Sunday, March 20, 2011

Death Denial and Preservation

A word of caution - the author is heading into territory where he has absolutely no business going. The following words are highly speculative (and highly suspect) and without much intellectual credibility. So, grab a drink and enjoy.

In the "A Conservator Ponders Impermanence" piece I wrote for PCAN, I suggested that our quest for permanence may be rooted in our fear of our own mortality. I'm not exactly sure what inspired me to think that. In the subsequent comments, Montana conservator Audra Loyal mentioned the documentary, Flight From Death: the Quest for Immortality.

Thanks to Netflix streaming I was able to watch this movie, and just rewatched it, and think it may just have some things to add to the conversation of the impetus for preservation. (Its also freely available on Hulu.)

Flight From Death explores humanity's relationship to death, highlighting the thoughts of Ernest Becker and his book Denial of Death, and the more recent concept of Terror Management Theory. (I am not a psychologist. I didn't even take the annoingly popular Intro to Psych in University. I have little-to-no foundation upon which to intellectually critique some psychologists' theories.)

As I take it, humans have a death anxiety because we can imagine future danger, and imagine and anticipate a future where we are no longer living. In response we develop cultures which help maintain a sense of security in an insecure world. Culture serves a death denying function as all cultures have myths of immortality. Instead of trying to live on in the physical world, we take our dilemma to the symbolic level. We invest ourselves in symbols that we get from our culture. We try to ensure that our symbols live on. We build our most symbolically significant buildings  - e.g. churches, courthouses - out of the physically most stable and durable materials - usually stone.

Books, and libraries are highly symbolic cultural expressions. The content held within a book, as well as the object itself, is a symbol and reminder of the continuation of the information and the personality which creates and sustains our culture. The creation of both books and libraries are themselves efforts at immortality. The demise of a book(s)/library(s) is a threat to our culture and the information and personality held within, and a symbolic threat of our own demise.

When the question of deaccessioning a library book (fancy talk for throwing away a book) comes up, one comment that I invariably hear is "Well, somebody in the future might want it." I wonder if this concern for dismissing  a book as insignificant and not worthy of shelf space also has personal dimensions - fear that someday someone might find my own legacy as insignificant and toss it into the trash bin. Do we keep things to pre-emptively justify preserving our own legacy? (And what does it say about me that I take glee in tossing "useless" books into the dumpster?)

An aside - When I'm given a book to work on that is really too far gone to bring back to workable condition - most often because the paper is brittle or the amount of work required is not justified by the value or significance of the book - in these instances I usually construct a box for the book. The image just occurred to me of that of a coffin. Often putting a book in a box is not a declaration that the book is dead, but it is nearing death. The box shelters our eyes from seeing this decay, and encloses the decay so it doesn't spread and affect other books.

When all is said and done, I do not mean to suggest that I think conservators and all those concerned with preservation are all neurotically trying to symbolically, or otherwise, avoid their own death by preserving the objects around them. I think this idea of death denial and conservation piqued my interest because I'm personally not entirely satisfied with the whole "scientific conservation" world-view which leaves (or attempts to leave) the conservator as a living/emotional/thoughtful/irrational/social creature out of the equation. I think who we are as persons and as societies shapes our conservation actions as much as the "facts" of the object on our workbench.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Meeting yes, Meetings no, Meetings maybe

There are some upcoming meetings/symposia/conferences which have caught my eye. One I'm definitely attending, one I'm not, but will try to watch online, one I'm still uncertain about attending, but if not, will try to watch online.

The one meeting I am definitely attending is a "by invitation only" event, I believe. (Invitations went out to State Librarians and Archivists and I was "tapped" as my employer's representative.) The meeting is about digital archives of state documents, and the models used by the Washington Digital Archives, and the Indiana Digital Archives. The Library of Congress and NDIIPP (National Digital Information Infrastructure & Preservation Program) will also be involved. While archiving electronic state government documents may not be as glamorous as deacidifying newsprint, it is vitally important, and hugely challenging. Indiana and Washington have been leaders in this work and I look forward to hearing what they have to say.

The meeting I'm not attending, but do hope to watch much of it online is A Symposium on Disaster Information Outreach: for information professionals meeting disaster health information needs. The event is on Mar. 39-40 at the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, MD. I'll just copy their text to describe:

Who should attend?
  • Librarians, library staff, library students, information professionals, informationists[!?], and disaster medicine and public health professionals with a communications focus
Learn about...
  • Assessing and meeting the information needs of disaster managers and responders
  • Communications, social media and disasters
  • Using library facilities to support disaster needs during response and recovery
  • Workforce development for those interested in disaster information
  • Disaster resources for librarians – building a community of practice
  • Medical Library Association's new disaster information specialization
  • Tools for providing disaster health information
I'm really liking this increased attention to the role of libraries and their staff within their community in the preparation and response to a disaster. Libraries and disasters is not just about recovering wet books, but its also about helping responders and affected citizens find the information they need.The event is full, but they will be videocasting it on Day 1 and Day 2.

The final event is one I would love to attend, but I'm still not certain I'll go. The Newspaper Archive Summit: Rescuing Orphaned and Digital Content will be held on April 11-13 at the University of Missouri. Copying some text from their announcement:
More than 160 U. S. Newspapers have either quit business or stopped publishing a print edition during the past three years. How can we make sure that a community's history and cultural record does not cease to exist? How can we make sure that digital news products currently being created by online news organizations are preserved and accessible for citizens and scholars in the twenty-second century?
 I've a soft spot for newspapers, for their role in communities, and for the preservation, and presentation of their content. My slides from a talk I gave at a meeting of the Michigan Archival Association, "The Past and Future of Newspaper Preservation" (the slides aren't nearly as good as the title) have had almost 900 views. I'd really like to attend this event and be part of the conversation, but my participation will likely be limited to watching the live stream. (I am incredibly grateful for organizations that make their events available online.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

A Review, Not of Review of A Place, Not a Place

A Place, Not a Place: Reflection and Possibility in Museums and Libraries by David Carr.

In my effort to develop a more complete understanding of what library preservation is all about, I’ve felt a need to develop a better understanding of what libraries are all about - particularly as they fit into the larger context of cultural institutions. David Carr addresses that very question. Carr is or used to be on faculty at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Carr’s book is a welcome read, but not a light read. The book is unlike nearly anything else I’ve read from the library world. It brought me back to my seminary days, reading the works of theologians and philosophers. There is nothing remotely technique, or technical related in this book; it won’t provide information on how to run a program, organize a collection, or secure funding. It is a book that ponders the essential character of museums and libraries and their relationship with their users.

“Museums and libraries are institutions for the mindful life.” (p. 7)

According to Carr, libraries and museums are places of questions and connections. The task of cultural institutions is to assist in the management of human questions. Libraries and museums should foster questions and facilitate seeking answers - many answers, which should lead to many more questions.

“We know the best questions are not to be answered, but to be worked out empirically, performed in practice, and once performed in practice, they are to be addressed again, revised, and then made cyclical in the culture and discourse of the institution.” (p. 91)

“Therefore, the task in museums and libraries, if they wish to be regarded with authentic trust by diverse citizens, is to construct situations for authentic risking and questioning.” (p. 37)

“When we think about libraries, we have to understand that there are few other places to turn for fair, uncompromised information; to practice risking, acting, and thinking among unknowns; to learn in a nonjudgmental setting; and to move ourselves toward the personally crafted truths we require in order to live on life with integrity, purpose, and success.” (p. 102)

To preserve artifacts and texts from the past does not allow us to forget history, plus it allows us to be questioned or challenged by history. Our purpose is to evoke experiences and thoughts that create new experiences and thoughts.

“Adaptive, expansive, and comprehensive, organized for systematic use, cultural institutions stand against fragmentation.” (p. 11) The technique/technology-focused life can tend toward fragmentation. Libraries and museums are about collecting and connecting.

Fully interacting with museums and libraries involves overcoming our fears and being open to being changed - for our previous understandings to be challenged. “I am here to become. I am ready to work and risk, ready to read and think.” (p. 40)

Carr thinks first of the user. As a conservator, my inclination is to think first of the book. It becomes a bit of a chicken and egg question. Which came first, the book or the reader?

“I think that this is the heroic work of museums, libraries, and other cultural institutions: helping ordinary people to transform their lives into stories, ideas, lessons, principles, all involving an identity, a time past, a time present, and timeless human relationships. Using the contexts of a rich museum or library, a person can come to think of himself or herself first as a learner within a single life-context, then as a reader among great texts, then as a participant in an engaging culture, then as a learner among unfinished narratives, a weaver among the loose threads at the edge of our rough fabric.” (p. 105)

Carr portrays libraries and museums, and their users, in the very best of light. It is too harsh to say his language is detached from reality. Libraries are the things he says they are, but they are also places that deal with budget cuts, with visits from people brandishing firearms as a statement of their 2nd amendment rights, and serve the second home some smelly, snoring gentlemen, among other less than noble activities. Not every user is a mindful user, not every library program or policy is born of our best and most noble self. Lofty language of possibility is good - but it is not everything.

Carr’s book is not overtly about preservation in cultural heritage institutions, but I think it speaks to need for the inherent preservative function of libraries and archives. The user comes to the library and museum to face questions, and pursue answers We can better assist the user in making connections and developing new answers by not just providing access to the texts and artifacts of today, but also the texts and artifacts of yesterday.

Carr’s book is a fascinating read that deserves more time and thought. My few quotes and notes don’t do it justice.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

What do they think they are doing?

I’m sure most folks are at least somewhat familiar with the recent flurry of articles about the team that is considering reconstructing one or both of the Bamiyan Buddhas of Afganistan.  If not, the Buddhas were carved into the side of a hill around 1500 years ago, and over the years it appears that they were painted different vibrant colors. About ten years ago the Taliban blew up the Buddhas. Now a group is suggesting at least one of the statues can be reconstructed with the original pieces.

And my question is – what do they think they are doing (or wanting to do)? I don’t ask that because I think they shouldn’t try to reconstruct the statues – I don’t think I have any opinions on that – but I’m curious what the people involved would perceive reconstructing the statues from pieces of the original would accomplish. What would the finished product be? Would it be the original? Well, no, but it seems that the desire to use pieces from the original would give it a greater air of authenticity. What function would a recreated original have? Whereas the original was likely created as a religious expression I don’t get the sense that religious impulses are what is motivating the current group. Would it be an act and artifact of defiance against religious/cultural intolerance?

I’ve been trying to think of what would be a comparable experience in the library/book world and I’m struggling to find a comparison. I think this is in large part because libraries mostly house things of which there are multiple copies. Burn one copy of “Fahrenheit  451” and there are many copies to replace it. Also, the purpose of a book is largely held within the text and changing the housing of that text plays little (but not no) impact on the understanding of that text.  One possible comparison might be reassembling a pile of papyrus scraps  - but if those scraps were eventually reassembled into their original layout, it still seems to me that that final construction would be different in character than the reassembled Buddhas – once again, because the purpose of the papyrus largely lies in the meaning derived from the text, and not the form of the object.

It also raises the questions of what to do with sites/symbols/artifacts of tragedies. When is preserving evidence of the tragedy more important than creating something new?

These kinds of questions don't have much reason to be asked in the library world, so I haven't spent much time with them and don't have much of a response.

So, once again, I am not passing any judgement on whether the Buddhas should be constructed with or without the original pieces, but I am really curious to know what those who are pondering this, think they are doing? (I'm sure I'll know the answer when I finally get around to reading The Past is a Foreign Country.)