Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Borrowing Time

From Time
In my last post I quoted de Bury on the function of books as negations of time. But books, like everything else, also “are corrupted and decay in time.” They do, however, fare better if they are preserved in libraries. When books, records, and artifacts are curated by libraries, archives, and museums, their time and usefulness are extended. Paraphrasing de Bury, one could say that “all the glory of the world would be buried in oblivion unless God had provided mortals with the remedy of libraries, archives, and museums.”

While challenging time by extending the duration of communication and other cultural products, libraries, archives, and museums also change time. Such institutions, in the words of Randall Jimerson, “provide resources for people to examine the past, to comprehend the present, and to prepare for a better future” (“Archives for All: Professional Responsibility and Social Justice,” American Archivist 70 [2007]: 253).

Nevertheless, time remains the great destroyer. Great libraries of the past—of Ashurbanipal, Alexandria, Caesarea, and Cassiodorus (to name a few)—were overcome by time. Today, in the brave new world of digital technology, the past is often not renderable. As D. F. McKenzie observed:
It’s the durability of … textual forms that ultimately secures the continuing future of our past; it’s the evanescence of the new [digital] ones that poses the most critical problem for bibliography and any further history dependent on its scholarship (quoted in Kate Longworth, “Between Then and Now: Modern Book History,” Literature Compass 4/5 [2007]: 1432).
Image: My iPod, on which time is found under “Extras.”