ASIS&T Tours the Center for Jewish History

By JillMarie

This month, Pratt’s student chapter of ASIS&T (the Association for Information Science and Technology) was invited to tour the Center for Jewish History. The Center is a partnership of five organizations focused on Jewish history, scholarship, and art, with all five collections housed in their Manhattan location. The Center represents the largest collection of Jewish history in the United States, and serves as a central location for research and exhibitions open to the public.

The five organizations that make up the Center for Jewish History (American Jewish Historical Society, American Sephardi Federation, Leo Baeck Institute New York, Yeshiva University Museum, and YIVO Institute for Jewish Research) operate as partners with separate budgets and collections but shared resources to preserve the collections. Altogether, the Center houses artifacts that span 500 years of history, 500-thousand books across five dozen languages, and 50-thousand digitized photographs. All five collections can be accessed through a single research portal at, which allows researchers of all kinds to peruse the resource.

The Lillian Goldman Reading Room

ASIS&T was kindly given a guided tour of the facility by several of the research liaisons, divided by floor and department. The tour began on the top floor where the research center and the Lillian Goldman Reading Room are found. The research portal at can be access from the convenience of your home, but utilizing the research center on site gains you access to additional catalogs organized by location and subject, as well as direct assistance from researchers already familiar with the collections. Items from the collection can be checked out in the research room, which are then made available for study in the Lillian Goldman Reading Room, a beautiful two-story location with large skylights and books in every wall. Items from the collection can only be studied in-house, and most of the collection is available for this purpose.

18th Century Rabbinic Book on Astronomy

After touring the research and reading rooms, ASIS&T was brought back to the first floor where the public exhibits are found. Each organization with the Center for Jewish History has space on the first floor to display exhibits of their choosing. Ongoing now is YIVO’s “Jews in Space” exhibit, which features everything from rare 18th and 19th century rabbinic books on astronomy to Jewish pop-culture scifi references. The exhibit includes a timeline of Jewish achievements in astronomy and aeronautics, including items carried by astronauts to perform the first Jewish ceremonies in space.

While the first and upper floors are exciting for the general public and researchers, the heart of the Center for Jewish History is the basement, where the archives work takes place. The basement is composed of a long hallway with windows on either side where you can see the various stages of the archival process take place.

The tour of the basement began with the data center where the digital catalogers work. The Center opted for on-site servers in order to ensure that the catalog is always available during the Center’s hours of operation, and it’s the digital catalogs department’s job to make sure the catalog is up-to-date and available for the upstairs research center and the Center’s website. This responsibility includes converting the entire catalog from an old cataloging software to the latest system, which is a years-long process due to the size and complexity of the five collections. While the department itself is only a few years old, the metadata they’re charged with converting is up to 12 years old and was created over several generations of archivists at the Center. This complicates the process, since each archivist used their own methods to catalog the collections, all with varying levels of detail (or not), leaving this new team of digital experts with a range of decisions regarding how to store the information in a consistent system that needs to withstand yet another 12 years of use.

Next was a tour of the digitization room, a large and dim space filled with cameras, computers, and various recording equipment for both film and audio. The role of the digitization department is to, of course, digitize selected collections from the archive. Collections are selected by the partner organizations (or whoever is funding the digitization project) and are prioritized by on-site management. The Center has enough funding and interest in digital archives to have a constant stream of work, ranging from taking high-resolution photographs of books or photos to digitizing old film, negatives, and audio recordings. This department has a special rig designed to photograph maps and large posters, which sometimes involves taking photos of each segment (moving the camera rather than the item in order to minimize the risk of damage) and then stitching the photos together in Photoshop. This department produces “terabytes upon terabytes” of data that is then aggregated by the catalog department next door. Through years of effort by the digitization team, about one-fifth of the Center’s collection has been digitally archived.

On the opposite side of the hall from the digitization room is the digitization research room, where a small team of researchers are tasked with determining whether an item from the collection can qualify for digitization. This team curates the digital collection, first determining if the incoming item would hold value as a digital object, and then determining whether copyright and HIPAA legislation would allow for the item to be digitized (and if so, to what degree the item should be made available to the public.) Due to the age of the items and how they usually come into the Center’s possession (frequently by donation from Jewish families), copyright law doesn’t apply in many cases. In cases where the item is protected by copyright, however, it must be passed over for digitization and the Center must decide if the physical item itself should be preserved. This research department also handles some digitization tasks themselves, such as converting old computer files into formats that can be used by modern software. They’re also one of the largest contributors to Wikipedia in the Jewish history space. Incoming candidates for digitization are organized into projects, and once a project is complete, this department is responsible for updating and creating articles on Wikipedia that are connected to the primary sources that the Center has archived.

The last stop on ASIS&T’s tour was a large, bright room at the very end of the hallway where preservation and restoration of the Center’s items takes place. This room is filled with tables, some of which have plastic domes secured to them with holes and gloves so that objects can be managed with the utmost care. Items are selected for preservation based on the “intrinsic value” of the item itself, such as if the binding of a book is special or if the item was held by an important person. Preserving these items is a monumental task, requiring a surprising amount of knowledge not just of the items themselves but of environmental moisture and local insects. On the day ASIS&T arrived, the preservation department had spent the entire morning checking insect traps under a microscope, attempting to determine if a firebrat found earlier that day was a lone insect or the beginning of an infestation. Along this line, the preservation room is also equipped with investigative tools like endoscopes, which can be fed into walls and ceilings in order to check the Center for mold. The preservation of physical objects also has an interesting financial perspective: while funding for digitization can be exciting for donors, funding for a new HVAC system is significantly less so. The difficulty associated with preserving physical artifacts is one reason these five organizations partnered to create the Center for Jewish History.

Altogether, ASIS&T’s tour of the Center for Jewish History was a fascinating inside look at a local archive. It was exciting to see the perspectives and subjects of several papers from the Information Professions course come together in a real life environment, particularly in seeing how all the departments function. The Center for Jewish History is open six days a week and the galleries are free for the public, so if you haven’t checked out this site yet, you should!

ASIS&T Speakeasy: Assistive Learning Technologies

By Lindsay Menachemi

Staircase picture

“The world is disabling to people in a wheelchair only if the people building it are filling it with stairs.” – Marc Castellini, Pratt Institute student


The way we design our physical and digital worlds can promote social inclusion if done well, or social exclusion if done poorly. It may not always be a designer’s intent to purposefully exclude certain people, but even ignorance is a choice. If a designer doesn’t consider accessibility or universality to be a part of their approach, more often than not, the resultant products restrict people in unanticipated ways.

On Tuesday, November 7, the ASIS&T student organization at Pratt Institute sponsored a speakeasy on Assistive Learning Technologies. Three students in the Information Technologies core curriculum class –Marc Castellini, Arushi Jaiswal, and Hanyu Zhang— presented a research-based web guide on assistive learning technologies, geared towards universities. I think that much of what they discussed can be applied more broadly to libraries, and to UX design principles for any product.


Why LIS professionals need to care

First, let’s highlight the problem in more detail. As Library and Information Science students, we have a responsibility to promote equity and inclusion. Social exclusion, after all, is just another form of powerlessness. (Gehner 41) Compound this with the ALA’s official position: in December 2006, the ALA implemented the “Library Services for People with Disabilities Policy,” a policy that recognized that “many people with disabilities face economic inequity, illiteracy, cultural isolation, and discrimination in employment and the broad range of societal activities” (ALA 2006). As part of the policy, it recommends proactive integration of assistive technology in libraries. A wonderful sentiment, only, there are two issues afoot here:

  • The policy was approved and published 10 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act. This is not a matter to ignore; it tells us much about the prioritization of assisting those with disabilities.  And of all organizations, why would the ALA, an organization devoted to equal, unfettered access to information, respond in such a latent manner? This surprised me greatly.
  • The policy states that library staff “should be aware of how available technologies address disabilities and know how to assist all users with library technology.” (ALA 2006) “Should” is always hard to implement and track – “must” is usually much more effective, as it implies some sort of consequence. But surely there are guidebooks on the ALA website to assist librarians with their education and integration of assistive technologies? Well, the only tool on the ALA website dedicated to serving adults with disabilities is the “ASCLA Professional Tools – Standards and Guidelines – Resource List” link, and when selected, it returned a ‘404 – Page Cannot Be Found’ error. There are two other resource links, but these serve a very specific audience: children with disabilities that affect their ability to read print materials.
  • This resources page was last updated in 2007. March 29, 2007. I’m sure I don’t need to tell all of you how much technology has changed in 10 years.

It all begs the question: as a profession, how serious are we about providing services to people of all ages with all kinds of disabilities? How serious can we be when our own flagship organization offers this level of service?


How big is this problem, anyway?

I know, I know, in principle, it shouldn’t matter how many people this issue impacts, but it seems to matter nonetheless. ADA-PARC (ADA Participatory Action Research Consortium) made 2014 American Community Survey data available in interactive format.  (ADA-PARC 2014) It shows us that 12.3% of the total U.S. population self-declares as having a disability of some kind. That equates to approximately 43.5 million people. I don’t know about you, but it’s hard for me to conceptualize a picture of how many people that figure truly represents. What if I told you that 43.5 million people is the number of people living in the entire country of Canada…. if it had 10 million more people! The level of social exclusion here is huge by any means – whether you’re measuring by numbers or principle.


Equalizing power through assistive technology tools

Our responsibility as LIS professionals escalates when you consider that, “Social exclusion is not simply a result of ‘bad luck’ or personal inadequacies, but rather a product of flaws in the system that create disadvantages for certain segments of the population.” (Gehner 2010) So what can we do? What Castellini, Jaiswal, and Zhang have created is a great start. The web toolkit provides a wide overview of cognitive and physical impairments and maps them to the specific LT (low-tech) and HT (high-tech) assistive technologies that can help. Low-tech can include things that are low-cost, and low-barrier of entry: highlighters, pencil grips, raised line paper. High-tech is the cool stuff we read about in Wired: speech-to-text programs or voice recognition are good examples, both of which limit the need for a keyboard. For dyslexic students, it’s even possible to use symbol-based learning, such as Widget symbols on SymbolWorld, or Makaton symbols, to improve understanding and absorption. Last but not least, web accessibility is another area that incurs massive reward without incurring massive expense. Simple changes can include: using the W3C’s HTML tag best practices to assist with read-aloud services, avoiding dropdown menus, and eliminating Javascript use. There are many, many ways to get started, and I encourage you to view their site to learn more.


Looking ahead

So, how can we escalate this issue to more LIS professionals’ attention? Here are a few things I’ve done so far, and a few thoughts of what else we might do:

  • I’ve privately corresponded with the student group that created the Assistive Learning Technologies site, and asked if they would consider submitting their work to the ALA for linking. Considering the paucity of information on the site, I felt that it would be a worthy contribution to the ALA Diversity group’s page. Even if they don’t include the site itself, my hope is that it brings to the ALA’s attention the lack of updated information available on their site.
  • I’ve emailed the Diversity committee at ALA to request that the broken link to their outreach toolkit is addressed, and that they consider updating their page to reflect current resources and technologies.
  • Next time you’re at an industry event or surfing a group’s website, get curious. See what you can find about assistive technology integration, or accessibility issues in general. How is the group addressing these issues? Do you agree with their approach? How can it be improved? If you can’t find anything at all, what a great opportunity to begin the conversation!
  • If you are an information professional currently working in an organization, assess the ways in which your organization (its website, its programs, etc.) are inclusive or exclusive of people with disabilities. If it can do better (and it usually can), can you adopt some of these technologies or re-design the website in a way that facilitates universal use?

Last but not least, look at the world around you with a critical eye. Sometimes all it takes to start moving things in the right direction is the different point of view.



ADA-PARC. (2014). “Percentage of Total Population with Disabilities.” Retrieved from

American Library Association. (2006 December 4). “Library Services for People with Disabilities Policy.” Retrieved on November 8, 2017 from

American Library Association. (2007 March 29). “Outreach Resources for Services to People with Disabilities.” Retrieved from

Castellini, M., Jaiswal, A., Zhang, Hanyu. (2017). “Assistive Learning Technologies.” Retrieved from

Gehner, John. (2010). “Libraries, Low-Income People, and Social Exclusion.” Public Library Quarterly, 29:1, 39-47

Graphic Novels in Collection Development: Two Kinds of Equality

– tylerdnns

Webinar Title: “Comics and Libraries: A No-Fear Graphic Novel Reader’s advisory.

This webinar, hosted by Krista King and Cathy Crum, took place in February of this year. King and Crum begin with a brief overview of comic books and their history. This means the format’s trajectory from merely popular and “cheap” to one that is taken seriously. This reminded me of the ways in which technology went from a humble, small subset to something for everyone. Listening to this webinar, I noticed several ways in which technology and graphic novels seem to have direct parallels–one of which is a historical habit of excluding women.

King begins by explaining the difference between comic and graphic novel. This section of the webinar is for an older set of librarians. The hosts explain that they often get asked by librarians if graphic novels are “explicit or taboo” books. This presentation is for people who don’t know what a graphic novel is, but it is also skillfully informative enough to appeal to someone with more knowledge as well. A lot of ground is covered.

“Graphic novels are a natural extension of the comic book,” King defines. “They tell a story using pictures and sequence panels, speech bubbles, and other conventions of the comic book format.”

Much of the webinar is Cook and King discussing the variety of ways in which graphic novels are effective learning tools. They often bolstered this continued theme with lesser-known insider “fan” knowledge (related, in one instance, to the evolution of the paper-thickness). As a fellow comic fan, I appreciated this marriage of “scholarly info” that both hosts threw in with “cool facts.” This webinar allowed the hosts to speak effectively both as educators and fans.

A third into the webinar’s 90 minutes, the speakers went into an age-based break-down of the genre. In the last five years, we are informed, graphic novels have begun to be marketed towards even the earliest readers. The youth coordinators monitoring the talk discuss how educators help publishers make sure language in these books is appropriate for “nurturing minds.” We are recommended ALA-approved titles for readers as young as four to adult readers who read Alan Moore.

Graphic novels are described in depth as being a helpful tool to bridge a literacy gap; for example, someone who is not a strong a reader can be “met halfway” by images in a panel. Following this general idea, the webinar also combines word and text to give listeners a comprehensive overview of their topic. Throughout the talk, numerous slides were devoted to picturing notable graphic novels for each audiences. Other slides linked to relevant book lists and awards for the genre. There really is no excuse for coming away from this webinar without a laundry list of great titles.

Graphic novels, our hosts explain, are a well-established format in their own right. They work well in an adult collection, a teen collection, or a children’s collection. Graphic novels can be gritty with adult themes or they can cater to children making the leap from picture book to chapter book.

A continued thread throughout the webinar is discussion of inequity in the comic industry. Our hosts explain that the genre is historically created by, about, and marketed towards males. Female representations are often sexist–back in the day, they mostly were, I’d surmise.

An interesting paint was made about how modern franchises like Spiderman and Thor re-brand their titles using female characters. The hosts bring up various female comic creators throughout the talk, so there is definite cause to hope for progress in this matter. Also, the recent crop of female superheroes with hopefully get more girls into graphic novels. This, I’m confident, can only lead to the next generation having more female comic creators.

A lot of firsts seem to be happening as far as social issues in comics. Cook and King describe many of these. But there is still a ways to go. The ratio of male-to-female creators or title/main characters is still overwhelmingly male. All the ways in which females are marginalized in the tech world eerily apply to the comic world, both on and behind the pages. The hierarchy of exclusion that exists in both worlds are similar, just short of identical.

Which is why this webinar was so refreshing. Both an overview of comics was given, but also the context of the comic book industry, particulars that reflect where we are socially. Many of our readings have been about the importance of understanding an object, but also it’s social and historical context. This webinar’s creators understand the importance of this as well.

Finally I loved all the ways in which the hosts were inclusive. For example, mangas are treated as something akin to the cheap Harlequin romance novels by the high brow. In this presentation, though, graphic novels are literature. The implication coming away from this webinar is that librarians should have Watchmen just as high on the shelf as David Copperfield. This presentation was all about equalizing all aspects of the genre. How many people, for example, would by thoughtful enough to call a graphic novelization of Twilight a learning tool? I appreciated how inclusive and informed the hosts were in this way. I agree with them.

As long as you’re reading something, isn’t that all that matters?

“Archives, Advocacy, and Change” at the New York Academy of Medicine

By Carissa

“The archival profession is inherently an activist profession.” -Rich Wandel

Last night, the New York Academy of Medicine hosted a panel called “Archives, Advocacy, and Change” as part of their Changemakers series. The panelists were Jenna Freedman, founder of the Barnard Zine Library; Steven Fullwood, founder of In the Life Archive; Timothy Johnson, director of NYU’s Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives and co-director of Tamiment’s Cold War Center; and Rich Wandel (quoted above), founder of  The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center National History Archive.  Continue reading

Librarianship for Social Justice

By Carissa

Personal note: in this blog post, I am trying to think my way through an issue on which I know I need to educate myself more. I am white, with a legacy that includes Southern slaveholders on my father’s side and German Nazis on my mother’s. It is my intention not to center Black Lives Matter around white people or the predominantly white professional fields discussed here, nor to suggest that White Saviors can step in to fix things, nor to pass the buck of responsibility to black activists, but instead to develop some kind of context for using this library degree in a transformative way. I don’t know if I’ve done this well, but I hope it’s better than not addressing the question at all. Continue reading

Bringing (Un)dead Books Back to Life at Reanimation Library

By SrrhHamerman

Reanimation Library's Reading Room, via

Reanimation Library’s Reading Room, via

The shelves of Brooklyn’s Reanimation Library are lined with bowling manuals, guides to Gregg shorthand, outdated biology textbooks, a tech-savvy fitness book called “computercise,” and even a thick tome containing nothing but random series of numbers. Browsing the collection feels more like inhabiting a vaguely retro-futurist cabinet of curiosities than a library in the traditional sense. But through this hybrid library and conceptual artwork, Reanimation Library founder Andrew Beccone challenges us to rethink systems of knowledge and cultural value.

Located in the Proteus Gowanus complex since 2006, Reanimation Library serves primarily as a visual resource to inspire artists and individuals to create new work. Though the collection does not circulate, visitors are encouraged to scan and reuse images that they find – in Beccone’s words, to “pan for gold in the sediment of visual culture.” Among Reanimation Library’s audience are book artists, animators, collectors, writers and students. Beyond Brooklyn, Reanimation installs “branch libraries,” which are temporary, site-sourced versions of the library, at art and cultural spaces as far afield as Lebanon. Additionally, the library invites writers to critically respond to works from the collection on its Word Processor blog.

Reanimation Library started out as an extension of Beccone’s personal interests. A practicing visual artist, he worked in libraries for years and studied library science at Pratt. The collection’s scope reflects his interest in the print and visual culture of the era spanning from the ‘40s to the ‘70s, eschewing high-art texts for vernacular subjects. He delights in the “popular modernism” of this atomic-age visual culture, which seems to promise everyone the possibility of transforming his or her world, even through mundane pursuits. The books function more as artifacts than as texts, giving us insight into the era’s mode of visual/textual reproduction and embodying its cultural mindset. Reanimation Library allows visitors to perform their own “archaeology of knowledge,” gleaning understanding of the past’s (failed) promises through its detritus – and reclaiming its visual potential for the future.

Owing to the project’s focus on generating new work, I asked Beccone how he tracked and displayed the art created in response to the collection. While he originally attempted to include the works in his digital catalog and link them to the books they referenced, this proved to be too much of an administrative burden, even with occasional volunteer help. Also, attempting to meticulously track and record every artwork felt a bit authoritarian – patrons actively share in the project, and once the images enter their hands, they are theirs to transform. The library negotiates an interesting space between private and public collection – in some sense, it’s a portrait of Beccone’s own interests, but he’s offering it up to everyone.

Reanimation Library has drawn an ambivalent reaction from library professionals, perhaps because it calls attention to the materials libraries eliminate through weeding. Collection development policies prioritize currently relevant textual information, often assigning little weight to the visual dimension of the work. In our conversation, Beccone noted that there’s something conservative to the way libraries consider useful information, often de-privileging visual information that’s not easily classified and pushing it away from access. His perspective on the library’s power in determining culturally useful knowledge resonates with Foucault’s definition of the archive:

“[The archive is not] that which collects the dust of statements that have become inert once more, and which may make possible the miracle of their resurrection; it is that which defines the mode of occurrence of the statement-thing, it is the system of its functioning,” (Foucault 129).

While Reanimation Library may aim to make this “miracle” possible once more, it is still, resolutely, a library, with books cataloged according to the Library of Congress system. For Beccone, the choice of Library of Congress was a bit arbitrary – it suited his purposes, and was the classification system he was most familiar with. Still, many librarians have refused to see Reanimation Library as something more than an art project, despite the fact that Beccone embraces the library’s spirit of providing free, democratic access to information.

From Reanimation Library's digital image collection

From Reanimation Library’s digital image collection

The project has received a more enthusiastic response in the art world, where it resonates with recent interests in social practice and relational art. Particularly since the 1960s, the art world has showed a continued interest in questioning hierarchies and breaking down disciplinary boundaries. Artworks such as Marcel Broodthaers’ “Department of Eagles” have emphasized the strangeness of the archive, its gaps and its visual repetitions. Artistically, Reanimation Library has found a community at Proteus Gowanus, a gallery and reading room that hosts residents interested in cross-disciplinary inquiry and collaboration. Its neighbors at the space have included Morbid Anatomy Museum, focusing on art, science, and death, and Observatory, a group of “oddball para-academics” who present lectures and events.

Marcel Broodthaers' fictitious museum, Department of Eagles, 1968

Marcel Broodthaers’ fictitious museum, Department of Eagles, 1968

While Reanimation Library encourages engagement with books as physical and material objects, it also offers a full digital catalog and online collection of thousands of images. For Beccone, print and digital are not mutually exclusive – rather, they offer different modes of understanding and searching for information that can support and mutually reinforce one another. The digital archive allows people outside of New York to access part of the collection, as well as offering a browsing experience that’s distinct from the physical space. However, he has no intent of fully digitizing the collection – because of resource limitations, conceptual intentions, and because this may infringe on fair use.

Beccone finds that many people of the younger generation that has grown up with the Internet have taken a strong interest in the collection, and in book arts more generally. Citing the success of the New York Art Book Fair, he notes that there has been an embrace of print objects and analog technologies, in reaction to the ephemerality and intangibility of the digital. Books have a medium-specific way of conveying information, speaking as much through the feel of their pages and the visual quality of color, ink and image reproduction as they do through their content. While techniques of collage, remix and juxtaposition are nothing new, they are the dominant modes of cultural production in the digital environment.

From 1985 B-horror classic,  Reanimator, which you should all watch

From 1985 B-horror classic, Reanimator, which you should all watch

Reanimation Library’s books may be “dead” in one sense, bearers of bunk knowledge and outmoded cultural trends – but they encourage the mad scientist in all of us to give them life, to make their zombie-like moans reverberate through the cracks in the “official” archive’s walls.

Interested in Reanimation Library? Check out these other alternative library projects:

Work Cited:

Foucault, M. (1972). The archaeology of knowledge. New York: Pantheon Books.

Protected: The Importance of Banned Book Week

By smeyer5

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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.


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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