Friday, November 16, 2007

“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” (T. S. Eliot)

Libraries have and always will contain our nation’s heritage, the heritage of humanity, the records of its triumphs and failures, of mankind’s intellectual, scientific, and artistic achievements. They are not repositories of human endeavor alone—they are instruments of civilization. They provide tools for learning, understanding, and progress. They are a source of information, a source of knowledge, a source of wisdom, and hence, they are a source of action. They are a laboratory of human enterprise. They are a window to the future. They are a source of hope. They are a source of self-renewal. They represent the link between the solitary individual and humankind, which is our community.
—Vartan Gregorian, “A Sense of Elsewhere,” American Libraries, November 2007, 46

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Literacy and the Information Age

As literacy became widespread in a culture, the act of reading silently invited each reader to go beyond the text; in so doing, it further propelled the intellectual development of the individual reader and the culture.
—Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, quoted by Richard Cox in “The Brain and the Document,”
I had thought that the magic of the information age was that it allowed us to know more, but then I realized the magic of the information age is that it allows us to know less. It provides us with external cognitive servants—silicon memory systems, collaborative online filters, consumer preference algorithms and networked knowledge. We can burden these servants and liberate ourselves.
—David Brooks, “The Outsourced Brain,” The New York Times

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Ancient-Future Libraries

In a recent New Yorker essay, “Future Reading,” book historian Anthony Grafton makes a number of interesting and helpful observations about books and libraries in the digital age.

Grafton concludes his essay by describing the two ways that we now have to access information:

For now and for the foreseeable future, any serious reader will have to know how to travel down two very different roads simultaneously. No one should avoid the broad, smooth, and open road that leads through the screen. … If you want deeper, more local knowledge, you will have to take the narrower path … The narrow path still leads, as it must, to crowded public rooms where the sunlight gleams on varnished tables, and knowledge is embodied in millions of dusty, crumbling, smelly, irreplaceable documents and books (54).

Grafton also draws attention to the fact that libraries are returning to an “ancient model” of “accumulating large holdings and … making and disseminating copies of key texts” (51). In the ancient Near East, libraries (and archives) at Nineveh, Qumran, Caesarea, and elsewhere supported the organically related activities of collecting, reading, interpreting, creating, and disseminating texts. The support of such interrelated activities “became a deep structure of Christian scholarship, forged in late antiquity, then reproduced again and again in the Middle Ages and the early modern period” (Grafton and Megan Williams, Christianity and the Transformation of the Book: Origen, Eusebius, and the Library of Caesarea [Harvard, 2006], 18).

Soon after Grafton’s New Yorker essay appeared, the Harvard Crimson ran this story: “New Library Director Calls for E-Scholarship.” Book historian Robert Darnton, who until recently was on the faculty at Princeton with Grafton, is now the director of the Harvard University Library. Darnton is eager for libraries to embrace new models of digital dissemination: “I want to continue to strengthen Harvard’s fabulous collections in old printed material … but at the same time I want to help Harvard move into the world of digitized information.” The article highlights a project of his that would “meld the e-book and the ‘old book.’”

It is exciting to see two prominent book historians focusing their attention on the future of books and libraries (both also mention records and archives). When we digitally reformat our historical collections or build institutional repositories for new digital material, we are not doing an entirely new thing. There are historical precedents for such practices—in ancient and medieval librarianship and, in the more recent past, the historical manuscripts tradition—that show us how in the past libraries and archives supported a range of textual activities that enabled the creation, collection, and dissemination of knowledge.

Image: Cassiodorus as Ezra. Ezra Page, Codex Amiatinus, Biblioteca Laurenziana, Florence.

Link to “Future Reading”:

Link to “New Library Director Calls for E-Scholarship”:

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Problems of Mass Digitization

Like many others whose research focuses on the 19th century, I have been thrilled with the enhanced access—to discover, search, and read texts—that is facilitated through Google’s massive digitization project, Google Book Search. One quickly discovers, however, that there are serious quality issues with Google’s scans and metadata.

Included at the beginning of downloaded copies of Google’s books, is the following statement:

This is a digital copy of a book that was preserved for generations on library shelves before it was carefully scanned by Google as part of a project to make the world’s books discoverable online.

It has survived long enough for the copyright to expire and the book to enter the public domain. A public domain book is one that was never subject to copyright or whose legal copyright term has expired. Whether a book is in the public domain may vary country to country. Public domain books are our gateways to the past, representing a wealth of history, culture and knowledge that’s often difficult to discover.

Marks, notations and other marginalia present in the original volume will appear in this file - a reminder of this book’s long journey from the publisher to a library and finally to you.

A few comments: First, one would hasten to add, hopefully, that original books will still be preserved for generations on library shelves even though they have been “carefully” scanned. Secondly, given Google’s praise of the public domain, it is unfortunate that they are defining the public domain rather narrowly. Finally, it is worth adding that distorted images, images of thumbs, and other oddities resulting from digitization are reminders of these books’ quick journeys from libraries to Google.

The image above is from Google’s copy of the University of Michigan’s copy of Archibald Alexander’s The Duty of Catechetical Instruction (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Tract and Sunday School Society, 1836). The Google copy is incomplete, ending with page 14 (in the gutter, you can see part of the page that follows). Page 11 appears twice, at the beginning (before anything else) and in its proper place. Google’s metadata claims that this tract is 12 pages long.

For critiques of Google Book Search, see:

Paul Duguid, “Inheritance and Loss? A Brief Survey of Google Books,” available from:

Robert B. Townsend, “Google Books: Is It Good for History,” available from:

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Time and Textual Practices

I have been mulling over two recent posts on time, one at “Reading Archives” and another at the Long Now blog.

The first post considers how time is reflected in records—how recordkeeping can provide insights into timekeeping. (Note the date and time recorded on this post.)

The second post considers the phenomenon of “temporal chauvinism,” an uncritical adoption of a view of time that is disproportionately fixated on the present. (Note the order of the posts here—the past is epi[b]logue.)

Reading through the papers of a former college president recently, I was fascinated by his insights into a time that was characterized by new media, liberating play, and short attention spans. He was writing about the 1920s.

Links to posts:

Image: The Clockmaker, detail from a watchmaker’s advertisement, Maclean’s Magazine, 1954

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Billion-Year Record

Last week was the 30th anniversary of the launch of Voyager 1. In the New York Times, Timothy Ferris reflected on the gold-plated phonograph records that were attached to Voyager 1 and its twin, Voyager 2. Ferris writes that the “information [i.e., a collection of sounds and images of life on Earth] etched into the grooves of the records is expected to last at least one billion years.”

Near the end of his article, Ferris concludes that “the very existence of the two spacecraft and the gold records they carry suggests that there is something in the human spirit able to confront vast sweeps of space and time that we can only dimly comprehend.” Perhaps it is this confrontation with the “mind-boggling” limits of known time and space that inspired the title of this piece, “The Mix Tape of the Gods.”

Something of the divine-like ambitions of the Voyager program is present in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). This was one of the first movies I ever saw and I found it be excruciatingly boring (I believe it put me to sleep)—but the set-up is worth recalling here. A damaged voyager spacecraft is found by an alien race of machines, who believe the spacecraft’s origin and mission to be divine. They fix it up to collect information and return to god (i.e., Earth), with disastrous results (until, of course, the Enterprise shows up to save the universe). I suppose an alternative sub-title of “The Collector of the Gods” would have given too much away.

Link to the Times article:

Link to the Voyager web site (and source of image):

Friday, September 7, 2007

Supernatural Dialogues

On his blog “Reading Archives,” in the context of a discussion about the book Remembering War (Yale, 2006) Richard Cox suggests that archival research is something like a “supernatural dialogue.”

Many of the earliest texts and textual practices known to us were meant to function in a preternaturally dialogic way: gods inspired sacred texts and humans wrote for divine readers. A few of the oldest records in the collection I curate are documents that were not intended for human eyes—they were Sumerian prayers, written on cuneiform cones, which were inserted into temple walls to be read by the gods. Only millennia later, when the walls were ruins, were they read by humans.

Image: Cuneiform Dedication Cone (circa 2050 BCE)

Link to post:

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Oldest Repositories

… were for seeds. An interesting article from the New Yorker: “Sowing for Apocalypse,” on seed banks from 6750 BCE to the Doomsday vault being built today.

“Almost all the plants we use in agriculture today were domesticated before historical times.” Seed deposits contain “a record of more than ten thousand years of human experience with crops.”

Abstract available from:

Image available from:

Monday, August 20, 2007

Literary Manuscripts in the Digital Age

In an article in The Chronicle Review, “Hamlet.doc? Literature in a Digital Age,” Matthew Kirschenbaum draws attention to the information that one could, theoretically, discover about electronic records and writing practices if we could preserve digital texts, their associated metadata, and the appropriate software and hardware. Imagine if Shakespeare had had a hard drive, and that what was on it could be rendered …

In his lecture “The Enigma of Shakespeare,” Jorge Luis Borges said that Shakespeare’s contemporaries “did not seem to have had him much in view.” He was not an epic poet, a great “author”; he wrote, for the most part, plays. Not only was his work for the stage, but it belonged to the acting company for which it was written. As de Quincey explained, for Shakespeare “publication was not the printed word. Shakespeare did not write to be read, but to be performed.” Thus Shakespeare retired to his native village, literally leaving his work behind him, Elizabethan equivalent of the hard drive and all. His work had been for the moment, not posterity. “History,” says Borges, “did not exist for him.” In the end, the document that mattered most for him was Will’s will.

Kirshenbaum writes that “challenges in the realm of digital preservation … are best understood as at least as much social as technological.” But there are other challenges, older than literature, such as perspectives on cultural productions and individual recordkeeping practices.

Borges’s reflections on the enigma of Shakespeare also made it into a prose poem, “Everything and Nothing,” which concludes with information from a different sort of record:

History adds that before or after his death he found himself facing God and said: I, who have been so many men in vain, want to be one man, myself alone. From out of a whirlwind the voice of God replied: I am not, either. I dreamed the world the way you dreamed your work, my Shakespeare: one of the forms of my dreams was you, who, like me, are many and no one.

Chronicle article available from:

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Gilgamesh at the Sea

While vacationing by the sea, I read the Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh’s quest for eternal life sends him across the waters of death to meet with his father, Utnapishtim, who offers him this bit of wisdom: “There is no permanence.” Utnapishtim’s story of the Deluge, which follows, underscores his point. So Gilgamesh returns home not with eternal life but with a story, which he engraves on stone. In this way, through writing and literature, Gilgamesh achieved immortality—after being buried, with the library of Ashurbanipal, for a number of centuries.

Image: The Deluge Tablet, 7th century BCE


Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Layers of Time

Through James Michalko and Stewart Brand, I found my way to Freemon Dyson’s six time scales of survival: the individual (measured in years), the family (measured in decades), the tribe or nation (measured in centuries), the culture (measured in millennia), the species (measured in tens of millennia), and life on the planet (measured in eons).

Somewhat correlative to these time scales, Brand proposes six levels or layers of human civilization, each moving at a difference pace. Moving from the fastest layers to the slowest, these are: fashion/art, commerce, infrastructure, governance, culture, and nature. The faster layers can be more innovative; the slower layers can stabilize and make continuous progress possible (see The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility [Basic Books, 1999], 34ff.).

Michalko contends that libraries, archives, and museums operate at the “deep cultural layer … where we keep time in centuries, in millennia.” Cultural heritage institutions or “memory institutions”

collect, maintain, and provide access to the cultural record. The contents of these institutions are what permit us to reinvent, to innovate, to grow, and to progress at all the other layers of civilization. They inform us about what we know. They help us understand how we govern. They dictate and describe the nature of our infrastructure. They provide the record of our commerce and even shape the fashion and art that we create (“Libraries, Archives, and Museums: Achieving Scale and Relevance in the Digital Age,” RBM 8:1 [2007]: 76).

The End of the Trail

In 1923, the Oregon State Government declared the west end of Broadway in Seaside to be the end of the Lewis and Clark Trail. Near here was established the “last permanent camp of Lewis and Clark … for the purpose of evaporating salt at a cairn for the preservation of other food supplies for their return journey to the States.” A replica salt cairn is located nearby, the construction and situation of which was based on written and oral histories.

In 1990, a bronze statue of Lewis and Clark facing the Pacific Ocean was placed at the end of Broadway. Lewis is the figure on the right with a quill, perhaps writing about how he un-pacific he found the Pacific.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Reading about Records

In the August 6 issue of the New Yorker, there is a review essay on two books about biographies (“The Lives of Others”). The author, Louis Menand, observes that “diaries and letters are the materials with which biographies are built, generally in the belief that the “real” person is the private person, and the public person is mostly a performance” (65). The problem with this assumption, Menand notes, is that performance is not limited to the public sphere.

Menand also considers the nature of the record of the “laughable mess that is our own life”: “only a sliver of what we do and think and feel gets recorded, and the record that does exist is incomplete, or distorted, or captures states of mind that are transient.” What can such a fragmentary record reveal? What Menand claims about biographies may be applied to a record: it is “a tool for imagining another person, to be used along with other tools” (66).

An earlier article in this issue of the New Yorker, “Damn Spam,” reminds us of some of the problems with recordkeeping today. Thanks to the internet, “protocols and rules that have governed written communication for hundreds of years no longer apply” (39). The creation, integrity, and persistence of records have become much more problematic in a world in which most of the 171 billion email messages sent each day are only trying to sell something.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Solomon’s Ship

From Communication
In the Quest of the Holy Grail, to send a message to the last of his line Solomon built a ship that lasted 2,000 years. (This ingenious idea was his wife’s.) This ship, made of rot-proof wood and dressed in white silk sheeting, carried with it materials that succored his ultimate descendant, Galahad, as he approached the end of his quest. It took some divine assistance to pull off this long-distance communication plan.

The image above is from Ferris Greenslet’s The Quest of the Holy Grail: An Interpretation and a Paraphrase of the Holy Legends (Boston: Curtis & Cameron, 1902), which contains photogravure plates of Edwin Austin Abbey’s friezes in the Boston Public Library.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Digitization May Help Save the World

On last Friday’s Morning Edition, Richard Haass discussed some “softer” approaches to combating terrorism. One example he mentioned was a Carnegie Foundation project to make classical works on liberal Islamic thought freely available online. These texts, it is hoped, will influence intellectual discourse within the Islamic world.

For many of us who pursue digitization projects, the impulse to digitize has much to do with the desire to see historical materials connected with current public discourse. The current information age has a historical dimension, and the cultural products of the past can help us progress culturally, politically, socially, and economically.

NPR Interview available from:

Monday, July 23, 2007


There will be time, there will be time …
—T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
The primary purpose of this blog is to collect information related to the transformation of libraries and archives in our emerging digital age. I am particularly interested in how cultural heritage institutions continue to keep time for culture by keeping the cultural record. A number of my publications and presentations are available here.