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: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/08/27/070827fa_fact_seabrook.

Image available from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/6335899.stm.

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: http://chronicle.com/free/v53/i50/50b00801.htm.

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

Source: http://www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/t/the_flood_tablet,_relating_par.aspx

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.