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.


  1. The urge to preserve is as old as the urge to eliminate.

  2. Preservation doesn’t really have a moral high ground. Preservation is discipline neutral, unevenly distributed service, unenforced across disaster and destruction. More problematic is a shifting of inherent characteristics of the artifact before and after treatment; differences of “beforeness” and “afterness”. Some prompts to consideration of such factors include; (1) shifts from quality of initial structure and condition to their restored equivalents, (2) unquestioned evidence of fabrications and collations shifted to unquestioned equivalents of reconstruction, (3) previous vulnerabilities contrasted with resulting stabilizations, (4) shifts of contrast between period craft and esthetic and equivalents of conservation treatment, and shifts of authentication and research values.

    Given all these conflicts how can there be consensus in favor of preservation? Perhaps there is not. There is certainly a trend away from the priority of physical collections in a context of their screen delivery.

    A recent talk by a career naturalist also voiced a search for relevance and strategy on a deteriorating planet. If we look at unsustainable growth and unstable climate we find many tethers. One of these is shared volatility or unpredictability. Given this circumstance the models of previous natural ecologies are less relevant or even deceptive. A paradigm of sustainability, or the quiet Holocene, is extinct.

    One strategy, aside from apocalyptic doom, is direct response to volatility and unpredictability. This is a strategy of resilience where quick reaction and diversionary initiative counters degradation; sudden and surprising actions of negative entropy. (reference Zolli, Resilience, why things bounce back, 2012)

    Leaving the empirical, and even leaving the scientific, approach to complex, rate-related changes a resilience strategy suggests a volatile ever-shifting behavior including risk and failure as productive. Resilience has resilience.

    Experimental, innovative ecologies of feral over-growth of vacant land, micro urban food production, up and down cycling of waste, non-extractive industrialization based on information economies, respiratory rights configuration, gravity charged batteries, and an endless variety of counter responses to volatility itself will exercise and confirm the resilience strategy.

    Most promising of all the unanticipated consequences that emerge between actions of resilience behavior will themselves be productive. This is a living future that returns to persistent ecological behaviors in a novel way. The same strategy of resilience can be adopted in preservation. So without first asking why we continue on we can resolve to continue using a resilience strategy.

  3. Have you read "The past is a foreign country" by David Lowenthal. The book examines an overall look on the past, including some of its multiple uses like preservation.

  4. Jeff - if the urge to preserve is that old, then it must be time to throw it out. That's what you do with old things, don't you?

    Gary - I'm going to have to spend more time pondering this, but on face value, I'm not sure I'm comfortable with the statement "Preservation doesn't really have a moral high ground." I can certainly agree with your emphasis on the shifting understand of artifact and collection. (Lately, I've been pondering the idea of the "library collection" and if or when, because of things like shared storage and licensed content, that concept will no longer be relevant.)

    And thanks for the reminder of the Resilience book. It looks like an interesting read - especially in the context of preservation.

    Javier - thanks for the reminder of Lowenthal book. I've read snippets of it, but I've never taking the time to do a full read. It is a long book - and my attention span is not - but I will add to to my list.

  5. I don't have much practical experience, but I found this question interesting. I'm really interested in the topic of preserving video games. So I read this and thought, "Why?" I can just buy a new one and I wont have to work hard to play it. So why do I care whether the old ones are meticulously, painstakingly and expensively kept for the future? The first thought in my mind wasn't actually for the game itself, but for the information that went into making it. It's all about not re-inventing the wheel, you know? Why completely recreate something, when there are the leftover pieces of something older over here? So, in this, I can find a practical application. But, as for the actual games though, is there something so wrong about nostalgia? We can wax romantic all day about the beauty of things from times past, but honestly, is that so wrong? Does there have to be some large, tangibly important over-reaching moral? Can it not simply be because the things we have created are beautiful and a testament to our progress and ingenuity? I agree that there are cases in which things should be preserved because lessons can be learned from them. But I suppose I am also romantic enough to think that because the desire to preserve is there, has always been there, that we should do it. People have been looking at the stars for millennia, but I don't think we need to stop just because it is an old habit.

    1. tahyun8 - thanks for your thoughtful comments. I guess when I think we should ask ourselves why we preserve, my intention is not to say "Preservation, why bother with it" but rather that there is value in taking the time and energy to examine what are our motivations behind preservation? I'm not suggesting our answers to why we preserve are illegitimate, I'm just suggesting we haven't spent a lot of time paying attention to what those answers might be. It's a bit of extending Socrates statement "An unexamined life isn't worth living" to preservation - the more we understand our motivations - the why - of preservation the better and more effective we can be at preservation that meets our needs. There is nothing wrong with looking at the stars, but there is also nothing long at turning that gaze within and asking yourself, what are you hoping to see.