Dark Ages; consequently, much as monks of times past, it falls to librarians and archivists to hold to the tradition which reveres history and the published heritage of our times.

Kuny places the responsibility for this future preservation work on librarians and archivists, and it seems that in terms of the opposing dilemma—information overloadthese same professionals would take center stage. Manoff points out that archival work is “about making fine discriminations to identify what is significant from a mass of data. These kinds of distinctions are also central to the work of librarians and archivists” (Manoff 19). However issues of digital preservation have far-reaching implications relevant to almost every discipline, and one of the biggest issues currently facing digital archiving is a lack of a clear path or a defined sense of responsibility as I saw at Condé Nast.

In Scarcity and Abdundance: Preserving the Past in a Digital Era, Roy Rosenzweig points to an absence of process in digital archiving. “Over centuries, a complex (and imperfect) system for preserving the past has emerged. Digitization has unsettled that system of responsibility for preservation, and an alternate system has not emerged. In the meantime cultural and historical objects are being permanently lost” (745). He discusses historians’ lack of attention to these issues, in part due to an assumption that these are “technical” problems outside of the purview of scholars in the humanities and social sciences. Manoff points out that, “archival discourse has also become a way to address some of the thorny issues of disciplinary and interdisciplinary knowledge production and the artificial character of disciplinary boundaries” (11). The most important and difficult issues of digital preservation are social, cultural, economic, political, and legal—issues humanists should excel at. Yet this professional division between historians and archivists leads to a confusion of responsibility that seems to go beyond solely this historian/archivist split. Within the discourse surrounding archives, libraries, museums and archives are often conflated and there is confusion not only concerning the overarching questions of how and what to save but also who will be doing it. Digital documents are disrupting our traditional system of publication, dissemination, and preservation. Digitization challenges our notion of ownership, who owns the materials and thus who is responsible for their preservation. Licensed and centrally controlled digital content erodes the library’s ability and responsibility to preserve the past. Why preserve something you do not own?

Rosenzweig ends his discussion, pointing to “one of the most vexing and interesting features of the digital era…the way it unsettles traditional arrangements and forces us to ask basic questions that have been there all along” (760). Digital preservation and the challenges it presents open up an opportunity to re-think disciplinary boundaries, to potentially form greater cross-disciplinary connections, and in doing so strengthen our own field. One thing is for certain, there isn’t time to wait for a perfect solution and if seen as an opportunity for joint action, this recreation of the processes of preservation can be an exciting opportunity. Let’s not avoid asking the questions that need to be asked.

Sources

http://www.dlib.org/dlib/january00/01hodge.html#Kuny

Derrida, J. & Prenowitz, E. (1995). “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression” Diacritics 25(2): 13

Manoff, Marlene. “Theories Of The Archive From Across The Disciplines.”portal: Libraries and the Academy 4, no. 1 (2004): 9-25.

Rosenzweig, R. (2003). “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era” The American Historical Review 108(3)

 

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