Sunday, August 31, 2014

Thoughts on my walk home from work

(It takes me an hour to walk home from work. This is, as best as I can recall, a run-down of my thoughts on my walk home Friday afternoon. It might have been advisable for me to edit and improve these notes, but this is a long weekend and I’m on vacation.)

I am a librarian. I work in the world of libraries.

A large part of what libraries do is collect and provide texts to readers.

The purpose of these texts, by and large, is for readers to derive meaning in the reading of them.

Library, by and large, do not consider themselves in the “meaning” business, but in the text/info/data business, but it is important for library users to be able to derive meaning from the texts we provide them.

Text can be read from a variety of media. For a long time the overwhelmingly predominant media was the codex – aka the book.

Now, to state the absurdly obvious, texts are increasingly encountered/read in a digital environment.

Does the meaning derived from a text read from a codex differ from the meaning derived from the same text read in a digital context? I think it must.

This raises two questions: 1) to what extent is there a difference of meaning? and2) does this difference in meaning really matter?

We can deduce that the context of text delivery matters. A text delivered on a cheap paperback is different than the same text delivered on a finely bound, letter press book is different than a text delivered on a phone screen.

A question that we must once again and always ask is, What are we to preserve? And then a related question is what do we not need to preserve, or what is not worth our resources to preserve?

If texts mean different things delivered on different media do we need to preserve all those different manifestations of the text? The short answer, and I would argue correct answer is no.

Very often the value or significance of the differences in meaning from texts delivered in different media is not worth our resources. Also, the variability and fluidity of texts delivered in a digital environment make the idea of capturing the nuances of each delivery an endless quest.

Texts delivered on different media open up or expand the possible meanings of that text. In our preservation work we should strive not reduce potential meanings, but neither can we presume to preserve the text for all potential meanings.

[Other days when I walk home I think about things like ACDC songs, or the differences between Canadian and American potato chip flavors.)

Friday, August 29, 2014

And the Golden Bone Folder Award goes to...

It is time to resurrect my Golden Bone Folder Award.

The folks at Harold B. Lee Library Productions deserve this award for producing a phenomenal preservation video which will "enter-train" [their term] all who watch.

(Creating some real Golden Bone Folder Awards sounds like a fun weekend craft project..)

Saturday, August 16, 2014

This is not preservation. That is not preservation.

I occasionally follow events I’m not attending by tracking their hashtag on twitter. I’m deeply grateful for people who actively and insightfully tweet what is going on in front of them. This helps clue me in on the topics of discussion. It is interesting when several tweeters grab ahold of one particular phrase or idea.

Following the events of the Library of Congress’ Digital Preservation 2014 earlier this year one such retweeted phrase was “Storage is not preservation.”

Following the recent Society of American Archivists meeting this week one phrase which I took note of related to web archiving was “Capture is not preservation.”

Implied in these two “not-preservation” statements are that their subjects, Storage and Capture are not in and of themselves preservation. Preservation is more than just storage and capture. They are wonderfully tweetable phrases – coming easily under 140 characters and have that sense of glib truth, but defining what something isn’t, leaves me wanting. It leaves me wanting for positive assertions about preservation.

This may come as a bit of a surprise given the name of this blog, and given what I like to write about, but I want to know what preservation IS, not what it is not. This question of what is preservation was part of my motivation for the 5 Days ofPreservation event as it helped answer the question what does preservation look like, but they didn’t really get to the question of what do these acts of preservation accomplish. I think I was also trying to get at this question in my Portraits in Preservation project with my bonus question “What do you preserve and why?”

I don’t really think there is one conclusive definition to what preservation is. I expect there are many models or theories of preservation and that’s probably as it should be. 

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Reading Re-Collection

Re-Collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory by Richard Rinehart and Jon Ippolito, MIT Press, 2014.

I have realized, over time that the topic I am most interested in is preservation. This might seem an odd realization given the declarative name of this blog, and all the preservation related posts I've written. What I mean is that I am interested in the idea of preservation. My interests are less in the particulars of digital preservation or analog preservation or lighthouse preservation than in the very concept of preserving. It helps me to feed this interest when I encounter ideas of preservation that are beyond the realm of typical library talk. This is all an unnecessarily long-winded preface to me saying I stretched my mind and read this book about preserving art and stuff.

I don't typically read books about art, but mention of this volume on my twitter feed caught my eye, and a little research increased by interest. The table of contents listed three chapters with "death" in the title which is a good way to capture my attention. (After researching the book on Amazon I ordered it through my local independent bookstore.)

I found the book very engaging, accessible, insightful, and enjoyable. I really like what the authors did, or attempted to do, and appreciate their endeavors to broaden the conversation about preservation. I also found the book to be occasionally frustrating and I argued with it a lot. (The fact that I found it occasionally frustrating, but eagerly read on to the end is in fact a strong affirmation. I can easily drop a book mid-read if it annoys me.)

On its most up-front level, this book is about preserving new media, particularly digital media art. How do you preserve art that was created using computer technology that is now nearly obsolete? These new creations do pose significant technical challenges, but the technical challenges of digital preservation are not the real heart of this book. The heart of this book is really an exploration of new (or not so new) ways of conceptualizing what preservation might look like. I think the authors do an admirable job of stretching traditional understandings of both how to preserve and what we are preserving.

One of my frustrations with this book is the author's use of caricatures to argue their points, and caricatures make for weak arguments. The authors liked to contrast traditional, institution-bound, conservators, with libertarian, free-wheeling, amateurs. Using their language: "The amateur has no white gloves, [the authors HATE white gloves] lab, or a cadre of assistants" but these amazing amateurs are "acned kids on laptops in bedrooms." Even their portrayal of analog media as compared to digital media relies too heavily on glib characterizations. Some might find this makes the reading more amusing. I didn't. But this is tempered, because in other places in the book, the authors demonstrated much more nuanced understandings of roles and media.

One of my challenges/learning points with reading this book is it comes out of the art context which places a great deal of emphasis on an artifact's creator and the creator's intent.  Galleries - and archives - tend to be much more concerned about facilitating "appropriate" interpretations by providing "context" than is the library world’s tradition. I tend toward the idea that the creator/writer is part of the community of interpreters and not necessarily possessing a more privileged understanding. Having such a high view of the creator, however, will naturally shape how one approaches preservation.

There is so much stuff in this book - my copy has notes written in it all over the place - that it is hard to write a response. This book really has a lot of engaging points and ideas. It's the kind of book I would be glad to do as a chapter by chapter study in a group. [Perhaps I should learn from the archives reading group and organize such a group for this book.]

A little aside about the presence of death in this book – as it is a bit of a hobby topic of mine. As I mentioned above, the word death appearing in chapter titles caught my interest, but upon reading I quickly realized they were regarding death as a bad thing. But then they threw me a curve ball and in the chapter “Unreliable Archivists” had an engaging and nuanced discussion of death, including K├╝bler-Ross’s stages of grief. The book is also dedicated “To everyone that’d dead.”

I think the key take away from this book is the things we want to preserve – whether new media art, or old-fashioned books – are variable, and preserving them requires solutions that are equally variable. Both their "object" as performance and their ecological models are valuable additions to the conversation.

I conclude reiterating that as much as I argued with and complained about this book, it is a really valuable read and the most engaging thing I've read in a while.