Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Moving Closer to Where History Is Made

The Tower and the Cloud (EDUCAUSE, 2008, available from: http://www.educause.edu/thetowerandthecloud/133998), 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: http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/PUB7202q.pdf), 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: http://connect.educause.edu/Library/EDUCAUSE+Review/EDUCAUSEReviewMagazineVol/47438.

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 http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ERM0863.pdf).

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 http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ERM0867.pdf.)

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: http://www.ashmolean.org/about/historyandfuture/ 
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: http://www.technologyreview.com/web/21558/page1/.

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: http://insidehighered.com/views/2008/10/21/farkas.

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: http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/print/200811/andrew-sullivan-why-i-blog.

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: http://www.hathitrust.org/.

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."

More: http://chronicle.com/free/2008/10/5061n.htm?rss.

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: http://www.oclc.org/programs/publications/reports/2008-05.pdf.

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)