Wednesday, December 24, 2008

More on the End of the Book

From Communication

Books figure prominently in apocalyptic literature as metaphors for and means of revelation. These days, latter or not, books are the subject of apocalyptic musings. In future apocalypses, angels may have to produce e-book readers or cell-phones.
See, for example, “End of the book?”:
The book remains a techno-wonder that not even the Kindle has surpassed. But it's a wonder in a very crowded entertainment universe and a world plunging into the worst of times. The chain bookstore, the bloated publishing house and the specific corporate way of publishing that goes with them are indeed in peril. This may no longer be their time. As for the time of the book, it does seem to be shortening as well.
A longer version of this article, titled “The Axe, the Book, and the Ad,” is available from: Here is another version of the section quoted above:
The book remains a techno-wonder that not even the Kindle has yet surpassed. But it's a wonder in a very crowded entertainment universe in which habits, reading and otherwise, are changing fast. Add to that a world plunging into the worst of times and you have a combustible combination. The chain bookstore, the bloated publishing house, and the specific corporate way of publishing that goes with them are indeed in peril. This may no longer be their time. As for the time of the book, add on another century if you want, but in our ever restless universe it does seem to be shortening.
Image: Engraving from Biblia Sacra (Venetiis [Venice], apud haeredem Damiani Zenari, MDCV [1605]). This is a representation of the opening scene in Revelation 10:

And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire: And he had in his hand a little book open: and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth, And cried with a loud voice, as when a lion roareth: and when he had cried, seven thunders uttered their voices. And when the seven thunders had uttered their voices, I was about to write: and I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Seal up those things which the seven thunders uttered, and write them not. And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, And sware by him that liveth for ever and ever, who created heaven, and the things that therein are, and the earth, and the things that therein are, and the sea, and the things which are therein, that there should be time no longer (KJV).

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Lincoln-Obama Bible

See: “Obama to Take Oath on Same Bible as Lincoln.”

The Library of Congress bibliographic record for this Bible is available from:

Monday, December 22, 2008

A New Literary Form and Document: The Cell-Phone Novel

There is an article in The New Yorker, “I ♥ Novels,” about the popularity of cell-phone novels in Japan. In addition to literary works, these stories have a documentary function:

The stories are like folktales, perhaps not literally true but full of telling ethnographic detail. “I suppose you can say keitai shosetsu are a source of data or information—the way they use words, how they speak, how they depict scenes,” Kensuke Suzuki, a sociologist, told me. “We need these stories so we can learn how young women in Japan commonly feel.”

These works are shaped by the technologies and networks they use. Some, built up through social networks, are published as printed books; but the form of these paper books is influenced by the original digital form of the work.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Athena Checking Her Mail

painted in silhouette on a black vase, [Athena] … stands at ease, a stylus poised in one hand, a writing tablet open like a laptop in the other. The goddess of wisdom is checking her mail, and patiently answering each plea and complaint.
—From “The Glory That Was Greece from a Female Perspective,” a review of the exhibition “Worshiping Women: Ritual and Reality in Classical Athens” at the Onassis Cultural Center.

Image: Detail from a photograph of a neck amphora, circa 460 BC, available from:

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Fate of the Digital Record

The Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access, a group launched last year with support from the National Sciences Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Library of Congress, the Joint Information Systems Committee, the National Archives and Records Administration, and the Council on Library and Information Resources, has released an interim report on its work. The report, Sustaining the Digital Investment: Issues and Challenges of Economically Sustainable Digital Preservation, is available from:

The preface of the report begins with a discussion of “a stable, agreed-upon record,” which consists of the documentation and communications of the methods, evidence, findings, and implications of human inquiry. This record enables advances in research and practice over time. “The practical outcomes of this long historical process and their contributions to the public good are obvious in fields from epidemiology to entertainment.”

“The notion of the record was never confined to explicit publication,” the report points out, and in the digital age “information technologies have revolutionized notions of the record, evidence and analysis.” Materials that are added to the record today “vary in their level of formality and anticipated audience, but the central tendency is obvious: there is more and more heterogeneous digital information of importance to society and in the public good.”

The traditional recordkeeping systems used “in the centuries of analog … are inadequate for the digital age.” Because of the pace of technological change, the proliferation of data and information, and the expanding use of the record, “preserving data for use tomorrow requires decision today” (4). There are significant technical issues, but the greater challenges are organizational and economic. The issue of sustainability comes down to two questions: “How much does it cost? and Who should pay?” (5).

This report is the first of two that the task force will publish. The purpose of this interim report

is to frame the general contours of economically sustainable digital preservation as a topic of both practical importance and intellectual interest. To this end, we have explored and synthesized past studies and analyses pertaining to the economics of digital preservation, the perspectives of domain leaders and subject experts in the field, and discussions within the Task Force. The findings of this report will serve as a basis for the Task Force’s work over the coming year; it should also contribute to the broader discussion of economic issues regarding digital preservation and access.

The task force's second and final report, to be published at the end of 2009, “will identify and analyze a range of economic models suitable for achieving economically sustainable digital preservation activities” (69).

From the executive summary of the interim report:

During 2008, as the Task Force heard testimony from a broad spectrum of institutions and enterprises with deep experience in digital access and preservation, two things became clear: First, the problem is urgent. Access to data tomorrow requires decisions concerning preservation today. Imagine future biological research without a long-term strategy to preserve the Protein Data Bank (PDB), a digital collection that drives new insights into human systems and drug therapies for disease, and represents an investment of 100 billion dollars in research funding over the last 37 years. Decisions about the future of the PDB and other digital reference collections -- how they will be migrated to future information technologies without interruption, what kind of infrastructure will protect their digital content against damage and loss of data, and how such efforts will be supported -- must be made now to drive future innovation.

Second, the difficulty in identifying appropriate economic models is not just a matter of finding funding or setting a price. In many institutions and enterprises, systemic challenges create barriers for sustainable digital access and preservation.

These barriers include:
  • Inadequacy of funding models to address long-term access and preservation needs. Funding models for efforts that incorporate digital access and preservation are often not persistent …
  • Confusion and/or lack of alignment between stakeholders, roles, and responsibilities with respect to digital access and preservation. … costs are not necessarily shouldered by those who enjoy the benefits …”
  • Inadequate institutional, enterprise, and/or community incentives to support the collaboration needed to reinforce sustainable economic models. ... there are few incentives to develop the persistent collaborations and uniform approaches needed to support access and preservation efforts over the long-term.”
  • Complacency that current practices are good enough. … There is general agreement that leadership and competitiveness, if not institutional survival, in the information age depends on the persistent availability of digital information, making preservation of that information an urgent priority. Yet that urgency is often not translated or institutionalized into individual or group behaviors. …”
  • Fear that digital access and preservation is too big to take on. … digital preservation is a big problem, incorporating technical, economic, regulatory, policy, social, and other aspects. But it is not insurmountable. …”

Emphases in bold and italics are in the original report.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

From People of the Book to People of the Screen

Christine Rosen has an interesting essay in The New Atlantis titled “People of the Screen.” It is about old (i.e., print) and new (i.e., digital) literacies and ends with this:

Literacy, the most empowering achievement of our civilization, is to be replaced by a vague and ill-defined screen savvy. The paper book, the tool that built modernity, is to be phased out in favor of fractured, unfixed information. All in the name of progress.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Contemporary Curiosities

Thanks to a post at ACRLog, I discovered the curiously titled “Browse the Artifacts of Geek History in Jay Walker's Library”—which is really about “a library … about human imagination”—available from: It is a wonderful contemporary cabinet of curiosities.

The ACRLog post, “A Night at the Museum,” considers whether library collections could include more than textual documents. Often, they do. It is an ancient idea (recall the Museum at Alexandria).

Image: The Stuart Napoleon Room, Penrose Library, Whitman College.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Future Access to Current Models of Digital Scholarship

From an ARL-Ithaka report, Current Models of Digital Scholarly Communication, available from:

Although preservation was not the subject of this study, it seems clear that librarians can initiate and contribute to conversations about the long-term preservation of new digital works. Preservation did not seem to be a top-of-mind concern for many of the smaller projects we investigated, and proactive library steps may be valuable in raising and addressing this unrecognized need (35).

Monday, November 24, 2008

For the Online Record, Against the Day

This must be recorded online: In 1869, Thomas Pynchon gave Myron Eells a specimen of Iceland Spar for Whitman Seminary.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

To Collect is to Sustain a Life

In Collections of Nothing (Chicago, 2008), William Davies King explores the compulsion to collect. “This widely shared impulse,” King claims, is rooted in a personally or collectively felt wound. “Collecting may not be the most direct means of healing these wounds, but it serves well enough. It finds order in things, virtue in preservation, knowledge in obscurity, and above all it discovers and creates value” (7). Moreover, collecting “is a way of linking past, present, and future” (27); the collector transcends time, finds a more comprehensive and more coherent narrative, and builds a kind of “monument” against death (38). “Collecting,” King writes, “is a way of coming to terms with the strangeness of the world” (76).

Some collages by King may be viewed at:

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Blog Analysis

At there is a post about “blog analysis tools.” Here are the tools and the results for this blog:

Gender: "We think is written by a man (82%)."

Personality type: "The analysis indicates that the author of is of the type: INTP - The Thinkers"


blog readability test

(I do quote geniuses here often.)


My blog is worth $564.54.
How much is your blog worth?

Friday, November 14, 2008

No Excitement on Wall Street

I’m busy writing offline, but I just came across a diary entry, written on October 18, 1870, that connects with the present (and recordkeeping):

Went … into the exchange building in Wall st. There is no excitement only men writing in little books. Deep waters are still.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Gloves Off

There is a nice, brief piece in The New York Times about exposing undergraduates to rare book (something I do regularly).

Here is a snippet:

[Robert] Darnton asks his students to “diagnose the symptoms” of a book—bits of petticoat in rag-based pages, symbols stamped in the binding, scribblings in the margins, called marginalia. By examining a book’s physical attributes, he says, “you can enter a world we have lost and understand it as it was.”
—“Handle This Book!” available from:

An interesting slideshow, “The Past Between Two Covers,” accompanies the article online:

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Historical Dimension of Crisis

Present crises turn some toward the past, which may offer precedents and perspective.

The current financial crisis has caused many to recall the S&L debacle of the 1980s and the Great Depression that followed the stock market crash in 1929. Others have looked back farther, to 1873-74, 1836, and even the 15th century.

I have a hard time pulling myself away from my personal history with the financial sector:

Speaking of economic history, here is an interesting review of a new book on religion and the rise of free market capitalism in 19th-century America: “Stewards of Capitalism,” available from:

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Professor in Chief

The title of this post is taken from a headline in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “America Gets a Professor in Chief,” available from:

For more on Obama in academia, see the piece that appeared in the September 21, 2008, issue of The New York Times Magazine (the College Issue): “Case Study: What Barack Obama’s teaching methods tell us about the kind of president he might make,” available from

From Inside Higher Ed: “How do academics respond to a unique, precedent-shattering election? Insist it was predicted by entirely ordinary models.” More:

I was in a rather a-temporal place at this historic moment.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Moving Closer to Where History Is Made

The Tower and the Cloud (EDUCAUSE, 2008, available from:, examines the impact of information technology (the “cloud”) on higher education (the “tower”).

In a chapter titled “The Tower, the Cloud, and Posterity” (available from:, Richard N. Katz and Paul B. Gandel write:

we must move closer to where history is being made. This is a reintegration, for the librarian and archivist have long been associated with those creating the shared memories. … In an era of superabundance, those who wish to preserve the knowledge must now return to the wellsprings. … The values we share and the standards that we must promote must be instantiated when and where the future historical record is being created and in the culture of those technology providers whose products are reshaping the landscape of shared human memory. The librarian and archivist must not simply be part of this new “cloud” of digital information artifacts. They must take a leadership role in guiding its policies and practices (187).

Monday, October 27, 2008

The New Special Collections

The November/December 2008 issue of EDUCAUSE Review is available from:

What roles do libraries have within the cyberinfrastructure that supports e-research and e-scholarship? Data collection, management, and curation. Christine Borgman writes: “Data may become the ‘new special collections’ for libraries” (see

The results of e-research and e-scholarship, Clifford Lynch writes, need to be “available to other scholars today, tomorrow, and in the distant future”:

One of the essential campus challenges here is to create a support organization that can reach out to all scholars on campus early in the data lifecycle with assistance in planning for data management and curation/preservation strategies; this service will need to involve information technologists, librarians and archivists, and disciplinary experts, as well as maintain close relationships with the Office of Contracts and Grants and the Chief Research Officer, among others. In addition, the campus must be prepared to take on institutional responsibility for long-term curation of data at the appropriate point in the lifecycle and must develop organizational capabilities to do this (most likely led by the campus library). (See

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Cabinets of Curiosities

From Communication

The proliferation of knowledge, following the Renaissance, and of books, after the arrival of Gutenberg’s printing press, fueled heroic attempts to capture and organize the world’s information. (Sound familiar?)
One form of these early modern endeavors was the cabinet of curiosities, which could include manuscripts, books, historical artifacts, art, natural specimens, mechanical objects, and other items.

Like most serious individual and institutional efforts to collect, these cabinets were created to bring together and preserve fragmentary and fleeting objects for scholarly, aesthetic, and other motivations.  In the preface to his richly illustrated book Cabinets of Curiosities (Thames & Hudson, 2002), Patrick Mauriès describes collectors’ efforts as attempts “to compress the contents of an entire library into a single volume” and as acts of “defying time” (7).  Cabinets, in design and function, sought to unify and comprehend an increasingly diverse and complex world: 
through the revelations of hidden connections invisible to the uninitiated, and through the discovery of an essential affinity between objects far removed from each other in geographical origin and in nature, collectors offered their visitors a glimpse of the secret that lay at the heart of all things: that reality is all one. …
Behind the mystery of each object—unique, fascinating and marvelous—there loomed the shadow of an ancient body of learning, a distant revelation of which the secret had been lost, and which in order to be revealed once more awaited only the meticulous, impassioned gaze of the collector (34-35). 
What was revealed, however, was the impossibility of establishing comprehensive correspondences between objects in a such a finite space; and cabinets of curiosities became more focused—on a specific time (e.g., antiquity), place (e.g., ethnography), subject (e.g., alchemy), or object (e.g., automata)—or collections of eclectic remnants. 

The cabinet of John (d. 1638) and John Tradescant (1608-1662), which was presented to Elias Ashmole (1617-1692), who presented it to Oxford University, was known as “The Ark”: 
With the opening of its doors on 24th May 1683, the Ashmolean Museum provided a setting in which the private collection emerged into the public domain. Even the use of the term 'Museum' was a novelty in English: a few years later the 'New World of Words' (1706) defined it as 'a Study, or Library; also a College, or Publick Place for the Resort of Learned Men', with a specific entry for 'Ashmole's Museum', described as 'a neat Building in the City of Oxford.'
—“The Historical Development of the Ashmolean Museum,” available from: 
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Mauriès argues, “differences became more important than correspondences” (185).  As categorization and inquiry became more specialized, collections were broken up and reallocated to libraries, archives, and museums—institutions that were also becoming more distinct and specialized.

Image: Engraving of Ferrante Imperato's cabinet of curiosities, from his Dell'Historia naturale (Naples, 1599)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

What is Truth?

“On Wikipedia, truth is received truth: the consensus view of a subject.” See “Wikipedia and the Meaning of Truth: Why the online encyclopedia's epistemology should worry those who care about traditional notions of accuracy.” Available from:

Looking Forward and Backward at Student Newspapers

See “Going Digital”: A student call for student newspapers to go digital “in every sense of the word.” Available from:

The writer concludes: “The digital age is a scary time to be a college journalist, and an even scarier time to be a paper-loving history major.” And the scariest time to be a college archivist.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


“Its truths are provisional, and its ethos collective and messy. Yet the interaction it enables between writer and reader is unprecedented, visceral, and sometimes brutal.” More:

Saturday, October 18, 2008


A few days ago I saw a presentation on the MetaArchive, a collaborative approach to digital preservation. Here is the arresting statement on the project's web page:

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

There’s an Elephant in the Library

HathiTrust: A Shared Digital Repository:

From the Chronicle of Higher Education:

"Google won't be around forever," said John P. Wilkin, an associate university librarian for the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and executive director of HathiTrust. "This is a commitment to the permanence of the materials," he said, noting that libraries have been around longer than any technology company has. "We've been doing this for a couple of hundred years, and we intend to continue doing it."


Press releases from the HathiTrust, Indiana University, and the University of Michigan.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


We do love our acronyms …

An RLG program group working on convergence issues among libraries, archives, and museums (LAMs) has published a report summarizing a year-long investigation of LAMs in a campus environment. The report, Beyond the Silos of LAMs: Collaborations among Libraries, Archives, and Museums, is available from:

The report places collaboration activities on a continuum: beginning with contact and dialogue; proceeding through informal cooperation, formal coordination, and collaboration—the point of “shared creation”; and ending with convergence, at which point a common function is assumed rather than acknowledged (10-12).

What emerges in this report is a vision of a shared information environment with unified planning, development, discovery, and technical infrastructure.

The report concludes with this:

LAMs might consider the advice of one workshop participant who felt it was time “to start focusing energies on making rare and unique materials a valuable part of the information landscape.” While the inclination expressed by campus-based LAMs was to do so by focusing on delivery and access through their individual Web sites, current patterns of user access and engagement increasingly take place at a broader network level. Users accustomed to using the Internet for the majority of their information needs will soon stop thinking about resources that are not indexed by Google and other search engines. Web analytics show where the users are and LAMs need to respond. This very real requirement may motivate cross-domain collaborations aimed at increased access to cultural heritage collections (34-35).

Monday, October 6, 2008

The Bible as an Archives

The word “bible” is derived from the Greek word “biblos,” which refers to the inner bark of the papyrus plant used for writing material in the ancient world. By implication, biblos also refers to a sheet or scroll of writing and is often translated as “scroll” or “book.” (Book, in its earliest sense, probably refers to writing material as well: the word is thought to be connected with the beech-tree, from which beechen tablets were made.) The Bible was first, in both Greek and Latin, Biblia—a collection of books, first in the form of scrolls and later in the form of codices.

Karel van der Toorn, in Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible (Harvard, 2007), prefers to avoid the word book to describe the literary productions of the ancient Near East: “There were documents, literary compilations, myths, collections of prayers, ritual prescriptions, chronicles, and the like.” And the Bible became a useful collection of such things: “The Bible is a repository of tradition, accumulated over time, that was preserved and studied by a small body of specialists” (5).

Rather than view the Bible as a library, van der Toorn argues that the Bible is more akin to an archives: “A biblical book is often like a box containing heterogeneous materials brought together on the assumption of common authorship, subject matter, or chronology” (15).

Of course this distinction depends on rather modern conceptions of libraries and archives. …

Below: Jerome at work on the Vulgate (detail from the Biblia Sacra title page above)

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Future of Digital History

A fascinating exchange, “The Promise of Digital History,” appears in the September 2008 issue of the Journal of American History. For those with a subscription, it is available from:

At the beginning, this “working definition” of digital history is provided by William G. Thomas III:

Digital history is an approach to examining and representing the past that works with the new communication technologies of the computer, the Internet network, and software systems. On one level, digital history is an open arena of scholarly production and communication, encompassing the development of new course materials and scholarly data collections. On another, it is a methodological approach framed by the hypertextual power of these technologies to make, define, query, and annotate associations in the human record of the past. To do digital history, then, is to create a framework, an ontology, through the technology for people to experience, read, and follow an argument about a historical problem.

At one point, the question is asked: “What institutional resources are needed to sustain digital history?” Surprisingly, digital preservation is not mentioned, although one participant, while answering another question, states:

The apparatus I developed to collect information took on a life of its own. It has required a great deal of care and feeding to keep it going, and its ultimate fate remains to be determined. Keeping it alive (technically viable) will require renewed investment in software and skills that I'm not sure is the best use of my time and resources. But if I let my database sit unused for five or ten years, odds are it (unlike a box of note cards) will be unusable.

Concerning the future of the historical record, Daniel Cohen contends: “It is now quite clear that historians will have to grapple with abundance, not scarcity.” While abundance does seem to characterize our present digital information age, there are many unanswered questions about the long-term sustainability of digital materials.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The NIH Public Access Policy and Preservation

From Cornell University Library’s letter to its Congressional representative, in support of the NIH Public Access Policy:

From the perspective of the Library, the Policy addresses one of our major concerns: the long-term preservation of research results published in electronic form. A decade’s worth of research by Cornell Library staff has demonstrated the fragility of most electronic publishing schemes and the difficulty faced by libraries in meeting their traditional role as preservation repositories for published literature. Deposit in PubMed Central ensures that the research results will be preserved in a state-of-the-art digital repository.

The letter is available from:

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Technology and Teleology

Question: “Is Google Making Us Stupid?

An answer: “Technology Doesn’t Dumb Us Down. It Frees Our Minds

Preserving the Category of Time

To see what can happen when time is lost online, see this recent post at ACRLog, which analyzes an incident in which an archived newspaper article became new news.


A few days ago I attended a research presentation about attempts to virtually unroll and read the ancient scrolls found at Herculaneum using proton-induced X-ray emission and a few other techniques I do not fully understand.

I soon found myself thinking about cryogenics or, more precisely, cryopreservation—i.e., the process of freezing humans, animals, or biological materials until they can be revived, fixed, or used. Initial attempts to open the Herculaneum scrolls were disastrous: they were torn, sliced, scraped, and dissolved until an 18th-century Vatican conservator was called in. If the technologies currently available to us do not enable us to read the carbonized scrolls that have not been destroyed already, then perhaps we should put the scrolls on ice and wait for another 250 years.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Thoughts on Teaching

The September 21, 2008, issue of The New York Times Magazine, the College Issue, focuses on teaching. Especially good is the lead piece by Mark Edmundson, “Geek Lessons.” Here are a few quotes:

Why are good teachers strange, uncool, offbeat? Because really good teaching is about not seeing the world the way that everyone else does.

Good teachers know that now, in what’s called the civilized world, the great enemy of knowledge isn’t ignorance, though ignorance will do in a pinch. The great enemy of knowledge is knowingness.

… a college education is about more than acquiring negotiable skills and knowledge. It’s also about figuring out who you are and what you bring to the world.

The issue (and more) is available from:

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Reading Online?

How much is read online? Little, apparently. See Mark Bauerlein, “Online Literacy Is a Lesser Kind: Slow Reading Counterbalances Web Skimming,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 19, 2008, available from:

Below: An illustration of the “F” pattern of reading described in the article.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Dark City

This last weekend I watched the director’s cut of Dark City—“a shadowy sci-fi masterpiece,” according to the blurb on the Netflix folder. I didn’t remember the original well enough to notice the difference(s), but this time I was much more interested in how the movie plays with the notions of memory and reality. But it only plays with them. Still, documents have a small role—and artifacts a large one—and there is a character named Mr. Book.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Libraries in Fashion …

… if not in form: “It's Not Because of Books; They're 'Memory Rooms' or TV-Free Private Spaces.” More:

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Way to Run a Culture

Here is Stewart Brand telling the story of the 500-year plan to replace the oak beams in the dining hall at New College, Oxford:

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Curation in the Mission

The first sentence of the University of Edinburgh's strategic plan reads:

The mission of our University is the creation, dissemination and curation of knowledge.

Available from:

Via Digital Curation Blog:

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Marilyn’s Papers

At Frank Sinatra’s suggestion, Marilyn Monroe kept her life inside two filing cabinets … This secret trove would remain virtually unknown to the world for more than four decades …

See “The Marilyn Files,” available from:; and “The Things She Left Behind,” available from: A video introduction to the contents of this archive is available from:

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Dead Sea Scrolls Online

From Communication
In a crowded laboratory painted in gray and cooled like a cave, half a dozen specialists embarked this week on a historic undertaking: digitally photographing every one of the thousands of fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls with the aim of making the entire file — among the most sought-after and examined documents on earth — available to all on the Internet.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Libraries and Futures

The library is, of course, the central laboratory of the institution. It is more important than any other part of the equipment. It is the heart of the institution, sending its life-blood into all different departments.
—Stephen B. L. Penrose, Whitman College President, 1923
The concept of the modern American library, most concretely manifested in prominent buildings in the centers of our cities and college campuses, began to take form during the latter half of the 19th century. This conception of the library was principally concerned with the products of print culture, but this concern was never absolute—a fact evidenced by the collections of photographs, audio-visual materials, and other special collections that came into libraries of all types long before computers and electronic resources became ubiquitous. Today, as the computer screen is quickly replacing the book as our primary means of—and our metaphor for— accessing information, there is much talk about how the proliferation of networked digital resources is causing a radical transformation of the concept of the library.

One recent report on this topic is Ithaka’s 2006 Studies of Key Stakeholders in the Digital Transformation in Higher Education, available from: This report examines perceptions of three “roles” of the library—purchaser, archive, and gateway—which are explained in a footnote:

The purchaser role was described in the survey by the statement “the library pays for resources I need, from academic journals to books to electronic databases,” the archive role by “the library serves as a repository of resources—in other words, it archives, preserves, and keeps track of resources,” and the gateway role by “the library is a starting point or ‘gateway’ for locating information for my research” (5).

The most highly rated role is that of library as purchaser, and the role of library as archive is “also uniformly high and has remained static over time.” But “the importance of the role of the library as a gateway for locating information … has fallen over time” (5).

This report does much to highlight the confusion that surrounds contemporary conceptions of the modern library. The report itself uses the word “library” in a few different ways. In some places, it uses the word to refer to a physical place. It states: “scientists are particularly uninterested in paper journals, and prefer to do their research online and away from the library” (13); and the study used this survey question: “I often find using the library to be difficult and time consuming—I’d much rather be able to get the information I need from a computer in my office or home” (16). But elsewhere, the report makes it clear that libraries pay for electronic resources and make them remotely available through its infrastructure.

Among its recommendations is this statement:

An important lesson is that the library is in many ways falling off the radar screens of faculty. Although scholars report general respect for libraries and librarians, the library is increasingly disintermediated from their actual research process. Many researchers circumvent the library in doing their research, preferring to access resources directly. Researchers no longer use the library as a gateway to information, and no longer feel a significant dependence on the library in their research process. Although the library does play essential roles in this process, activities like paying for the resources used are largely invisible to faculty. In short, although librarians may still be providing significant value to their constituency, the value of their brand is decreasing (30).

The report concludes with this:

This period of transition poses serious questions about the future roles of the library. Information—the historic province of the library—is the focus of more attention than ever before, and yet the profile and relevance of the library is in decline. There are a number of possible futures for the academic library, and strategic thought and change is needed to ensure that we move into a world in which the library continues to play an important role in the intellectual life of the campus. The library exists to serve the needs of its campus; a clear understanding of these needs will allow the library to maximize its value to its constituency, both improving its own stature locally as well as facilitating scholarship, teaching, and learning among its community (33).

Another recent report, CLIR’s No Brief Candle: Reconceiving Research Libraries for the 21st Century, is available from: This vision presented in this report builds on tradition and looks for opportunities for innovation:

The library’s traditional position at the center of campus reflects its function as a crossroads for intellectual activity. Although students, teachers, and researchers increasingly obtain information electronically, the library retains that time-honored position. And in fact, the library’s role has become more compelling, given that many of the current challenges in scholarly communication stem from the need to resolve cross-discipline issues in sharing digital resources. Libraries are uniquely situated to work at the nexus of disciplines (5).

The research library of the future includes continuing core functions:

These roles include preserving, with an emphasis on resolving the challenges of digital preservation and conservation; maintaining special collections and repositories; curation; and teaching research and information-seeking skills. Many believe that these traditional roles have become even more important as the economics of information have changed (8).

But new scholarly methodologies and forms of communication, combined with changes in higher education, mean that there will be some discontinuity between past and future manifestations of libraries. Indeed, the report claims that “the library of the 21st century will be more of an abstraction than a traditional presence” (8).

Among the recommendations here is the call for more collaboration, both on campus and through consortia. Libraries (and not only research libraries) serve a local community, but they are also part of a larger cultural infrastructure. For example, in an academic context a library must “be aligned with the core mission of research and education at the institutional level” (11). But as the library serves its local population—Paul Courant argues that an academic library’s “signal contribution to undergraduate education is the teaching of scholarly methods” (22)—it collects, creates, and curates resources that benefit from and benefit what Abby Smith calls a “transnational research cyberinfrastructure” (18).

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

In Search of Lost Time and Books …

… from the library of the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum. See “In Search of Western Civilisation's Lost Classics,” available from:,25197,24096948-25132,00.html.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

More on the Two Roads: Special Collections On- and Offline

Papers and presentations from OCLC’s Digitization and the Humanities Symposium are available from: A summary document, “The Impact of Digitizing Special Collections on Teaching and Scholarship: Reflections on a Symposium about Digitization and the Humanities,” is available from:

The metaphor is from Grafton’s New Yorker essay, “Future Reading.”

Monday, August 4, 2008

In the End Will Be the Word

The final defeat of time by information would be to create a universe in which meaningful information is embedded in its principles of existence. This is not a new idea. This is a very old scriptural idea. “In the beginning was the WORD.”
—Bruce Sterling, quoted here:

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Evolving Public Library

In a previous post, “Borrowed Time?,” I commented on some of the continuities and discontinuities that have characterized the development of American public libraries. A project I am working on has caused me to think more about how public libraries have and have not changed over time.

Most of us have a relatively fixed image of what a public library is. Often this is an imprint from our childhood, or from a time when a great need was met (or perhaps not). That image can inform our perceptions of what a public library has been, is, and should be. But we need more than a single, fixed image to understand an institution that is both historic and dynamic.

My earliest impressions of a public library could have been my last. The public library to which I was exposed as a child was dreadful: the facility was an uninspiring brick box (this was in the 1970s), the collection was old and weak, and the librarian I remember best spent much of her time fiddling with a film projector so that a small group of children could watch some forgettable film.

But later in life, after hiding out in academic libraries for some time, I began to use and value greatly the public libraries that I found in the various cities I lived in and visited. My use of public libraries is varied: I might explore books or periodicals; check out a new novel or DVD; get some books, videos, audio recordings, or video games for my children; ask for some kind of help; use some of the library’s unique resources for research (every library I have ever visited has unique resources); meet others or attend a community event; or just use the wireless network when I need an alternative place to get some work done. The bleak images from my childhood have been augmented by a range of metaphors that now inform my understanding of what a public library is—I view it as a museum, a school, a workplace, a community center, and even a mall.

In the beginning, American public libraries were predominately linked with print culture—i.e., they collected and facilitated access to printed books and periodicals. This began to change in the mid 20th century, when many public libraries began building collections of new communication media such as records and films. While many observers may consider the recent changes in public libraries to be revolutionary, what has happened over the last ten years is better described as evolutionary: public libraries are continuing to adapt to their environments.

The risk is over-adaptation. Imagine if, in the 1950s, libraries had spent more money on vinyl records than on books; or if, in the 1970s, libraries had focused too much on providing access to 16mm films.

For a recent article on this topic, see: “Libraries Adapted to Digital Age”:

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Print Culture in an Early Pacific Northwestern Town

The above advertisement, from the April 9, 1864, edition of the Washington Statesman, provides an interesting glimpse of print culture in the city of Walla Walla when it was a supply center for miners. When vigilantes weren’t busy stringing up horse thieves, they (and perhaps the thieves who were not strung up) could visit their local bookstore and choose from a variety of books and periodicals. They (and others) could also pick up stationery supplies, tissue and sand paper, playing cards, violin strings, pocket knives, “and in fact everything usually found in a Book Store.”

Below is an image of the store, from a map published in 1866.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Great Library of Advertising

In a recent article titled “Good and Evil in the Garden of Digitization,” there are a number of interesting observations about Google Book Search and fair use.

Here is one statement that I thought deserved more attention:

The Google project to copy, digitize, and render documents to the world in snippets, if copyrighted, or full-text, if public domain, is the most recent manifestation of a long-held desire to centralize knowledge.

The author quotes from an article that appeared earlier this year in the New Yorker, “The Search Party,” and points out that it concluded with this quote from Google’s C.E.O. Eric Schmidt: “What kills a company is not competition but arrogance. We control our fate.” (The second sentence in that quote might be considered a bit arrogant, but never mind.) Another significant statement made by Schmidt in the New Yorker article was this: “We are in the advertising business.”

Now what would the Ptolemies have said?

There is an exchange on Google, digitization, and the public good here, in response to Darnton’s recent New York Review of Books essay “The Library in the New Age.”

Link to “Good and Evil in the Garden of Digitization”:

Link to “The Search Party”:

Friday, July 25, 2008

Out of Date Records?

Here is a chilling line I came across while researching the history of our local public library: “all old records that were out of date were approved to be burned.” (This was during the Great Depression, at which time library administrators were dealing with an over-crowded Carnegie library building.) And thus I came to understand why there is a lacuna in the early record of the institution.

Earlier in the century, the library had a policy of burning books that had been used by families during “a period of contagion.”

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Books and the Frontier

In a small bookstore in a small town, I recently found this little pamphlet: The Frontier and American Culture by Ray Allen Billington (California Library Association, 1965).

Here is the concluding paragraph, which summarizes Billington’s thesis:

The pioneers did not want change; the effort of the “better sort” and the common folk alike was to replant in the West the civilization of the East. They failed, for the social environment of the new communities, with its emphasis on the practical, provided sterile soil for the flowering of traditional cultural forms. Instead the realistic value scale of the frontiersman fostered new social attitudes and new literary forms that were better tuned to the world in which they lived. These innovations were the West’s unique contribution to the nation’s burgeoning culture.

The pamphlet has been digitized by Google, but you can’t read it.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Things One Can Learn Online

According to the Wikipedia entry on the Radcliffe Camera, J. R. R. Tolkien “remarked that the building resembled Sauron's temple to Morgoth on Númenor.” That is not mentioned in the “The Readers Guide to the Bodleian Library.” At any rate, here is what the temple—or library, if you prefer—looks like from inside:

For a picture of the outside, see the third image on this post.

A History of Printing and the Rest - Timeline, Map, and More

A History of Printing and the rest

Posted using ShareThis

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

At the Bodleian

After delivering a paper on this fellow, and before delivering a paper on this fellow, I have been doing a bit of research at the Bodleian on the latter. I have been working mostly here:

but have also been spending time here:

After reading through numerous papers and books by my subject, I took a break to go read his tombstone:

20 Sep. 1886
15 May 1945

A brief, but revealing, record.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Ring and the Book

The Ring and the Book is the title of a poem by Robert Browning. The title does not refer to anything in the poem itself, but rather to the process behind its composition. In a busy square in Florence, Browning purchased a “book”—a bound collection of pamphlets, some in manuscript and some printed, all concerned with a criminal trial in the 17th century.

It seemed to him that this was something out of which a poem might be made; the unshaped gold of those strange documents turned into a ring of poetry and truth.

From Charles Williams’s introduction to his retelling of Browning’s The Ring and the Book [Oxford, 1934), 8.

Image: Facsimile title page of “The Book.”

Monday, June 30, 2008

Inside the Surviving Record

From a review of John Hatcher’s book The Black Death:

“In the flood of histories of institutions, major events and long-term processes, life as it was lived for most of the time frequently gets left out of the picture.” This is an essential recitation of his method in "The Black Death" (Da Capo Press, 318 pages, $27.50) — to draw patiently from the available documents any clues, no matter how tiny or seemingly insignificant, as to just how life was lived at the time by ordinary people — and so to write medieval history "from the inside," from the point of view of the peasant and the parson, rather than from the traditional perspective of the prince or the panjandrum.

Link to the review:

Monday, June 23, 2008

Right Now and Prehistory

Right now, I am sitting in the airport waiting for the departure of a flight (not the one I booked initially).

One of the things I did today, during my long stay here (in addition to paying for a wireless internet connection), was read a piece in the New Yorker on cave paintings from the Old Stone Age. Some 30,000 years ago, the first artists etched or painted on the walls of caves in southern France and northern Spain. This art has “endured four times as long as recorded history,” but the author of the article adds:

As at many sites, the scratches made by a standing bear have been overlaid with a palimpsest of signs or drawings, and one has to wonder if cave art didn’t begin with a recognition that bear claws were an expressive tool for engraving a record—poignant and indelible—of a stressed creature’s passage through the dark.

Many scholars believe this art is, in some way, religious; some think it represents an attempt to connect with the spiritual world. (“Homo sapiens is Homo spiritualis,” one scholar observes.) Some scholars believe the caves may have functioned as a kind of sanctuary. In such underground places, the art seems to say “We’re sanctifying a finite space in an infinite universe” and “time loses its contours.”

The author concludes that these places seem to direct one toward protology and eschatology:

Whatever the art means, you understand … that its vessel is both a womb and a sepulcher.

Link to “Letter from France: First Impressions” (abstract):

Post scriptum: I am on my way here.

Update: Nothing like cave art here:

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Mundaneum

A piece in the Times, “The Web Time Forgot,” focuses on Paul Otlet, “one of technology’s lost pioneers.”
When he finally entered secondary school, he made straight for the library. “I could lock myself into the library and peruse the catalog, which for me was a miracle,” he later wrote. Soon after entering school, Otlet took on the role of school librarian.
In the years that followed, Otlet never really left the library. Though his father pushed him into law school, he soon left the bar to return to his first love, books. In 1895, he met a kindred spirit in the future Nobel Prize winner Henri La Fontaine, who joined him in planning to create a master bibliography of all the world’s published knowledge.
Otlet’s bibliographical project led to the establishment of the Mundaneum, an unmanageable paper “city of knowledge,” which inspired an early conception of a global information network.

Link to “The Web Time Forgot”:

Monday, June 16, 2008

For the (Personal) Record

The photographs above were taken on June 14, 2007; those below were taken on June 10, 2008. (I checked the metadata from my digital camera against my paper journal—the dates were correct but the hours were not.)

Same conference, different venues. As the pictures may suggest, the second was better.

Marketing a Manuscript

The recent discovery of an ancient manuscript, “The Gospel of Judas,” became a media event. But was the thesis of the National Geographic “dream team” of translators—that Judas was a good guy—correct? See “The Betrayal of Judas,” available from:

Image: “The Death of Judas and Crucifixion of Christ,” early 5th century CE, British Museum, London

Friday, June 13, 2008

Keeping the Key

According to Charles Williams, a turning point came in the life of James Stuart when he himself began “keeping the key of the coffer wherein his papers lay” (James I, 50).

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Reading Today

Technology changes the way we think. Consider what happened after the invention of writing, the mechanical clock, the printing press, or after Nietzsche bought a typewriter.

But kids still like to read books.

Also, you can sell a printed book and give it away online.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Information and Libraries across the Ages

In a recent New York Review of Books essay, “The Library in the New Age,” Robert Darnton considers change and continuity in our newest information age and the continuing role of research libraries.

In the first section, Darnton looks at the nature of information in the context of the history of communication. Looked at one way, this history can be seen as an accelerating series of fundamental changes—from oral to written communication (which began about 6,000 years ago), from the scroll to the codex (which began about 2,000 years ago), from the scriptorium to the printing press (which began about 500 years ago), and from print to electronic communication (which began about 50 years ago). Looked at another way, this history can be seen as a series of information ages, each of which is characterized by “the inherent instability of texts.” “Instead of firmly fixed documents,” Darnton writes, “we must deal with multiple, mutable texts.” This is true of blogs, newspapers, printed books, and manuscripts.

In the second section, Darnton considers what this means for the role of research libraries. To explore the question, Darnton presents two views—or illusions—relating to the library: the library as a citadel of knowledge, which contains all of it, and the internet as an open space, which provides access to all information. No library has succeeded in becoming a universal repository for all knowledge and, even given the great ambitions of Google Book Search, not everything can or will become available online. Moreover, who will ensure the quality of what is online and preserve it? Research libraries attend to subtle distinctions between manifestations of texts and, unlike technology companies, they last for centuries (and they will continue to preserve their pre-digital collections, which contain information that cannot be represented digitally).

Libraries, therefore, still have a role to collect, provide access to, and preserve information—especially information that is accessible though more complex forms (e.g., manuscript material, rare books, and digital objects). The internet can provide a certain kind of access to information on a broad scale; but it cannot provide access to everything, and this access may be only for the time being. As Anthony Grafton recently argued in a New Yorker essay, there remain two roads to knowledge: “the broad, smooth, and open road that leads through the screen,” and the “narrower path” that leads to reading rooms where “knowledge is embodied in millions of dusty, crumbling, smelly, irreplaceable documents and books.”

Link to “The Library in the New Age”:

Image credit: “Books, the Delight of the Soul,” The Librarian's Room, Library of Congress, available from:

Monday, June 2, 2008

The Promise of the Infinite

Last week I was at the Consortium Library in Anchorage. Inside, there is a Foucault pendulum. Why is a library the perfect place for such a thing? Consider this:

Wherever you put it, Foucault’s Pendulum swings from a motionless point while the earth rotates beneath it. Every point of the universe is a fixed point: all you have to do is hang the Pendulum from it. … It promises the infinite, but where to put the infinite is left to me. So it isn’t enough to worship to Pendulum; you still have to make a decision, you have to find the best point for it.
—from Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum