Sunday, January 30, 2011

Shamelss plug

In another effort to try to be like the cool kids, I've recently created a Facebook page for my work related activities.
(disclaimer - Nothing on this blog remotely reflects the opinions, attitudes, or endorsement of my employer.)

Thursday, January 27, 2011

As goes the codex, so goes the library?

I subscribe to the blog to keep aware of what the library trend spotters/setters (it is written by OCLC Research staff) have to say. Today, one of the authors posted a two part talk given by Eli Neiburger, Associate Head for IT and Production at the public library of the tech-happy town down the road (Ann Arbor.) The online talk was given as a part of a Library Journal/School Library Journal online summit.

The title for the presentation is “Libraries at the Tipping Point: How eBooks Impact Libraries” - but it is also known by the title “Libraries are screwed.” You should watch the presentation - it is about 20 minutes between the two parts. He has some convincing things to say and he says them quite convincingly. My response is below.

I think he makes two main points in this presentation and I’ll respond to each point.

His first point is that the codex is being/has been “outmoded” by the ebook, pointing out that outmoded is different than obsolete. He defines outmoded as being replaced by a more convenient and usually increasingly less expensive format. He mentions candles and vinyl records as examples of other outmoded technologies. He describes an ebook as a text delivery device. And so now I quibble. With his other examples of outmoded technologies, like candles and vinyl records, the user is for the most part passive. The user receives light whether from a candle or an LED - the user receives sound, whether from vinyl or MP3. The codex is different, however, because the user physically interacts and manipulates the codex - and does this in ways that would make no sense in the ebook environment. If an ebook is a text delivery device, a codex is a text interaction device. I really think it is a fundamental difference, and I think the “outmoded” explanation is off.

That doesn’t mean that I can’t imagine libraries replacing codex’s with ebooks - library directors seem to love that kind of thing. But, in replacing the codex with the ebook, these library directors are changing the user’s experience in ways that did not happen in the conversion from VHS to DVD (or to streaming video).

But that's just a minor issue, what really captures my attention in his presentation is what he discusses in the 2nd half of the 2nd part.

He speaks about the purpose or function of the library. The original purpose of libraries, he suggests, was not to purchase commercial content for use by the community but to store and organize the content of the community. Whether this was the original purpose or not I’m not certain, and I don’t particularly care, what it is, however, is a good and valuable purpose for the library. His vision of future relevant libraries based on their original purpose is to be both a local repository for local information and culture, and to facilitate the creation, recording, publishing of that local information and culture. (This used to be a significant function of the local newspaper, which is why that newspaper is such an important part of a local collection. Unfortunately, the local paper as a local product is becoming scarce.) One function of the library that Neiburger doesn’t explicitly mention, but I think goes hand-in-hand with its role in the collection, production, and presentation of local information and culture is that libraries then also play the vital role in the preservation of that local information and culture. Collect, create, sustain.

For the longest time, public libraries have filled the role of buying and sharing commercial products, with this local culture angle often playing a very minor role. As our ways of relating to and accessing these commercial products changes, I think Neiburger rightly challenges libraries to seize this opportunity to reshape (or remember) their purpose and their relationship to their patrons.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Preservation Writ Large

I’ve yet to find many authors who write about preservation in a library context who inspire me. I think/hope there are more out there, but I’ve just not found them yet. One person, however, whose writing often stimulates my thinking in a very good way is Michèle Cloonan. Cloonan is dean and professor at the Graduate School of Library & Information Science at Simmons College and last year’s recipient Paul Banks and Carolyn Harris Preservation Award

In this post I will look at three of her articles. My intent is not a comprehensive scholarly essay reviewing and critiquing her scholarly work, but rather more of a personal conversation, occasionally disjointed  and scattered, between text and reader.

W(h)ither Preservation in Library Quarterly, 2001, vol. 21, no. 2, pp. 231-242.

This article has probably been the single most influential piece of writing to motivate me to think bigger thoughts about preservation. For one thing - it introduced me to David Lowenthal’s “The Past is a Foreign Country.” This article contains the sentence which I continually come back to a professional challenge.

“A rigorous examination of the field will show that there has been a myopic focus on the technical (such as preserving digital objects) and a concomitant neglect of the bigger picture (for example, public policy among other issues).” (p. 232 [emphasis mine])

Later in the article she writes

“The library and archival literature is replete with writings about the technical aspects of preservation. But where are the articles that address preservation issues from public policy, economic, political, social, or educational perspectives?” (p. 238)

“Myopic focus on the technical” has become a bit of a mantra for me - and not only as a critique, but more importantly as a challenge. This call to look beyond our myopic focus on the technical is a significant reason why I initiated this blog with its focus, I hope, on the “bigger picture.”

To help stimulate this bigger picture thinking, Cloonan suggests “Preservation professionals across various disciplines should meet with thoughtful thinkers from the fields of art, humanities, engineering, architecture, science, computer science, and industry on a regular basis to address issues particular to individual formats and inherent to all formats.” (p. 239) It seems that, at least in a small way, these kind of conversations are being facilitated through various online social media resources which invite all interested parties to participate.

She writes that too often preservation has been defined as a set of actions. Instead, “preservation must be a way of seeing and thinking about the world.” (p. 232) (I’ve thought more about this in light of my previous post - and subsequent comments - regarding the use and definition of the terms preservation and conservation.)

One theme Cloonan discusses in this article will be reappear in the two later articles is the impulse to preserve. In this article she cites Lowenthal as identifying five cultural impulses that have led to preservation:
1. Monuments and relics may be crucial to historic understanding.
2. Nationalistic impulses may lead to the preservation of languages, folklore, and material arts.
3. A society may feel an acute sense of loss resulting from unexamined change.
4. The rediscovery of ancient sites or monuments excites sentiment for preserving them.
5. A growing sense of individuality and nostalgia may lead a person to preserve family papers or memorabilia.

“The paradox of preservation is that it is impossible to keep things the same forever. To conserve, preserve, or restore is to alter.” (p. 235)  When I taught an intro to conservation class and we discussed this article I especially liked to highlight that second sentence “To conserve, preserve, or restore is to alter.” The prolific Dan Cull has written some good stuff both on his blog and on CeROArt  (whoops, make that e-conservation) around this concept. It has stimulated some interesting conversation - at least between he and I.

The Moral Imperative to Preserve in Library Trends 55(3) Winter 2007, pp. 746-755.

This article was published six years after W(h)ither Preservation and takes an even further step back and draws in issues of morality, international relations, and her concept of “monumental preservation” which Cloonan defines as the “preservation of all cultural phenomena.” (p. 747)

Such a breadth of topics and their inter-relations may seem too ambitious for some preservation-minded readers. One cannot always think about preservation on such a large interconnected scale, (It becomes difficult to perceive how themes of international relations relates to what techniques one should use in conserving a map.) however, we cannot not think about these larger interconnections. Or rather, we’ve a long history of not thinking about these larger interconnections and it has been to our professions detriment.

The impulse to preserve is faced with the equally strong impulse to destroy. It seems to me that we need a more critical approach to both preservation and destruction.

“If preservation assures cultural survival, is there a concomitant moral imperative to preserve?” (p. 747) (Curious note - Cloonan makes use of the word “concomitant” in both discussed articles. I can’t recall that I’ve ever made use the word, apart from citing her.)

“Preservation tries to assure the survival of the human record.” (p. 747)

In understanding morality, she looks to the work of R.M. Hare. The aspect of his definition of morality that she focuses on is that the moral agents have “to give as much weight to the interests of these other people as to their own interests; for unless they do, they will not be universalizing their prescriptions.” (p. 748) It is this “universalizing prescription” of morality Cloonan highlights.

In attempting to provide a definition a moral obligation to preserve, she acknowledges that the definition reflects western thought.

In the previous article Cloonan cited Lowenthal’s five cultural impulses that lead to preservation, one of which was nationalistic impulses. She notes in this article how these impulses both help and hinder the cause of preservation. The motivation to preserve one nation’s culture is often matched by the motivation to destroy the culture of “the other.”

In the next article we’ll see her discuss the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas as an example of destroying the culture of the other, as an act of “preserving” their own culture.

“If Hare’s ideas are to be applied to the UN or UNESCO … then protection of human lives or cultural objects can conceivably be accomplished.” (p. 750)

The Paradox of Preservation in Library Trends 56(1) Summer, 2007, pp. 133-147.

“Items owned by museums and libraries are preserved simply because they are in custody of those institutions.” (p. 134) This “custodial storehouse” model of ownership/preservation has been the dominant modern model. Cloonan then asks the postmodern question “What will post-custodial models look like?” (p. 136)

The defining question for this article, that gets to the heart of the paradox of preservation is “can we still assume that it is possible to maintain collections indefinitely or even for a long time?” (p. 136 emphasis hers)

She presents five case studies that highlight the challenges of this question. (I’ll only mention a few.)

She discusses the Nag Hammadi codices - 4th century Gnostic texts in very early Coptic bindings. The volumes were found buried in earthenware jars. Some of the texts were used to start fires by the finder and, after their identity was determined later texts have become damaged through use and misuse. Cloonan asks an important preservation question “Would these codices have been better preserved if left in the ground?” (p. 137)

While the texts survived 15 centuries relatively unscathed, it can reasonably be argued that the information gathered from these texts - both from the content and the bindings - more than compensates for the damage. “Another way to look at this is that before these volumes came to light, there was nothing to preserve.” (p. 138)

Sometimes the question is whether something should be preserved or not - using Nazi concentration camps as an example. (The World Trade Center site could be another example.) All such decisions are steeped in emotion - some want the site to go away, others see value in it being preserved. In writing about the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, she writes “As with the intentional destruction of any piece of cultural heritage … the need or impulse to preserve is not universal.” (p. 142)

What impresses me about Michèle Cloonan, as displayed in these three articles, is her ability to perceive and reflect upon preservation writ large. Such writing inspires and compels me to look beyond my familiar scope of interests and beyond familiar answers.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

A bit about terminology

I will very likely make abundant use of the terms preservation and conservation on this blog. I state at the outset that I will use these terms mostly interchangeably, being intentionally open in their meanings. This is obviously not a precise way to communicate, and I’m not sure if it is the most intelligent approach - the more academic way seems to be to create very precise definitions of terms - but precision here seems difficult and artificial.

Just the other day an entry titled Difference Between Conservation and Preservation showed up on a Google alert which highlights the challenges of trying to be precise with these terms - it imposes meaning that other communities don’t agree to.

I come from, and mostly work in the library world. In the library world preservation and conservation have developed a generally agreed upon, if somewhat vague, set of meanings. In the last few years I’ve had much more interdisciplinary conversations with the archive, museum, art, and other cultural heritage institutions and within these communities there are different sets of meanings for these terms - and different terms are introduced. (I’ve occasionally used the ‘con/preservation’ construction, but it really isn’t all that satisfying.)

I think there is value for the individual disciplines to have their more precise meanings, but any attempt on my part to attempt to communicate with the larger cultural heritage community and to try impose precise definitions on these terms seems like a waste of time. Things don’t mean what I say they mean just because I declare what they mean. Meaning is community created, and we’ve got a diverse community.

Eventually, the various cultural heritage communities may see the need to come to agreement on uniformly agreed upon meaning for these terms - but that is not my call.

(My blog is titled Library Preservation in large part because, in a web search, it is the combination of these two terms that yields results I am most interested in - preservation in a library context.)

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Two Conservators Ponder Impermanence

Earlier this week Preservation & Conservation Administration News (PCAN) graciously posted a piece that I wrote last fall titled A Conservator Ponders Impermanence. After writing this piece I sent it to Dan Cull to get his feedback.

With his permission I post an edited version of our correspondence. And, as always, thanks to Dan for his thoughtful work.

Greetings Dan

This is Kevin Driedger, occasional online communicant and host of the former "library preservation" blog.

Pardon my intrusion but I've written this odd little thing and I'd be curious to hear your comments and thoughts. (And please feel free to say it sounds like the ramblings of a brain damaged Pink Floyd groupie on Vicodin - or not.) It is written out of/into the library context but I'm hoping what it says resonates beyond.

I really enjoy and am impressed by the breadth of your interests and awareness expressed on your blog.

Kevin Driedger

Hi Kevin,

Great to hear from you; I was really sad to see your blog is no longer online, any chance you archived it anywhere - can you archive blogs? It had such wonderful content. Thanks for the comments about my blog, I try to cover at least a few of my interests, and as you can see they’re pretty varied by my links page! 

By the way; the ramblings of a brain damaged Pink Floyd groupie would be awesome! So maybe I'm not fit to judge.

It's an interesting piece, where is it going to be published? I think it could easily be applicable to a wider field than library conservation. I suspect this email response might be a bit jumbled.

I think you're right, there's very little discussion about when something should be left to die in peace. Maybe if the U.S got a Fed' Department of Culture - as I believe has been discussed of late - then we could get conservation "death panels"... lol, sorry couldn't resist. ;)

So, taking on from your associated argument, it will come as no great surprise that I agree, and in fact I think the moral/philosophical questions are far more significant than the technical ones. My general feeling is that we are already capable of coming up with technical solutions, and in fact we already have perfectly adequate solutions… I tend to find at those conferences that what is being argued over are essentially the semantics of the better of two already perfectly good solutions. My solution is to use the one you prefer. I am far more interested in morally and philosophically which is the right (or wrong) one to use… or should we be doing it at all!?? I also realize that, sadly, universities are not so interested in that approach, because science gets funding and the humanities don’t. But as you suggest in line with the Lowenthal quote, as a conservator you have to ask what is it that you want to be permanent... the physical object, or, the information; the thing the writing is on, or, the meaning of the writing and the ability to read it. I wonder in the library conservation field is digitization bringing this question up more, and adding a whole new level of complexity to this issue? I could imagine an argument being made to “just scan it and save all the money spent on conserving the thing”… which assumes (incorrectly) that it’s only the words that matter to anyone. 

I was interested in your reference to Buddhism. You mention in the same space about 'western conservation', and I think that's an interesting juxtaposition of ideas. Basically I immediately wonder how the central issue of this essay (impermanence/permanence) is considered within an Eastern Buddhist context? In other words maybe it’s not only that Buddhist ideas have no place in western conservation, but, maybe western conservation has no place in Buddhism? And what does that mean for our assumption of universal importance? I am personally fascinated by what conservation is like outside of the "western paradigm" [and have since written a blog post on that]. Because even when I find 'non-western conservation' examples, if you trace back the work they're usually the result of what amounts to what can only honestly be referred to as imperialism or globalization (western homogenization)…. You know something like a Getty or ICCROM funded field school; hardly non-western. But I do believe that Buddhists have an established system of cultural care that I'd like to learn more about...  anyway, bit of a tangent.

I recently wrote an article for e-conservation entitled Conserve or Destroy? that I think you might like. I want to get away from the idea of reversibility, which to me seems so dishonest... so when writing it I started thinking about the conservation process in a different way as "the creation of new objects".




Thanks for your thoughtful and generous thoughts.

On the topic of religion, my knowledge of Buddhism is also just enough to be dangerous. A very helpful article I found was "Spiritual materiality: heritage preservation in a Buddhist world?" by Anna Karlstrom. I'm very interested in understanding/uncovering the western, Enlightenment ideology that underlies our current ideas of conservation. I don't get the impression that the conservation world thinks there is an ideology/worldview underlying their work.

I am giving some thought to resurrecting my blog. It has been a very scattered and distracted past year or so, but it looks like things might be settling down with my work life that I would actually have the mental space to direct more attention to writing/blogging.

Take care,

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Library Preservation 2

I am re-entering the blogging world with this, Library Preservation 2. I wrote the earlier blog, Library Preservation, for a few years, but have been on blogging hiatus for a couple years.

My previous blog was rather sprawling in subject matter, prone to whimsical asides, and intended, somewhat, as a public service. My vision for this new edition, however, is more specific. I have been hovering around some larger library-preservationish topics for the last while and I think I’m ready to more deeply explore these topics.

For me, the best way to visualize what I’m hoping to do with this blog, is to explore the space of an ellipse. The two points of this ellipse are: library preservation theory; and, libraries’ place in cultural heritage preservation.

A bit of explanation about these concepts.

“Library preservation theory.”
The library world is good at the technical and administrative aspects of preservation. (Gary Frost once identified the two branches or approaches of library preservation as the AIC/UT Austin scientific/art conservation branch, and the ALA administrative branch.) What I find lacking in much of the preservation literature, however, is much discussion of the theoretical, conceptual, philosophical foundation which provides the intellectual framework to justify current preservation practices. To me, this means asking questions like, what do libraries think they are doing when they attempt to “preserve” things, what are we to preserve, and what is our ideology of preservation? This isn’t to suggest that this foundation isn’t there, it is there, but I haven’t come across much literature asking these questions. (We have conservation scientists and preservation administrators, but I think we have a lack of preservation philosophers, priests, and shamans.)

“Libraries’ place in cultural heritage preservation.”
This second point on my ellipse of investigation arises out of my attempt to ponder my first point. I’ve been lead to look more and more to conservation literature coming out of the museum/cultural heritage institution world. I find people in this world writing some very interesting literature asking the questions I listed above. And so, I’m curious to ponder how conservation discussion coming out of the museum/artifact/historic preservation world might inform a similar kind of discussion in the library world. What is the place of libraries in the larger cultural heritage world. To help me do this, I also need a better grasp of the function and place of libraries in the larger world.

My primary means of exploring the space of this ellipse of interest is by reading and responding. I’ve a growing bibliography of titles which I hope will stimulate ideas. (The bibliography will be posted shortly - and I’d gladly receive reading suggestions.) It is my intention to use this blog to “publicly” interact with these readings - and whatever else might catch my attention.

I’m doing this project publicly with some apprehension. Like nearly every one that writes a blog I’d be thrilled if people become engaged with what I write, but I’m not anticipating many people will find much in these posts that speaks to them. I will attempt to resist the personal compulsion to keep the imaginary masses happy with frequent insightful and witty posts, but because I am who I am, I‘m sure I’ll let in the occasional goofy video or irrelevant aside. 

(I realize that blogs are like so last-decade as a means of communication. For me, that’s part of their charm.)