Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Is Loss a Part of Library Life

Someday, I think I am going to get myself kicked out of the club – the I Heart Preservation club.

I saw on the always insightful and thought-provoking blog for AudioVisual Preservation Solutions a post about a new online video - Archive – about the Internet Archive featuring interviews with its founder, Brewster Kahle. I had seen the video earlier and it is a worthwhile watch. In it Kahle says something which gets highlighted in the blog post along the lines of the cause of loss being institutional failure.

Empty Bookshelves, by Flickr user svenwerk
I remember hearing these words when I first watched the video and thought that this was an interesting and potentially useful approach. Days later, when I read those same words on the blog post I had a different thought – the thought which just might finally get me kicked out of the club. Maybe the idea that loss is a failure is wrong. Or, if not wrong, perhaps seeing loss as failure is only one dimension of the issue. What would happen if we saw loss as part of the natural information economy / ecology / ecosystem.

I guess this is perhaps just a rephrasing of my suggesting object life cycles should include not just creation and preservation, but for it to truly be a cycle it should involve some aspect of destruction.

I don’t think it is too far a stretch to make a loss/death comparison. Desiring loss or death does not seem particularly healthy, but neither is denying them, or considering either necessarily a failure.

I don’t want to suggest this is my final and only opinion on information loss, but I don’t think viewing loss as a failure is necessarily the only right answer either.

All that being said, I can’t close this post without saying I am very grateful for Brewster Kahle and the incredible work the Internet Archive does, and am also grateful for the thoughtful posts written by Joshua Ranger. It would be a deep shame if any of their work was lost any time soon.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The WHY of preservation

Either it is maturing, or it has a short attention span and is easily distracted, but I find over the years my interest in preservation has shifted from the HOW of preservation – questions of technique; to the WHAT of preservation – questions of policy; and now my thoughts (when I have time to think) are lingering more on the WHY of preservation – questions of underlying motivation and intention.

I’d really like to limit my why of preservation question to the why of preservation in a Western institutional context, but I recognize that limitation – especially the institutional context part – may be an unrealistic and unuseful limitation.

I think I’m having troubles finding good answers to the why of preservation question because the question is like questioning why read or why have libraries – the answers are usually some glowing rhetoric which makes educated people feel all warm and fuzzy and pleased with themselves, but don’t really get to deep questions of motivation. We don’t particularly ask the why of preservation question, because we are satisfied with the commonly accepted, but perhaps rather glib answers – “People who don’t remember their history are doomed to repeat it."

So, unsatisfied with bumper sticker responses to the why question, I’m on a quest for my own answer. Unfortunately, this quest comes in the context of what feels like a very busy life. I’ve not posted on this blog for a while because the time and mental space I need to create blog posts has not been there. This will likely be a slow quest. My other limitation/challenge, is finding sources of inspiration and information for this challenge. I’ve made the narcissistic claim that not many people think about this question (I’m so special) which then means that I’m struggling to find good tools to stimulate my mind. But, enough about me and my problems. (If you, dear reader, have reading suggestion to help me on my quest I'd be more than delighted to receive your suggestion.)

Collections of Nothing
Intrigued by the book’s description, I recently read – well, skimmed – Collections of Nothing by William Davies King. The book is – in part – about people’s drive to collect; and collecting is the first step in preservation.  The author’s reflection on people’s motivation to collect is couched, or enveloped, in the author’s own personal stories and neuroses. The book is mostly memoir – and I didn’t find myself caring for or overly liking the subject – which is why I skimmed for the interesting bits and they were there.

Here are some snippets:
“The widely shared impulse to collect comes partly from a wound we feel deep inside this richest, most materialistic of all societies, and partly from a wound that many of us feel in our personal histories. Collecting may not be the most direct means of healing those wounds, but it serves well enough. It finds order in things, virtue in preservation, knowledge in obscurity, and above all it discovers and even creates value.” p. 7.

 “Collecting is a constant reassertion of the power to own, an exercise in controlling otherness, and finally a kind of monument building to insure survival after death.” p. 38.

“It’s a paradox that use degrades value, that what is most precious is the untouched object. I had touched my books, and they had touched me.” p. 40.

“The lesson of collections is that collecting is not all pathology. Indeed, collecting can come very close to what is involved in the making of art. The assemblage of disparate elements into a totality evokes the satisfying metaphors of wholeness and unity, and the containment or display of what is valuable involves the very same questions of form and function that any artist must ask.” p. 126.

It may seem a stretch to connect the institutional motivation to collect to ideas of personal woundedness and desire, but I think it is a stretch worth exploring. Institutional activities are born out of the minds and hearts of real people and are not separate from their personal motivations and desires.

“It finds order in things, virtue in preservation, knowledge in obscurity, and above all it discovers and even creates value” sounds like an apt description of the library/librarian world.

The idea of collecting as an assertion of power to own and exercising control over otherness is interesting to think about in the current context of licensed electronic resources where libraries are losing their traditional power to own, and are feeling very disoriented.

And finally – I just really liked the “I had touched my books, and they had touched me” line. A great slogan for the traditional book arts.