Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Nabakov’s Pale Fire

Intrigued by a recent article on the fate of Vladimir Nabakov’s last, unpublished manuscript, I re-read his ingenious novel Pale Fire. Given this story, of what can happen to the manuscript of a deceased author, one isn’t terribly surprised by Nabakov’s desire to have his unfinished manuscript consigned to the “pale fire of the incinerator.” (This quote, from the “Foreword” to Pale Fire, is the first allusion to the novel’s title. But the 999-line poem in the novel attributes the poem's title to Shakespeare, which takes one to Timon of Athens: “the moon's an arrant thief, / And her pale fire she snatches from the sun” [Act IV, scene 2].)

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Volume VI

"In a dilapidated cardboard box, the [King Papers] Project found a private file containing more than 200 folders of handwritten sermon outlines and drafts, in addition to previously unpublished student essays and personal correspondence." More.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Chabert against the Record

In preparation for a class presentation, which will make use of our Napoleon collection, I recently read HonorĂ© de Balzac’s Colonel Chabert (published in 1836). Chabert, one of Napoleon’s marshals, is believed to have died at the battle of Eylau. But he returns to Pairs during the Restoration to reclaim his fame, fortune, wife, and life. But the record denies him: “Unfortunately for me,” Chabert says to his lawyer, “my death is a matter of historical record, reported in detail in Victoires et ConquĂȘtes.” He continues:
when I, a dead man, rise up against a death certificate, marriage licenses, and birth certificates, they show me the door … I’m buried beneath the living; beneath certificates, facts—the whole society would rather have me buried underground!

Although Chabert reestablishes his existence through various Prussian legal forms, documents cannot restore his life. In the end he disappears, resolving to remain dead and “no longer fearing the power of some document.”

Monday, January 14, 2008

Borges, Libraries, and the Internet

If my love of Borges antecedes my love of libraries, it is because I am greatly indebted to Borges for the latter love. Certainly I knew and was fond of libraries before I came to know Borges; but Borges, who made strange stories of books and unreal universes of libraries, transformed libraries into a mysterium tremendum.

In the digital age, as reported in the New York Times article “Borges and the Foreseeable Future,” Borges is presented as a prophet of the internet. One quote used in the article to support this claim is this from the “Library of Babel”:

When it was announced that the Library contained all books, the first reaction was unbounded joy. All men felt themselves the possessors of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal problem, no world problem, whose eloquent solution did not exist.

But a little bit later in the story, we read that “unbridled hopefulness was succeeded, naturally enough, by a disproportionate depression.” This is, after all, the library of Babel—the place of confused tongues, where one finds

All—the detailed history of the future, the autobiographies of the archangels, the faithful catalog of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogs, the proof of the falsity of the false catalogs, a proof of the falsity of the true catalog, the gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary upon that gospel, the commentary on the commentary on that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book into every language, the interpolations of every book into all books, the treatise the Bede could have written (but did not) on the mythology of the Saxon people, the lost books of Tacitus.

Link to “Borges and the Foreseeable Future”:

Image: Bruegel’s “The Tower of Babel” (1563)

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Pedagogy of Place

A recent article in Inside Higher Ed, called the “The Pedagogy of Place,” focuses on the popularity of courses that get students out of the classroom and into their local communities to conduct research.

Oddly, the article says nothing about getting students into local archives—even those at the institutions where such courses are taught. The missing link with archives is highlighted at the end of the article, which concludes by reporting that professors are often unsure what to do with students’ material since “professors aren’t archivists.”

I am always happy to support such community-based research projects at my institution, and I am happy to add to my archives good research material that might help others understand or pursue a topic further.

While more and more research is being done virtually (i.e., with electronic resources), there is still much interest and value in having students work with physical source materials, such as the unique records, rare books, and artifacts that are found in archives, special collections, and museums.

Link to “The Pedagogy of Place”:

Image: My daughter picking Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, October 2007.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Twilight of the Books?

From Communication

The recently released NEA report “To Read or Not to Read” has generated quite a lot of commentary about the present extent and nature of reading.  A recent article in the New Yorker by Caleb Crain, “Twilight of the Books,” reviews a number of interesting studies on orality and literacy to explore the question “What will life be like if people stop reading?”

The question many respondents to the NEA study are asking has to do with the impact of the internet on reading.  Crain refers to one related study in his article: 
The Internet, happily, does not so far seem to be antagonistic to literacy. Researchers recently gave Michigan children and teen-agers home computers in exchange for permission to monitor their Internet use. The study found that grades and reading scores rose with the amount of time spent online. Even visits to pornography Web sites improved academic performance. Of course, such synergies may disappear if the Internet continues its YouTube-fuelled evolution away from print and toward television.
The future of books is another question. 

Link to “To Read or Not to Read”:


Maryanne Wolf responds to “Twilight of the Books” in the January 28, 2008, issue of the New Yorker
The addictive immediacy and overwhelming volume of information available in the “Goggled world” of novie readers invite neither time for concentrated analysis and inference nor the motivation for them to think beyond all the information given.  Despite its extraordinary contributions, the digital world may be the greatest threat yet to the endangered reading brain as it has developed over the past five thousands years.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Short-Term Future of Digital Movies: Analogue Film

First, there was preservation by benign neglect: put your cultural artifacts in a cold, stable environment and leave them alone until they are needed. Then came certain artifacts that required a mediating technology, and things started to get a bit more complicated.

The New York Times article “The Afterlife Is Expensive for Digital Movies” draws attention to a report, “The Digital Dilemma,” which attempts to quantify the incredible costs of maintaining movies in digital form.

What we know:

To begin with, the hardware and storage media—magnetic tapes, disks, whatever—on which a film is encoded are much less enduring than good old film. If not operated occasionally, a hard drive will freeze up in as little as two years. Similarly, DVDs tend to degrade: according to the report, only half of a collection of disks can be expected to last for 15 years, not a reassuring prospect to those who think about centuries. Digital audiotape, it was discovered, tends to hit a “brick wall” when it degrades. While conventional tape becomes scratchy, the digital variety becomes unreadable.

Difficulties of that sort are compounded by constant change in technology. As one generation of digital magic replaces the next, archived materials must be repeatedly “migrated” to the new format, or risk becoming unreadable.

What we don’t know: what to do for the long-term preservation of digital objects. So, short-term strategies are pursued, such as storing born-digital movies in film format (which, unfortunately, yields images of lower quality than those obtained through a pure film process).

Also discussed in this article is the added problem of the proliferation of material in digital form: “digital production … sometimes generates more storable material.” This raises the need for appraisal.

Link to “The Afterlife Is Expensive for Digital Movies”:

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Authority in the Digital Age

Not in spite of, but because of, the digital age: “Happy New Year to Libraries,” from the Chronicle:

Inspired by Hunter Rawlings’s ARL keynote address, available from: