Thursday, January 30, 2014

Ritualized book destruction

If you are a regular reader of this blog you probably are aware that while I’m interested in preservation, I also have more than a passing interest in the “opposite” of preservation – decay, destruction, etc. And so, it is not a bit surprising that over the course of a couple weeks I’ve found myself becoming a bit giddy at encountering two pieces about the ritualized destruction of books and other memory objects.

It is not a stretch to suggest that books often take on significant value for peoples. In the western world the intentional destruction of books is often met with deep emotional responses of anger and outrage. Books are often given the personal value of people who may have written the book, or read the book, or owned the book. Books can become associated with strong emotions – and those strong emotions are not always good, and they are not strong emotions that we always want to hold onto.

Humans of all stripes and of all religious and unreligious varieties often find meaning and value in ritual activity, whether or not they identify their activities as ritualized. We have significant rituals for recognizing births and deaths and other transitions. And our lives are filled with much smaller rituals around smaller daily tasks from things we do when we get up in the morning, how we interact with others, and other patterns of behavior.

So, given the value certain books can play in our lives, and given the value certain rituals can play in our lives, it seems only appropriate that people explore rituals of the destruction of books. Destruction – like death and other endings – often have some negative connotations, they are seldom completely pleasant, but this doesn’t mean they are not important events that need to be acknowledged and owned.

With these ideas running through my mind I was pleased to hear about two organizations who are exploring meaningful rituals of the destruction (or transformation) of personal memory objects, including books.

The first is D3 which describes itself as providing “object divestment services.” “D3 is an artist-run service specializing in helping people part with emotionally burdensome objects.” They provide a thorough process to help individuals thoughtfully, and creatively, dispose of an object which holds unwanted meaning. I’ve never arranged a funeral, but it seems like they provide some very soulful and therapeutic funeral service for you and your object. (The fact that this group plays an active role in “killing” your object kinda messes up the funeral home analogy.)

And then on the BookArts list I came across the more book specific “Deep Fried Book” program of Peace Paper Project. This program describes itself thus, “Through hand papermaking, writing, book and printmaking activities, we work together to transform significant articles of clothing into works of art that broadcast personal stories, mutual understanding and healing.” The Deep Fried Book project “invites pedestrians to batter, fry and transform their negative associations with a difficult book from their past.”

I’m pleased to see how these two organization recognize the emotional weight and value books, and other objects, can have for us. I’m also pleased at the recognition that occasionally the need exists to take an active role in destroying, transforming, releasing those objects and their roles in our lives.

We often go through meaning ritualized acts in our acquisition, use, and preservation of these books. It only makes sense to go through a meaningful ritualized act to dispose of some of them too.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Reading Personal Archiving: Preserving Our Digital Heritage

Personal Archiving: Preserving Our Digital Heritage, edited by Donald T. Hawkins, Information Today,

Personal digital archiving seems to be an increasingly popular topic. The annual conference of the same of the same is going into its 5th year with a meeting in April in Indianapolis. (I hope to attend.) The Library of Congress’ very active digital preservation division has developed many resources geared to the same topic.

And so it is not surprising that books like Personal Archiving should begin appearing. Before even getting into the both, though, I think it is worthwhile to spend a bit of time trying to understand the audience(s) that engage with this information and for whom this information – and this book – is for. It seems to me there are three audiences involved: the persons whose digital material could/should be preserved; those who want to provide those persons with the awareness and information they need to preserve their information; and those who are interested in the preserved digital material of persons. All three audiences are addressed in this book, although the latter two get most of the attention – which seems appropriate as it is the latter two groups who will most likely be this book’s predominant readers. Danielle Conklin’s chapter “Personal Archiving for Individuals and Families” is the only chapter that feels like it specifically addresses the basic questions and needs of an individual wanting to preserve their digital material. This is not a negative criticism of the book

Mike Ashenfelder of the Library of Congress has a good chapter on the Library of Congress’ efforts at providing public information. The campaign that is needed, and which they are trying to achieve is to create awareness, and once awareness is generated, to share useful information readily understandable and useful forms. It was interesting to note at the end of the chapter that they are rethinking how they do this with a desire to reach larger audiences. I would have appreciated more chapters about institutions’ efforts to engage and inform the public. Ellysa Stern Cahoy’s chapter “Faculty Members as Archivists” discussed Pennsylvania State University Libraries’ efforts at this with one segment of their community.

Sarah Kim’s chapter “Landscape of Personal Digital Archiving Activities and Research” was a particularly strong and engaging read. She outlines five kinds of values people place on documents. “These five types of values from the concept of self-reflective value, which is the significance or usefulness of documents in constructing self.” (p. 157) She also provides what at least are for me intriguing insights into the evolving place of personal archives in a social and institutional context and ideas of postcustodialism and “distributed custody context”.

I will admit to being a bit miffed, or at least feeling a bit let down by Aaron Ximm’s chapter “Active Personal Archiving and the Internet Archive.” I will acknowledge that I had some personal hopes going into this chapter. I had recently been pondering the idea of doing some personal web archiving. Essentially I was wondering if there was a service kinda like Internet Archive’s Archive-It tool, but geared for the individual. Some place where I could “curate” an archive of websites I was personally interested in. And so, going into this chapter I with this title I had some hopes that I would get the answer to my little quest. The chapter describes the work of actively archiving the internet and the successful work of the Internet Archive. Ximm then goes on to define “active personal archiving” as “the automated collection by an archive of its own contents on behalf of a specific human individual or institution by simple software agents.” (p. 206).

So he’s told us how great the Internet Archive is – and I have no argument with that – and how important “active personal archiving” is and then concludes the chapter with saying that the Internet Archive doesn't provide this service, but has the capacity to, and whoever does provide this service, should be operate out of the same noble goals as the Internet Archive. Now, I have no reason to begrudge the Internet Archive anything, but between my personal interest in such a service, and their acknowledging the importance of such a service, and their capacity to provide such a service, such a wishy washy, noncommittal ending to the chapter left me a little frustrated. (The fact that I may have been anticipating that somewhere in this chapter they were going to reveal some hidden personal archiving service that I didn’t know about says much more about my own delusions than anything else.)

I found Richard Bank’s chapter “Our Technology Heritage” to be an interesting discussion of efforts to design physical objects which operate as homes for our digital legacy. These objects were “designed with home in mind as objects that might bridge personal and digital spaces. Our hope is in designing them is that people will put them on display and that value would be seen in both their physical form and digital content.” (p. 225) Essentially their goal was to create objects which could present digital information – most often photos – but in a physical object that would feel like the kind of object you would want to keep and hand down the generations. Something to mimic a box of old photos. They came up with some interesting design ideas, but the ultimate challenge was that the digital components to these objects only have an anticipated life of less than 10 years.  But it was still an interesting experiment in using some of the emotional strengths of physical objects to facilitate preserving and preserving digital objects.

My final critique of this volume is the couple chapters devoted to “current” software and services devoted to assisting with personal digital archiving. To try to capture such a rapidly moving world in something so “slow” as a published, paper book seems to invite problems like the fact that the first service listed for assisting in archiving photos, 1000memories, had been purchased and taken out of existence by the time book went to press.

The diversity of Personal Archiving’s chapters initially felt to me like it was a bit too broad – I really was not looking to learn about mining for narrative elements in vast email collections – but I’m okay with it now. I am now more aware, and informed, of the vast context of personal digital archive related activity.

The two areas that I hope to see/read/hear more about in the future are stories of successful public awareness and information campaigns geared toward the general public, and more ideas on rethinking institutions and individuals roles and relationships to personal digital (and non-digital) archives. How can we facilitate good personal digital archiving and preservation, and possibly access, practices without necessarily owning or possessing that material.

(True confessions – my own personal digital files are still a mostly neglected mess. Benign neglect, don’t fail me now.)

Conservation and Collections Care Camp 2 - and others

The Michigan Collections Network is pleased to announce their 2nd Conservation and Collections Care Camp on March 6, 2014 at the Western Michigan University library. These events are a wonderful opportunity for those who take care of collections, and other interested folk, to share your experiences and questions via presentations and discussions.

The theme of this camp will be LARGE – working with large objects, large collections, large problems, etc. (Presentations that have no apparent relationship to the theme are also welcome.) We invite all attending to consider presenting.

Please follow the link for more information and to register:

You can view a report of our first camp.


Michigan is becoming rich with gatherings of preservation minded practitioners. For the digitally oriented there is the Regional Digital Preservation Practitioners and the Mid-Michigan Digital Practitioners (This group does not have a web presence, but you can read about their first meeting. Their next meeting is March 14 @ Grand Valley State University.)

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The economics of repair

How much would you pay to repair your well-loved hiking boots?

I was following a friend’s Facebook conversation about her hiking boots that were falling apart which she was hoping to get repaired. Her next update mentioned the potential price of the repair and that she was not willing to spend that much. I don’t know how much her boots cost, but my guess is the repair would cost more than half the price of replacement boots.

I do not have a very good understanding of the North American history of the commerce of repairing things, but my general sense is repairing household items used to be a larger part of our economy. I remember as a child going with my dad to take our old black & white tv to be repaired. I once took my now 30+ year old stereo tuner/amp to be repaired. (This tuner currently sits in a cabinet made of the wooden shell of that old black and white tv.)

The last time I recall paying to have something of mine repaired I paid a leather/fur shop to patch a hole or two in my beloved leather jacket. The repair likely cost more than the cash value of the jacket – but my emotional attachment to the jacket was quite high. The jacket has since worn beyond any reasonable sense to repair. (I don’t believe the shop that did the work is still in business.)

If, as I suspect, repairing things used to be a more significant part of our economy than it is now, I’m curious about what has caused the change. I have theories, but not a lot of data to back them up.

My main theory is the cost to create household goods has become relatively much cheaper than the cost to repair them. This is likely due in part to the mechanization of production, but probably more to the fact that most products are created in places where the human cost of production is significantly lower than North American standards. If an object is made in Bangladesh, where the labor costs are X and someone seeks to repair that object in North America, where labor costs are 10 x X then how can it make any economic sense to have something repaired. (I would also be very curious to know if repairing things is a much larger part of the economy in same low cost places where these items are manufactured?)

The secondary theory is that except for very high quality, and expensive objects, few things are built with the idea that repair would/could/should even happen. It is much easier to repair good quality metal that has been riveted or bolted, than to repair plastic moldings that are attached via plastic connectors. Poorly made things are really hard to repair.

Repairing books

As far as I can tell, it rarely makes much economic sense to repair most books. Books are so relatively inexpensive and so likely to be poorly made that unless the person doing the repair charges an unsustainably low amount there is no way this transaction makes any sense.

Now there are those books of significant financial value, but even when these are repaired it is my understanding that the increase in value to the book is seldom more than the expense of the repair. (Two comments: 1) like many of the things said in this post, I don’t know that this assertion is absolutely accurate, it is more of a somewhat informed impression I have; and 2) Yes, yes, valuable books aren’t “repaired” they are “conserved” or “restored” or some such activity for which you can charge more than for simple repair.)

And yet people continue to seek our individuals to repair their books. When they find such a person and present their repair request one of three results is likely: 1) they gasp at the cost for such a service and leave with book untouched; 2) the person providing the repair service offers to do the work at a rate that does not support a livelihood; or 3) they agree to pay the reasonable rate for the repair, because they value the book for reasons other than economic.

A lot of book repair is just not driven by economic values. I think a lot of repair is driven by emotional value – which explains in part the high volume of family bible repair.

I wonder if this emphasis on emotional value is the case the case for most other repair activities in today’s North American economy? Is most repair work driven by values other than economic, and most likely emotional? What are the other things we value so highly as to pay to repair?

I don’t know. I’m just sitting in a hotel room waiting out a winter storm and letting my mind – and typing hands – wander.