Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Relationship Between the "Real" and the Digitized

“Beyond the Cult of the Replicant: Museums and Historical Digital Objects – Traditional Concerns, New Discourses” by Fiona Cameron in Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage: A Critical Discourse. Edited by Fiona Cameron and Sarah Kenderline, Cambridge, MA : The MIT Press, 2007.

I read an interesting book chapter the other day. It was another example of reading something that was both far enough from, and close enough to the library/book context to both be different from the library experience, but also be relevant to the library experience. One of the biggest differences is the difference between the museum object and the book, and how these two objects function and derive their authority.

On a very simple, and perhaps so superficial level as to be not helpful, the value of a museum object lies in what the object is, and the value of the library object lies in what the object says. Honestly exploring the differences between the museum and library object would take many pages, and probably many books. Let’s just accept that there are differences in their functions.

Two things to note: She is writing out of/into the museum context, and when referring to “historical digital objects” she is referring to digital captures/reproductions of physical objects (she does not discuss “born-digital” objects.)

She discusses the different functions of original objects and their digital reproductions and how we approach them. “The value of the digital heritage object is derived from the viewer’s acceptance of the real object as authentic.” P. 56

She states that the meaning of objects is not simply resident within the object, but ascribed by the communities that encounter it. “The ‘real’ object’s enchantment, its aura, for example is its physical presence, but most important, it derives from ascribed social meanings.” P. 57 (This sentence seems to be missing a word or two, but it still seems to express a meaning.)

In newer “post-modern” thinking “the concept of real, original authenticity becomes a social construct, as exemplifies of western knowledge and taste, and systems of object value becomes mutable.” P. 54

Similarly, in creating digital reproductions of objects, those who have a role in this process have a role in shaping the meaning of the both the original and digital objects. “By virtue of its selection, the digital surrogate illustrates, reiterates, and passes on a set of social relations constructed for the ‘real’, while endorsing their ascribed value as the best aesthetic, historically, and technologically significant items in the collection.” P. 57

She brings in discussion of the history and role of photography as an analogue to the role of digitized objects, and points out that early understandings of photography were of the photograph simply as a pointer to, or representation of the thing photographed. Later, understandings shifted to recognizing the photograph as a distinct creative object in itself with a less certain relationship to the object photographed. Likewise, the digitized object is an entirely new object. “In creating new definitions for the digital historical object as an object in its own right separate from any referrant, and as an entirely new creative project the materiality argument can no longer be given pre-eminence. Rather, user behavior and experience becomes key defining principles which acknowledges the particular characteristics of digital medium. (Witcomb, 2007)” p. 68

“Like the analog they [digital historical objects] are cultural constructs and have the power to shape cultural identities, engage emotions, perceptions, and values, and to influence the way we think.” P. 69

She has some interesting discussion of Western society’s concepts of “original” objects as authentic and true. “Western concepts of object-centerdness, historical material authenticity, and aura play a central role in upholding this differential relationship” of the digital copy being seen as inferior to its non-digital original. P. 50

“Moreover, this focus on materiality, theorist Jonathan Crary argues is inseparable from the deployment of vision as an object source of knowledge and rational though in the nineteenth century thus leading to the subsequent repression of other more experiential forms of knowledge production.” P. 52

 “The digital historical object has been undervalued and subject to suspicion because its labor of production has been concealed and therefore bears less evidence of authorship, provenance, originality, and other commonly accepted [characteristics] attributed to analog objects. For these reasons the digital object’s materiality is not well understood.” P. 70

It would seem to me that some of the reasons the original/digital distinctions are not as strong within the library/book world are that as objects books from the last century also “bear less evidence of authorship, provenance, originality.” Unlike the often unique and hand crafted museum object, the vast majority of the books we deal with are mass produced and bear little evidence of human involvement. Little of the authenticity of a book is derived from its qualities as an object. Therefore, the issues of creating digital surrogates are often not as striking as they are for museum objects.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Preservation Lectures Online

As there are an increasing number of lectures and other presentations which are captured in video or audio and made available online I thought there might be some value to provide a single resource that provides links to many of these videos. And so I have begun with a Preservation Lecture Videography page on my blog.

At this point I'm restricting this list to lectures. There are an incredible number of short informational and instructional videos, and recordings of teaching webinars which I've chosen not to include. Also, videos of lectures related to various digital preservation topics are growing at an exponential rate. (This is not a scientific/mathematical truth, but a gut truth.)

Please let me know if you know of preservation related lectures (either in video or audio) that you think should be included.


Monday, September 2, 2013

How to get your book repaired


As hard as it is to believe, lots of books do not reside in libraries. A large number of people don’t feel that having access to books in a local public or academic library is enough – they want to own books for themselves. And, just like the books in libraries, sometimes these privately owned books fall apart.

The motivation to have a book repaired, however, seem to be different between the library and the individual. For the library, providing access to functional volumes is a core of their business. Libraries don’t want to put significantly damaged books back on their shelves, because they are putting it on the shelf to be used and providing access to books which are damaged is not great customer service. When individuals put their books on a shelf, they are not usually putting them on the shelf to be used, but putting them there to be stored and owned.

Because of these different approaches to books (and I just came up with this explanation as I was writing it so I’m not sure how valid it is) there are different motivations to why a library or an individual wants to have a damaged book repaired. For the library, providing access to books is what it does (yes, and much more) and repairing a book may be a more economical way to provide that access rather than replacing the book – though not always.


The individual’s motivation for seeking to have a book repaired tend to be much more focused on ownership and emotion. The individual wants a book repaired because that book means something to them. Most of the items people have asked me to repair, or simply to consult on, are books laden with personal and family connection: family bibles, grandmother’s journal, father’s collection, map that includes the family homestead. I remember some years back a pre-teen bringing me her copy of the first Harry Potter book with concern about the cracking sound the book made as she opened it – so she would only open the book the minimal amount needed so she could read it for fear of damaging it.

The value these individuals are looking to restore is often much less about financial value than it is emotional value. The motivations tend to be more about making sure memories are honored and live on.

What was supposed to have been simply a blog post about sources for book repair has morphed a little. Back to my more pragmatic intentions.

If you have a book that you would like to be repaired there are a variety of ways to go about finding people and companies that can do that. Here are some ideas, in no particular order.

1) Contact the preservation department or individual at a larger local library, usually academic but state and large public libraries may be able to assist as well. Some preservation departments – or the individuals working there – provide book repair and other preservation services, but they all should know of what book repair services are offered in your area. (Within mid-Michigan, Michigan State University Libraries Preservation Department maintains a list of Local Book Repair Services.)

2) Another potential source for information about local book repair services is a good local used book store. These stores, especially those that also sell move valuable rare volumes, will often make use of, or at least know about area individuals and vendors who can do book repair.

3) The American Instituted for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works maintain a Find a Conservator web resource which guides users to lists of conservators with particular specialties and in particular locales. They also provide helpful information on how to choose a conservator.

4) Yellowpages, other corporate directories, the internet. You can also search for a book repair service the same you might search for a plumber – by looking in the yellowpages or searching online.

5) Do it yourself. Doing the book repair yourself is always an option. It may not always be the best option depending on the value you place on the item. The DIY approach can be great for inexpensive functional volumes that you just want to get more use of. It would probably not be a good approach for precious family collections. There are some great resources online and in print which teach basic book repair, and many of these techniques do not require purchasing many special tools or supplies.

(Updated on Sept. 3 - thanks to Eric for an updated URL)