Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Pursuing Preservation - The Book

I made a book! I decided to try a little experiment and shift my self-publishing media from the blog to the printed book and crafted the volume, Pursuing Preservation. It is a collection of "greatest hits" from my blog. 

Here's the descriptive blurb I wrote for it:

Pursuing Preservation contains the personal and occasionally peculiar reflections of the author as he ponders the deeper meanings of his own work in preservation in a library context. These meditations probe questions like: what do we mean by permanence, what are we to preserve, and what is the source of our authority to make preservation decisions? Driedger attempts to create conversations between various preservation communities including voices from the archives and museum worlds, as well as distinctly non-western approaches to preservation.

Part of my motivation in doing this was to learn about the self-publishing experience. I used Amazon's CreateSpace. It was a pretty straightforward affair. It helps that I could do the layout in Microsoft Publisher and then save as a PDF which gave me more control over layout - not that I spent a lot of time worrying about layout. I want to try and do a Kindle version too, just for the heck of it.

So, if you enjoy reading my blog, but really wish you could add your own notes and scribbles, or you need something to stabilize a wobbly table, have I got a book for you.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Possession and Preservation

DRM CHAIR from Thibault Brevet on Vimeo.

I used to think that possession was the first step in preservation. “You can’t preserve what you don’t have,” I have said many times to myself, and probably to others. I used to think that, but I don’t anymore. Now, I’m not exactly sure what to think.

Library preservation has historically operated out of a property ownership model. The library purchased a thing and therefore it owned that thing along with many, but not always all rights to that thing. Once owned, the library could choose to take steps to preserve that thing. Today the defining lines both of ownership and thingness are increasingly blurred. As a simple example of these blurred lines I’ll offer up my Facebook account. Can anybody point me to clear defining lines of ownership or thingness of my Facebook account? I don’t think so. Other examples include; Digital Rights Management protected electronic content, print books which include access to related and protected online content, leased city directories, comments on blog posts, continually updated self-published monographs (c.f. Gary Frost), etc. What then does this mean for library-based preservation?

As the definitions of what to preserve are changing and blurring the library preservation profession needs to continually change and blur the lines of our discipline. I don’t mean to suggest that this isn’t already happening. It is, somewhat. I just don’t know how aware of or in control of the change we are.

The preservation world has a history of dealing with challenging conceptions of property ownership, most pertinently with copyright. What we are legally able to do with a thing whose contents are protected by current copyright law seriously shapes our preservation practices. Other areas of the cultural heritage community have vastly more experience with the challenges of preservation beyond property ownership. One thing we can learn from these communities is that dealing with preservation beyond the confines of simple institutional ownership is challenging, but not doing it is failure.

With developing practices like collective print holdings, and the new ways of conceiving of preservation that digital material has introduced, the library preservation world is already thinking of preservation beyond the boundaries of object ownership based preservation, and it needs to continue to push at these boundaries. For the library preservation profession to effectively and appropriately push at these boundaries, however, it needs to occasionally (or continually) stop, step outside of its own work, recognize and name the boundaries, and actively chart a way forward to a library preservation model that is not based exclusively on property ownership. In fact, I would suggest the need is urgent today for the library preservation community to develop a broadly inclusive, non-ownership based preservation model. Seriously accepting our moral responsibility for preservation obligates us to such thinking.

p.s. I was motivated to write this post after listening to the radio show On the Media’s episode, The Past, Present, and Future ofOwnership  which brought my attention to the DRM chair demonstrated in the video at the beginning of this post. (For those who need further explanation: DRM places limitations on use of digital material, like whether it can be shared, or how often it can be viewed. The chair in this exhibit was programmed to allow 8 sittings before it self-destructed.)

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Access (& Preservation) to ALL Government Information

I don't ask much of you dear reader but here's a cause - access and preservation of ALL government information - I can believe in and hope you will to. The Free Government Information blog has created a petition on White House's We The People site which reads:

Require free online permanent public access to ALL federal government information and publications.

1. Assure that GPO has the funds to continue to maintain and develop the Federal Digital System (FDsys).

2. Raise ALL Congressional, Executive & Judicial branch information, publications & data to the level of federally funded scientific information & publish ALL government information as "Open Access."

3. Mandate the free permanent public access to other Federal information currently maintained in fee-based databases - including the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER), the National Technical Reports Library (NTRL), & USA Trade Online.

4. Establish an interagency, govt-wide strategy to manage the entire lifecycle of digital government information w/ FDLP Libraries - publication, access, usability, bulk download, long-term preservation, standards & metadata.

For the petition to get consideration they need 100,000 signatures by April 19. I've signed it, I hope you will too. (This FGI post provides more background info.)

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Death of Sacred Texts

For those of you that haven’t been paying attention for the last two years of this blog, I’m fairly intrigued by and engaged with this whole religion thing, and I’ve written more than enough posts about death, impermanence, and object life cycles. So, when those two streams of thought come across a book titled The Death of Sacred Texts: Ritual Disposal and Renovation of Texts in World Religions I get a little giddy. Religion and death and books all wrapped up into one neat package.

Regardless of how religious they are, many people I encounter have some difficulty with the idea of disposing of books. Something about it feels wrong. Old shirts can become painting clothes, then rags, then trash, but tossing old books in the trash feels like a bigger deal. “The ubiquity of old reference books and tattered paperbacks in rummage sales and used book stores testifies to the cultural inhibition on disposing of old books.” (p. 147-8) Not surprisingly, those feelings of dis-ease are enormously magnified when that old tattered book contains what you consider sacred scripture, and has been used in religious rituals. Many religious traditions have come up with rituals to deal with sacred, ritual texts that have become damaged beyond restoration (and have also defined what can be considered legitimate restoration.)

This volume includes essays about the practices of many religious groups in their attitudes toward and disposal of physical instances of their sacred texts. The traditions discussed include: Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikh, although the authors reminded the readers that none of these traditions are monolithic and each contain a great deal of variety of practices and beliefs.

“The chapters illustrated how various religious beliefs and motivations are projected onto the preferred methods of disposal and evoke analogies to how the human body and sacred objects, such as icons and relics, are treated.” (p. 7)

I won’t do a chapter by chapter, religion by religion breakdown of the book, although I found the details of most of the traditions quite fascinating. I think one important thing to recognize, especially for western readers, is that modern western, protestant Christianity – like the rest of modern western civilization – has an intellectual, minimally ritualized approach to the Christian Bible. Most other religious traditions have a much more ritualized relationship with their sacred texts, both as texts and as objects that hold the texts.

The ritualized relationship a tradition has with a text in its usable state is key to understanding how that tradition approaches disposal of the text. Western protestant Christianity, which has at best and uncomfortable ritual relationship with the Bible has not developed any real rituals for bible disposal. The author of the chapter on Christianity polled many people who often felt like there should be a ritual for bible disposal, but nobody had participated in one, or knew of one.

One thing that plays a role in shaping how sacred texts are handled in several religious traditions is the presence of the name of the divine. In Judaism things that have on them one of the names of God must be treated differently. “In a Talmudic discussion of what is to be saved on a Sabbath in cases of fire, all parts of the TaNaKh are mentioned to prevent them from being dishonorably burnt as something worthless (see bTalmud, Shabbath 115a).” (p.17) Similar concerns for texts with the names of the divine are found in Islam.

Within the various religious traditions, the three most frequently cited means of disposal, match the three most common means of disposing of human remains; burying, burning, and disposing in water (at sea).

“You treat the Torah like a living person. You give it the respect to return it to the earth. The clay pot will dissolve. The books will dissolve. The parchment will dissolve. All of this will go back to nature as it should.” (p.23 from www.shaimos.org/press.htm)

The one practice for disposal which was new was mentioned both within Islam and Hinduism and that is submerging the text in water until the water has washed the ink away. Once the text is gone, the volume can be disposed of as it no longer is a sacred text.

Burying texts is a common technique, often with rituals that match the burial of human remains, however, a medieval Japanese Buddhist practice involved burying new copies of their sacred scriptures in the base of mountains in an effort to preserve them.

The final chapter, “Disposing of non-disposable texts” (which is available online at http://surface.syr.edu/rel/32/ ) was a good overall assessment of the human book relationship and the increased value those books with which we have a ritualized relationship. He also moves this into the print/screen discussion. We can imagine, the author suggests, non-ritualized texts like print phonebooks being completely replaced by electronic versions, but even though it is available in multiple variations electronically, we can’t imagine the disappearance of the physical bible.

While most people who are responsible for preserving physical texts do not do this from or for particular religious motivations I don’t think understanding how various traditions handle disposing of their scared texts has nothing to say to those of us of different or no religious tradition. I think they help us identify our own very human and often ritualized relationship with texts, whether sacred or secular, and that there would be some value in thinking a little more seriously if, when, and how we dispose of these texts.