Friday, December 30, 2011

Collecting and Immortality

I've often thought that collecting is the first, and possibly most important, step in preservation.

About a year ago Preservation & Conservation Administration News posted my "A Conservator Ponders Impermanence" where I boldly (foolishly) stated
Personally, I tend to think the quest for permanence, or the unacknowledged reality of impermanence, is rooted in our fear of our own mortality and the fear that we won‘t be remembered (preserved) when we are dead and gone.
This morning I was glancing at the New York Times online and noticed their Room for Debate section was about collecting. Most of the entries were about the thin line between collecting and hoarding - which doesn't interest me much - but the first piece by Philipp Blom, Objects of Desire and Dreams, caught my attention. It is very short so just go read it, but I'll quote one line.
The objects and their organization bind us to something larger than ourselves, and as religion was born out of a fear of death and the wish of eternal life, collecting expresses the same fundamental urges.
I don't know that I have anything more to add - just that I'm intrigued and pleased that my year begins and ends with considering the ultimate motivations for our collecting and preserving endeavors.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Gary Frost’s "Future of the Book" book

To describe Gary Frost as the influential, emeritus conservator from the University of Iowa does not quite do him justice. Gary Frost is part conservator, part futurist, and part mystic (to name just a few of his parts.) Under his name on the title page of my copy his recent book I wrote “book shaman.”

Upon retiring he has very quickly come out with two books Adventures in Book Conservation: An Album of Investigations and Future of the Book: A Way Forward (both available from Iowa Book Works). I’ve only read the Future of the Book one, yet.

For those who read Frost’s blog, also called Future of the Book, the print book Future of the Book: A Way Forward will be familiar territory. The fact that much of this content can now be read both on screen and now in print goes to the heart of what Frost discusses in his book – the interplay between print reading and screen reading.

I once took a course on the history of the Eastern Orthodox Church. It was a fascinating class but I found myself taking very few notes. My explanation of why this might be the case was that while note taking tends to move in a very linear direction, the professor’s thoughts and communications were better described as an interlocking web where everything was connected to everything else (at least so it seemed to the students).

Reading Frost reminds me of this class experience. In this book, a detailed description of the elegant parabola of the spine of a sewn-board volume (p. 43) is only pages away from a discussion of the “functions of self-authentication of print and self-indexing of electronic text.” (p. 46)

Frost’s world of the book is vast and detailed and it’s all interconnected. Following him as he traverses those connections is a challenging delight or a delightful challenge. There were times during my reading I found myself lost and sometimes the intricacies of his language eluded me, but I would eventually once again find his path and enjoy the adventure.

This book is Frost’s rumination on a topic of huge importance to today’s library community (whether it knows it or not) the interplay of the print book and the digital text. While he is a print apologist, it not because he feels digital is inferior, but rather his is a response to the trend within the library world to look away from print and see digital as a replacement for print.

I was intrigued to see early on in the book that he compares the transition from the print deliver of the book to screen delivery not to the creation of the printing press, as is so often done, but to the movement from primary orality to print. The scale of the change is that great. This shift should force us, as it does Frost, to give closer examination to both print and digital – how do they do what they do and what are the characteristics of the reader experience for each. “Display of a given title to both screen and print is not equivalent either in attributes of the different delivery formats or in their roles of interaction.” (p. 16)

Frost’s main argument is that digital does not replace print. Frost’s defense of print is not based on nostalgia, or as is so common, the smell of old books, but on the unique attributes of the materiality and reading experience of print. “Contrasting functionalities of the paper and screen book do not converge, but they complement each other.” (p. 17) “Print attributes of content fixity, manual navigation, and persistent access across time all pair nicely with screen attributes of live content, automated search and navigation, cloud repository, and electronic delivery.” (p. 19)

And now, to give my reader a greater sense of the experience of reading Frost’s book born out of his web of knowledge, the subsequent chapter begins with a discussion of dexterity and brain size in early hominids. Yup, it’s all connected and you’ve just got to try and keep up.

In further advancing the of the print book/reader interaction Frost discusses various binding methods and observes the interplay of the actions of these bindings with the reader’s reading of the text. Of his beloved wooden board binding he writes,
“The mind is physically positions in the content and memory and insight both are augmented by the physical location of concepts. Fingering to initiate and complete page turnings points to the particular expressions or precepts that are read. Manual transmission of leverage from the board covers to the text is so responsive that it embodies comprehension and conclusive acts of learning.” (p. 41)
Oh, and then there’s several pages about the linotype – Frost loves the linotype, and find a way to naturally weave it into his web of the book.

In light of the recent discussion at GBW standards of Tomorrow’s Past and the Bonefolder’sBind-O-Rama “Artistically Reversible: Where Conservation and Art Meet” it was interesting to read Frost declare “I have often imagined that there can be deliberate recognition of artful book conservation treatments and some definitions of an aesthetic to guide the practice.” (p. 56) The book’s section covering an aesthetic approach to conservation (pp. 54-59) deserves some in-depth engagement which is more than will happen in this review. (I would love to see some others tackle the issues discussed in these pages.)

As mentioned, Frost’s book is titled Future of the Book: A Way Forward but within Frost’s labyrinthine web of the book, the way forward may not always be forward. It may sometimes lead us inward, or outward, to the left, or to the right, and often to places that we never imaged the book would take us.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Finding the Conservator in Conservation

I think the conservator is the least studied, the least written about, and the least understood part of the conservation world.

Before this year’s Guild of BoodWorkers Standards a gathering was held to discuss the issues surrounding the Tomorrow’s Past movement and the Bonefolder’s most recent iteration of Bind-O-Rama, Artisitically Reversible – Where Conservation and Art Meet.  The aim of the Bind-O-Rama and the gathering was “to explore the movement's tenets of providing new, conservationally sound clothes to old books.” (For more context please see the article in The Bonefolder, Vol 7, by Charles Gledhill, the Tomorrow's Past web pages, and this post at the Riverlark blog entitled Old wine in new bottles.)

I think another title for the event could be Finding the Conservator in Conservation.

On the face of it, however, the conversation was about the tenets of the Tomorrow’s Past movement to provide “new, conservationally sound clothes to old books.”

“Why,” event organizer Karen Hanmer asks “in 2011 make something look like something that was done in 1500?”

The Tomorrow’s Past movement is about doing good conservation using an aesthetic that may not be fully sympathetic to the period of the piece. This naturally leads to the question, where and when is it acceptable to insert the conservator’s aesthetic into our conservation work? There is a sense that the conservator is to be invisible in their work. Their conservation treatment may be visible in their work, but they should not be. This may be an illusory goal but we are uncertain as to how overt the conservator should be in putting their own stamp on their work. How does incorporating the conservator’s aesthetic fit into the AIC Code of Ethics? 

Suzy Morgan’s rebinding of a very tattered volume incorporating a spine entirely of Mylar was discussed as an example of this approach to conservation.  See links for a full gallery of pictures, and a blogdescription of the project.

There was an interesting side-bar conversation about reversibility and the increasing acknowledgment that this is an impossible goal. More satisfying alternate treatment goals of “retreatable” and “suitable” were offered.

At one point a person (sorry I don’t know who it was, but it was a woman) states what I think was the subtext, and the real heart of the conversation “We are inserting ourselves into the lives of these books, no matter how sympathetic we pretend it is.”

Conservators become intimately, physically involved with the items they work on and intentionally or not, become part of that item’s being. There is however a discomfort, as this conversation reveals, with how overt our relationship with these objects can be. Should others be able to look at a book that was conserved and recognize who did the work? I’m going to guess that some would say no – the conservator should vanish into the “woodwork” or into the grain of the paper. Is it okay for a conservator to do something in a conservation job which is not “necessary” to the conservation of the piece and reveals something of the conservator?

While I think the idea of the invisible conservator is impossible and wrong and should not be a goal, I also do not advocate for a conservator’s self-expression free-for-all. This issue of how much of our selves do we put in our work must always be held in thoughtful and professional tension.

The author, the binder, the seller, the conservator, and the reader are all part of the community that creates and interprets our written cultural heritage. Understanding who these various members are only helps deepen our understanding of this heritage.

I am thankful for those who participated in the discussion, and took the efforts to record and share itonline. I also hope we continue to discuss not only the work of conservation, but also the life of the conservator.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Family memories and film conversion

I always enjoy the opportunity to watching and listening to people who are experienced experts talk about and demonstrate their trade. I’ve had interesting conversations with the state demographer about the art and science of the census. I’ve toured and observed the operation of a small Amish chair manufacturer. I’ve learned fascinating things about insects and ecology from my two entomologist friends.

Recently, I had the great opportunity to spend a fascinating afternoon learning about the world of audio/visual materials conversion. Oh, and I heard a lot of stories.

A while ago I took on the project of digitizing my parents’ slides and when they delivered the slides there were also a handful of reels of old 8mm home movies.  I recalled that a couple years ago I had sold an antique film projector to a guy who mentioned that he did film conversion and gave me his card. After about 3 years of carrying his card in my wallet I finally had some film to convert and gave the guy a call.

Carl has been in the “business” his entire life. He is 72. He began at 11 by running the projector at the junior high. He also got in with the guys who ran the projectors at the local theaters and spent a lot of time there. His working career was in radio and tv as well as owning a few movie theaters. Now he is “retired” but maintains an impressive operation out of a cramped corner of his house.

When I made contact with him about getting the film transferred to dvd I also asked about the opportunity to see his operation. He was more than glad to oblige.

He showed me all the equipment he used, how it worked, where he got it, and the various modifications he made. In his small site he can transfer 8mm, Super8, and 16mm film, reel to reel audio, cassette tapes, and 33/45/78 records, as well as any foreign and domestic video tape format, and slides.

He then offered to do my film transfer while I was there so I could watch the whole process. I gleefully said yes. Early on in the process he said something, which I then also observed, which caught my attention. “Every inch of the film will run through my hands several times during the process.” As one who is interested in hand skills, and in training people’s hands to repair books, it was intriguing to see the role his experienced hands played in this much more technologically driven process.

The process began by him rolling the film onto a large reel as he checks the condition of the film, testing old splices, making new splices where the film is broken, and dealing with any other condition issues. Two of the smaller reels had some mold on them, and part of one reel had been fed into a projector wrong causing a very jagged edge. He was quite concerned about whether this part of the film would cause problems. He then cleaned and lubricated the film – all by hand.

Parent's wedding
After checking, fixing, and cleaning the film he loaded a reel on his 8mm transfer machine. The machine looks a bit like a film projector except the light source – an array of LEDs – is where the lens would typically be. Conversion is done in real time so my just over 600 feet of film took just under an hour to do. It was a thrill to see this film which I don’t recall ever seeing before. The film was from the early sixties and included my parent’s wedding, my older brother as an infant, and a vacation trip to South Dakota. The image quality wasn’t great, but the color was phenomenal. Carl explained that Kodachrome does a phenomenal job of retaining color, while if it was shot on Ektachrome, everything would be moving to shades of magenta.

In the audio/visual branch of the library preservation world, digitization is seen as the best hope for preservation. While paper folk may complain about acidic paper, the media we work with is in general much more stable than the various audio visual media.

The film I had transferred is now burnt on 4 dvds, and will also be copied to a hard drive or two and will be dispersed to various family members who are dispersed across the continent. So, abiding by the principle of Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe, the stuff of these family films should now have a better chance of surviving into another generation. (But really, the best part was talking to an old guy about craft and technology.)

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Reading Libricide

Libricide: The Regime Sponsored Destruction of Books and Libraries in the Twentieth Century [I can't believe I forgot to name the author when I first posted this. The author is Rebecca Knuth]

I begin my book review by giving away my conclusion, Libricide is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. It’s clearly written, it’s smart, it tells stories, and it challenges the reader (at least this reader) to look at things in new ways.

I admit, however, when I initially saw that this book is written by an LIS faculty (at the University of Hawaii) I was skeptical of the author’s ability to rigorously understand, analyze, and communicate these complex situations she was writing about. Nothing in my library training taught me how to analyze the cause and expressions of genocide and ethnic cleansing, so I had some doubts over the author’s ability to do so.  I was wrong. (I was probably projecting my own ignorance of the book’s topic.)

The book begins with three chapters of a more theoretical nature discussing the function of libraries, ethnocide, and her argument to place libricide within the framework of ethnocide. The next five chapters provide well documented case studies of twentieth century examples of systematic library destruction including Nazi Germany, Greater Serbia, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, China’s cultural revolution, and China and Tibet. (Despite the subject matter, while it is not a “light” book, it is very engaging.)

“My project began with these two questions. What really distinguishes those who mourn the destruction of books and libraries from those who willingly, even joyfully, throw books into the fire? And how can these ideals of human progress be reconciled with the mass violence and destruction of culture that characterized the twentieth century.” (p. viii)

This is a bit of a glib aside, but her line about those who “joyfully thrown books into the fire” reminded me that one of my tasks at a public library I used to work at was to discard the discards. Books that had been deaccessioned by library staff and were not deemed salable for the Friends sale were unceremoniously (and often quite gleefully) tossed in the dumpster. The dumpster was behind the library but right next to one of the town’s larger streets. I was surprised that I never heard of people complaining when the saw me toss cartloads of books into the dumpster. Now, I know how some people feel about “books” like they are some kind of sacred object never to be violated. Well, they can be, but they can also be unnecessary dust-collecting wastes of space. </aside>

The primary case Knuth attempts to make – and succeeds – is that libricide belongs within the category of ethnocide – or more precisely “libricide is an identifiable secondary pattern or sub-phenomena occurring within the framework of genocide and ethnocide” (p. viii)

The following set of quotes lay out Knuth’s rationale for why libraries and the texts they hold within them matter, and then, why their destruction matters.

“Texts, especially when part of a diverse collection, are vital in sustaining a group’s uniqueness and protecting the group from the homogeneity promoted by extremists.” (p.9)

“The turn toward memory is subliminally energized by the desire to anchor ourselves in a world characterized by an increasing instability of time and the fracturing of lived space.” (p. 18)

“Something else must be at stake that produces the desire for the past in the first place and that makes us respond so favorably to the memory markets. That something, I would suggest, is a slow but palpable transformation of temporality in our lives, brought on by the complex intersections of technological change, mass media, and new patters of consumption, work and global mobility.” (p. 21)

“Regimes that commit genocide also destroy the material expressions of their victims’ culture, books and libraries.” (p. 6)

“Because books and libraries preserve memory, provide witness, store evidence of the validity of a multitude of perspectives, facilitate intellectual freedom, and support group identity, they are carefully controlled, sanitized, and even extensively purged.” (p. 81)

 “A hindrance to the politicization of scholarship, the physicality of the written records displays a stubborn quality of witness and anchors legitimate methods of historical research.” (p. 31)

She writes that the “physicality of the written displays a stubborn quality of witness” but this physicality can also be a weakness. When an archive of unique physical texts is destroyed, they are all destroyed. Digital media, however, can more easily allow for a more distributed network of ownership and preservation – ala LOCKSS (Lots Of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe.) Destroying one library means less if same material is duplicated all over the place. With singular possession there is a greater vulnerability and risk of real loss. I think the idea of distributed ownership is one of the real preservation strengths we can learn from the digital community. I still hear people, even people who work primarily in the digital world, speak of a desire for central repositories when speaking of either print or digital collections, but it seems to me that a central repository model is both managerially unnecessary, and too high a preservation risk. Distributed and redundant networks seem to me to be the best model for real preservation.

 “Libraries support official beliefs and ideologies, while at the same time bringing about social change by nurturing and transmitting new understanding.” (p. 35)

“Because libraries express the humanist and democratic values that have come to characterize modern society and internationalism, violence directed at them is also an attack on these ideals, serving instead a worldview in which the individual being exists solely to serve the collective vision of the state.” (p. 49)
To me, this statement of violence directed at libraries is an attack on the ideals of humanism bring up hints of “They attacked us because they hate our freedoms.” Cf G. Bush. To generally say that an attack on a library means “X” seems a too broadly stated.

As I said at the beginning of this post I’m a cautious reader when reading a library science professor explaining the rise of Nazism. I can’t very well argue that she’s wrong, as I don’t know much about the rise of Nazism, but I’m only willing to grant her limited authority on the topic – especially when she uses phrases like “cultural predisposition towards romanticism.” (p. 76)

 “The violence and public nature of destruction often observed the fact that the ruin was a practical means of destroying information that contradicted the myths of the regime or substantiated the claims of other ethnic or political groups to resource or territory.” (p. 236)

Anyone who has seen video of the Texas Board of Education reviewing and editing potential school textbooks has seen examples of destroying or deleting information that contradicts the myths of the regime.

In this book the author wrote very much about political and ideological forces behind the destruction of libraries and books. One of my challenges or questions in response to this book is about other forces that might motivate destruction. I’m wondering if and how commercial forces might play into this discussion. By and large, corporations don’t go in and destroy libraries, but they do exercise a great deal of control over what texts get produced and increasingly how libraries interact with these texts through licensing agreements. The book discusses very large scale overt destructions. How might this relate to much smaller and more subtle efforts of censorship and the like?

 “It is unclear whether humanists and internationalists alone perceive the destruction of books and libraries to be in violation of the social contract or whether there is a level of consensus across value systems. In other words, is the preservation of culture a universal objective or is it specific to Western sensibilities.” (p. 249)

Knuth goes through the entire book with this idea that destroying books and libraries is wrong, but in the end, ponders whether the idea that this is wrong is solely a Western idea. This then is the seemingly never-ending challenge of living in a pluralistic world with conflicting worldviews.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Transitioning to a Digital Future - afternoon session

Okay - here's my notes dump for the afternoon speakers. Once again, these notes are completely unedited and unprocessed. I will say I found the last speaker - Charles Henry of CLIR - fascinating, especially the bit about the relationship between preservation and scholarly interpretation.
(Also, I had some nice online chatting with Peter Verheyen during the session!)

Grant Funders Panel Discussion
Eryl Wentworth, Executive Director, Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation
Howard Wactlar, Director for Information and Intelligent Systems, Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE), National Science Foundation
Charles Thomas, Acting Associate Deputy Director for Library Services, Institute of Museum and Library Services

Eryl – FAIC – excels at professional development –
We need to develop/harness volunteer passion and energy
Excited about Emerging Leaders in Conservation group. Have skills and energy to do more advocacy work
There is an interest in AIC to create a preventive conservation/Collection Care division.
Howard of NSF – two pieces to preservation world – preserving information, but biggest opportunity/challenge is preserving experience
Eg. Ways of recreating walk through national park.

Charles of IMLS
More important than ever when thinking about the numbers of items and digital materials – need to think about selection. Focus on crowd-source to help with selection/curation.
New type of planning grant – national forum grants – discuss across institution types and make recommendations.
Re: selection for digital preservation – storage is cheap, but preservation/management/retrieval isn’t.
Importance of local and national perspectives.
Big question with IMLS preservation grants is whether preservation policies developed by large institutions work well when applied to a smaller organization. Need to develop/test different models and how they work in different contexts.
IMLS funds grants for preservation research – like energy efficient storage environments.

NSF guy thinks we should record/preserve everything – not yet able to decide. Disk storage at 3.5 cents/gigabyte.
Defer decisions about what it is okay to forget. Hold off on that decision as long as we can.
Don’t worry about reformatting – the cloud and the market will figure that out for us?!?!
(He seems quite fond of the commercial marketplace as driving how preservation changes.)

Eryl – C2C as an example of a program that takes preservation issues to smaller institutions. Survived a shift of organization/leadership. – now its C2c online
Research – storage/environmental issues.
FAIC assumed responsibility for Conservation Online. The archive is a relic itself. Many conservators don’t use it. ConsDistList however is very popular/used. Now getting some proposals to think about how to use CoOL to provide current information – with interactive component.

Shared management becomes more complicated at a local level – have little spare capacity/resources to contribute.
Workforce issues – need for qualified preservation staff. Very few training opportunities to meet demand. IMLS sponsors a few fellowships.
Funded a demonstration project to build a community storage site for people to place own digital info – with option to share it or not.

NSF guy – what are the next steps. Reformulate our needs as technical or scientific problems.
Until scientific community is adequately faced with the need they are not going to address the problem.

Eryl – back to workforce issue. Training future leaders. Samuel H. Kress funded FAIC conservation fellowship.
Recurring issue with AIC – public outreach/education.

IMLS – interest in archives administration continues to grow.

A Mirror Held, The Future Reflected 
Charles Henry, President, Council of Library and Information Resources
He said "Chock-a-block"
4 programs in higher education in humanities – preservation of cultural records will involve humanists. New concepts coming out of humanistic research.
1. Relationship between  preservation and scholarly interpretation.
- in this era of amazing ability to see within artifacts – previously unseen. This will influence interpretation. Continuity of decision-making that leads and helps determine interpretation of that object. Line of thinking between preservation and scholar. Need to focus on the whole spectrum of engagement. Those interpretations can influence further preservation
2. New forms of scholarly research in humanities. E.g. Digging into data. Humanists and computer scientists collaborations. Looking at 56,000 quilts that had been digitized. 14th c. French manuscripts. 17-18th maps. All three projects looking for patterns.
With the maps – was there a way you could trace a lineage of authorship. Same with manuscripts.
With quilts – what’s a crazy quilt and what’s not. Discerning lineage of authorship.
Big question – what is authorship and how is cultural tradition passed over time.
Terabytes of data and many algorithms. Algorithms hold true for many other disciplines. Where is this data going to go? This project executed  in an environment with no preservation plan.
All these projects require new kinds of academic expression.
3. Project will be announced in a month – federated research and educational depository system. (FREDS) UVa, Mich, Emory, Stanford. Preserving academic record. 3 or 4 dark archives run on different platforms. Redundancy of archives but not of operating systems.
We are subject to a catastrophic loss of digital info.
4. Digital Public Library of America. DPLA. National roll-out tomorrow. Could become a vast federation of American cultural heritage objects.  If it’s done well, it could be one of the greatest resources we’ve ever seen. DPLA won’t own digital objects, only federate them. Preservation is not mentioned anywhere in this project. Exhilarating and indicative.