Listing entries tagged with archives
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looking at libraries 05.06.2008, 4:18 PM
A few weeks back though the auspices of TED, I paid a visit to a private library. The owner doesn't want publicity, and I won't reveal details, but it was a staggeringly beautiful (if idiosyncratic) collection, and I can't imagine that there are many collections in private hands that rival it in value in the United States. Just about every lavish book imaginable was present: an elephant folio of Audobon along with a full set of John Gould's more sumptuous prints of birds; a Kelmscott Chaucer; a page from a Gutenberg Bible; a first edition of Johnson's Dictionary; countless antique atlases of anatomy and cosmography; the Arion Press edition of Ulysses illustrated by Robert Motherwell; hand-illuminated Books of Hours. There were exquisite jeweled bindings, books woven entirely from silk, and doubtless many more things that couldn't be seen in a three-hour tour. The collector mentioned in passing that he was thinking of buying a Wyclif Bible for around $600,000 because he didn't have one yet.
Being no stranger to libraries, I'd seen many of these books before. Generally they're the sort of books you see in the context of a museum or library, occasionally for sale in a gallery. They're the sort of books that are generally found safely behind glass, books that one wears white gloves to touch. This was not such a collection: it's not open to the public at all, only to the collector's friends. A librarian would also be astonished that this collection of 30,000 books has no catalogue – the owner shelves all the books himself (by height, for which there's historical precedent) and claims that he remembers where he put things. But what was most striking to me about my visit was how freely the books were handled by the owner, and how freely he allowed his guests to handle his books – not in a cavalier way, but in the way one touches a book one owns. The librarian in me suppressed a gasp when the owner explained how in the summer he opens the bay windows of the library and lets the breeze in. I'm sure that's not how the Morgan Library works.
The collector can afford to let his visitors touch his books. In a way, the books in his collection are functioning as they are intended to function: as objects to be read and appreciated. They're also functioning as signifiers of luxury. His collection is a repository of wealth in a way less metaphorical than we usually talk about library as repositories. No library, private or public, exists entirely outside of this economic system; it's an integral part of the way we consider books.
Walking north on Laguardia Place last week, I was struck by how monolithic NYU's Bobst Library appears from the south: it's a hulking red-brick edifice that admits no entrance:
From inside it's all windows and light, open stacks to be browsed. But: there's the matter of getting inside, as admission is reserved to those with an NYU ID card. Those without cards are excluded. This is a necessary condition for the library to function: long ago on this blog I bemoaned the condition of the Brooklyn Library, where it's almost impossible to find any book you're looking for, though there's still the pleasure of browsing. The quality of a collection seems to be inversely related to the number of people kept out. Keeping the books in and the world out is demonstrated elegantly by the thin marble windows of Yale's Beinecke library which admit a small amount of light but not the viewer's gaze:
What's inside and outside – who's inside and outside – are completely separated. The poet Susan Howe inspects this separation in her book The Midnight, a volume which takes as one of its primary subjects interleaves, the sheets of tissue paper that publishers once put next to plates in books "in order to prevent illustration and text from rubbing together." Howe's work tends to be archivally based: she looks at how manuscripts are read or misread, and consequently has spent a lot of time in libraries. In this prose passage from the book, part of a section entitled "Scare Quotes II", she looks at the way one enters Houghton, Harvard's analogue to the Beinecke:
1991. Entering Houghton Library: Harvard Yard, 9:00 a.m., a fine June summer morning. At the entrance to the red-brick building designed by Robert C. Dean of Perry, Shaw and Hepburn in 1940, two single wooden doors with hinges, concealing two modernist plate glass doors without frames, have been swung into recesses to the left and right so as to be barely visible during open hours. The only metal fitting in each glass consists of a polished horizontal bar at waist height a visitor must pull to open. I enter an oval vestibule, about 10 feet wide and 5–6 feet deep, before me double doors again; again plate glass.
Passing through this first vestibule I find myself in an oval reception antechamber about 35 feet wide and 20 feet deep under what appears to be a ceiling with a dome at its apex. I think I see sunlight but closer inspection reveals electric light concealed under a slightly dropped form, also oval, illuminating the ceiling above. This first false skylight resembles a human eye and the central oval disc its 'pupil.' Maybe ghosts exist as spatiotemporal coordinates, even if they themselves do not occupy space, even if you've never seen one, so what? If the design of the antechamber can be read in terms of power and regimes of library control, and if ghosts 'presently' 'occupy' papers, you need to understand the present tense of 'occupy.'
To enter this neo-Georgian building (a few Modernist touches added) with its state of the art technology for air filtration, security and controlled temperature and humidity for the preservation of materials, is to turn away from contemporary city life with all its follies and parasites in search of a second coming for dry bones. When the soul of a scholar has an inward bent and bias for an author in the Kingdom of Houghton, it is never at rest, until here. Perversely, nothing in Houghton awakens security sooner than curiosity.
Here – every researcher can be a perpetrator.
( pp. 120–121) While Houghton isn't as architecturally ostentatious as the Beinecke, Howe's scrutiny of the architecture of its entrance reveals it to be just as concerned with control. There's a pessimistic view of human behavior embedded in library construction and the watchfulness of the sentries who guard them: if we, the public, could get at the books, we would most certainly destroy them.
There was the expectation that the barriers would be torn down with the coming of electronic libraries, that once the book's spirit left its object, it would likewise escape its economic shackles. Certainly it makes sense: an electronic text isn't degraded by copying in the same way that every reading is an infinitesimal destruction of a physical book. It's unclear, however, that the media universe that's unfolding is following this pattern: while sites like archive.org present a new model, projects like Google Books simply reconfigure the gates.
a new blog format avoids the tyranny of chronology 04.18.2008, 2:10 PM
Sebastian Mary and i were talking last week about the need to re-conceive the format of if:book so that interesting posts which initiate lively discussions don't get pushed to the bottom. a few days later i met with Rene Daalder who showed me his new site, Space Collective which is a gorgeous and brilliant re-thinking of the blog. click on "new posts" and notice how you can view them by "Recently Active, Most Popular, Newest First, and Most Active." Also notice the elegant way individual posts emerge from the pack when you click on one of them. Please, if you know of other sites which are exploring new directions for the blog, please put the URL into a comment on this post.
textual montage: the documentary biography 12.14.2007, 6:07 PM
There's something about the work of Herman Melville that brings out the unexpected in his readers. Example can be drawn almost at random. Call Me Ishmael, the poet Charles Olson's lyrical little book on Moby-Dick, is as much a meditation on patrimony, artistic and otherwise, as it is about Melville. When the U. S. government locked him up at Ellis Island, the Trinidadian socialist C. L. R. James took the opportunity to move into literary criticism, writing Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In, in which he found Melville a sympathetic audience for his argument against state capitalism. Maurice Sendak, best known for Where the Wild Things Are, created semi-pornographic illustrations for an edition of Pierre, Melville's little-known novel about incest and doubt. Claire Denis turned the comparatively staid Billy Budd into Beau Travail, a sun-dazed film about the French Foreign Legion that culminates in one of the most desparate dance numbers ever. Paul Metcalf, Melville's great-grandson, smashed together Columbus, teratology, the Bobby Greenlease kidnapping & murder of 1953, and his family's misgivings about their ancestor to form Genoa, a collage novel.
I set off to write about Metcalf and his unclassifiable books – most of them textual collages made of appropriated writing. Metcalf's writing is perhaps worth paying attention to in light of electronic media, thoughhere's precious little about him on the Internet (an interview, an obituary). Thinking about Metcalf's work, however, I found myself sidetracked: when asked about the inspirations for his textual collages, he pointed to another work on Melville, Jay Leyda's The Melville Log. I'll return to Metcalf some other time; he's not going anywhere.
The Melville Log, though. This is a book that might be just as weird as anything else that Melville ever inspired. It's also instructive for thinking about how composition in the age of the ubiquitous archive could work. First, a bit of backstory: though Melville was prominent early in his career, he'd faded entirely from the American consciousness by 1920, when Billy Budd was discovered and Moby-Dick was discovered to be the Great American Novel of the nineteenth century. Literary scholars went to work scrutinizing Melville's life and work; Jay Leyda arrived on the scene in the 1940s, having missed the main boom, but being a big part of a post-war boomlet. In 1951, after years of work, he published The Melville Log, a compilation of first-hand sources about Melville's life and work. In the half-century since, it's become a foundational text for anyone seeking to learn about Melville's life.
I knew that much – just about anyone who's read Melville has heard of The Melville Log – but I'd never bothered to actually look at a copy of Leyda's book. From that description, it doesn't sound interesting. But I found a cheap used copy on Amazon & ordered it; a week later, it turned up on my door. From the dedication, it became clear that this wasn't the book I'd assumed it was:
This book was begun as a birthday present
for my teacher, Sergei Eisenstein.
Jay Leyda, it turns out, wasn't just a literary historian; in fact, he's best known as a film historian, a field in which he played a foundational role. He had, it seems clear, an interesting life. Considering an career as a filmmaker, Leyda went to Moscow in the 1930s to study film with Eisenstein, the only American to do so; he seems to have worked on Bezhin Meadow as a stills photographer. Returning to the U.S., he served as an advisor to Mission to Moscow, a propaganda film designed to shore up American support for the Soviet Union during WWII (a film later to be soundly denounced as evidence of Hollywood's un-Americanism). From there he went on to write his Melville book; he also wrote biographies of Emily Dickinson, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Modest Mussorgsky, as well as a substantial amount of film criticism on Soviet and Chinese films.
What's the importance of this to his book on Melville? If Leyda learned anything from Eisenstein, it was the value of montage, putting adjacent shots into juxtaposition to create new meaning. Leyda explained what he was doing in his introduction:
The result is a book made of documents, documents of many kinds and from many sources, written by many men and women (and some children); but documents cannot be accepted unconditionally. A 'document' should be distrusted as much as a photograph, for documents are a fallible as their human authors. Letters contained as many falsehoods and misunderstandings in 1851 as they do in 1951, and journalists and critics (and typesetters) of a century ago operated under much the same pressures that they do today. Each document quoted here requires some judgment of its author's motives and character – although perhaps the First Mates who kept the whaling logs may be thought beyond suspicion.
(p. xii.) A few scanned spreads from the book give a feeling for its contents, how it juxtaposes bits and pieces of letters, business documents, journals, and Melville's work, using time – the march of years from Melville's birth to his death – as its central axis. Essentially, it's Eisenstein's montage, moved from the world of film into that of books, with not a little of what would subsequently be called multimedia. Click to enlarge:
For a book that might be thought of as a biography, there seems to be very little of the biographer: only the unobtrusive introduction to each entry is in Leyda's hand. (Tucked away at the back of the book, of course, is an enormous list of the sources of quotation.) But lack of the author's words doesn't signify the author's lack of intention. Here's Eisenstein explaining montage in Film Form, translated by Leyda: "By combining these monstrous incongruities we newly collect the disintegrated event into one whole, but in our aspect." Leyda, in his own introduction, winks at this: clearly, he's one of "the First Mates who kept the whaling logs" who would wish to be thought beyond suspicion.
There's a very interesting reading of Leyda's collage-work – and the way collage works – in Clare L. Spark's Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival, a thorough dissection of the forces that made Melville into the Melville we think we understand. Melville's life is a challenge for the prospective biographer: there's not the usual plot arc or easy moral to be drawn from it, though that hasn't stopped people from trying to do so: a Great American Novelist needs to behave properly. According to Spark:
Leyda arranged his chronology of Melville's hitherto confusing or mysterious life to track a progression from Ahab's family-splitting bourgeois individualism to Billy Budd's socially responsible sacrifice on behalf of family unity and order, ordering Melville in the process. Every detail of The Melville Log was designed to fortify that message.
(pp. 10–11.) Spark has harsher words for Leyda in her chapter on his work: she sees him as a dyed-in-the-wool Stalinist and details the ways in which suppresses and misrepresents information in the guise of presenting the unvarnished truth. If you're interested in Melville or twentieth-century American propaganda – from both the right and the left – hers is a fascinating book and well worth seeking out.
* * * * *
But let's return from the depths of Melville criticism. If, as Spark argues, The Melville Log presents a subjective view of Melville to his readers, it's only able to do so because Leyda knew that only a miniscule fraction of those who read his book would be able or have the inclination to consult the original documents that he was quoting, the majority of which weren't publicly accessible.
A thought experiment: what happens if, thanks to book-scanning projects, all those sources were publicly accessible?(The University of Connecticut's Olson collection might be seen as a start.) Having everything available doesn't obviate the need for projects like Leyda's; we need editors to sort through the chaff and to point out the things that are interesting. A born-digital project like this could be instantly accountable in a way that it would be difficult for a print version to be: a link could take the reader from the quotation to the quoted document. Going further: a reader who's dissatisfied with the slant of a digital Melville Log could assemble their own alternate version.
Technically, this isn't difficult. But the tools to do this don't seem to exist yet; and supporting this sort of ecosystem of research doesn't seem to be an immediate priority for those compiling archives.
audiovisual heritage double play 08.03.2007, 6:45 PM
1. Reframe (set to launch in September '07)
The Reframe project is a new initiative of Renew Media in partnership with Amazon and with major support from the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which promises to offer exciting solutions for the dissemination of important media arts and the preservation and accessibility of our visual heritage.
The Reframe project will help connect audiences of independent media to a robust collection of media arts via an integrated, resourceful website. Reframe will aggregate content from individual filmmakers, broadcasters, distributors, public media resources, archives, libraries and other sources of independent and alternative media. Serving as a both an aggregator of content and a powerful marketing tool, Reframe enables content-holders to digitize, disseminate and make available their content to a vast potential audience via a powerful online resource.
Renew Media will create a specialized Reframe website, which will interact with the Amazon storefront, to assist institutions (universities, libraries or museums) and consumers of niche content in browsing, finding, purchasing or renting Reframe content. Reframe website visitors will find it easy to locate relevant content through a rich menu of search and retrieval tools, including conventional search, recommender systems, social networking tools and curated lists. Reframe will allow individual viewers to rate and discuss the films they have seen and to sort titles according to their popularity among users with similar interests.
The Library of Congress, through its National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (NDIIPP), today announced eight partnerships as part of its new Preserving Creative America initiative to address the long-term preservation of creative content in digital form. These partners will target preservation issues across a broad range of creative works, including digital photographs, cartoons, motion pictures, sound recordings and even video games. The work will be conducted by a combination of industry trade associations, private sector companies and nonprofits, as well as cultural heritage institutions.
Several of the projects will involve developing standardized approaches to content formats and metadata (the information that makes electronic content discoverable by search engines), which are expected to increase greatly the chances that the digital content of today will survive to become America's cultural patrimony tomorrow. Although many of the creative content industries have begun to look seriously at what will be needed to sustain digital content over time, the $2.15 million being awarded to the Preserving Creative America projects will provide added impetus for collaborations within and across industries, as well as with libraries and archives.
Partners include the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the American Society of Media Photographers, ARTstor and others. Go here and scroll down part way to see the full list.
One project that caught my and Peter's eye is an effort by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to address a particularly vexing problem: how to preserve virtual environments and other complex interactive media:
Interactive media are highly complex and at high risk for loss as technologies rapidly become obsolete. The Preserving Virtual Worlds project will explore methods for preserving digital games and interactive fiction. Major activities will include developing basic standards for metadata and content representation and conducting a series of archiving case studies for early video games, electronic literature and Second Life, an interactive multiplayer game. Second Life content participants include Life to the Second Power, Democracy Island and the International Spaceflight Museum. Partners: University of Maryland, Stanford University, Rochester Institute of Technology and Linden Lab.
privatizing public goods (our tax dollars at work) 08.03.2007, 2:46 PM
The National Archives is at it again. After announcing in January its exclusive agreement with Footnote.com to digitize and offer priced access to millions of public domain historical records, NARA (National Archives and Records Administration) has now inked a deal with Amazon to distribute significant parts of its vast archival films collection commercially on DVD and online.
As reported by the Cumberland Times News:
The arrangement allows Amazon - and a subsidiary, CustomFlix Labs Inc. - to copy National Archives films and video onto DVDs, and sell them to the public via the Internet.
The Archives will initially make available its collection of Universal Newsreels, dating from 1920 to 1967. Thousands of other public-domain and government films will be made available later.
Included in the initial offerings are events as diverse as the famous 1959 "Kitchen Debate" between then-Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, and footage of a youthful Fidel Castro after the communist revolution in Cuba. Newsreels that will become available later include coverage of the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the end of World War II, and the royal wedding of Princess Margaret.
National Archives officials said the arrangement will greatly expand the availability of the collection. Previously, such films could only be viewed and recorded at the Archives facility in College Park.
No doubt NARA should doing everything in its power to digitize and increase access to its vaults, but locking materials down through commercial partnerships is no way to run a public trust. In a more commendable move, NARA put up a draft of another digitization/distribution agreement it has in the works, this one with the Genealogical Society of Utah (GSU), and they've even opened it up to public comment. They ought to do the same with the Amazon deal, and while they're at it, offer less antiquated mechanisms for the public to make their voices heard. As it stands, comments on the GSU draft can be submitted in the following ways:
* postal mail
* hand delivery or courier
Hey, why not use CommentPress?
far flung places 06.11.2007, 3:03 AM
You may have noticed that the blog hasn't been updated much in the last few days. Right now several of us are in far flung places, traveling around the globe for various reasons. We'll do our best to update you on networked publishing wherever we find it, but it might take just a little longer than normal for us to get to a computer.
Until then, I thought it'd be fun to revisit some old posts. Around the table at work we often feel burdened by the tyranny of the timely post. It's something that doesn't leave much room for reflection. I've felt that we should find ways to pull up some of the posts that have in some way impacted us and our community the most, so I've started with a simple numerical solution: most popular posts (via comment counts) from last year. Here's a selection:
First, a post that deals with what people commonly think of when they hear electronic book (if they aren't regularly reading this blog, anyway): first sighting of Sony ebook reader
And then two posts about what we are working towards when we talk about a networked book: defining the networked book: a few thoughts and a list, and small steps toward an n-dimensional reading/writing space.
ITIN place | 2007 redux: design journal, part 3 12.13.2006, 7:12 AM
 I'd just begun hard coding navigational elements for the new ITIN archives, when I suspected Through the Looking-Glass might be an apt, fun read to offset the growing angst around coding. Maybe something in literature would provide the gestalt I felt missing from the minutia of writing lines of functions, booleans, and parameters. Sounds holistic maybe, but this suspicion plus a Wikipedia entry I'd read on Lewis Carol convinced me it'd be the perfect read just now. So, when I was walking through Penn Staten earlier last month, I found a bookseller in the LIRR station and, all excited, I picked up a copy of Alice's Adventures, with the intentions of breezing through it in order to move onto Looking-Glass. It was nice to open ITIN place the next day to find Stormy Blues For Alice In The Looking Glass. Somehow, the two had already met.
Sally: I've been trying to figure out some of the back-end stuff for the past few days, namely, how to get your entire archive to link up to something like this. Do you have any programming / web design wizard friends who might be able to offer me some technical advice?
Alex: God know.... I guess we'll have to build them manually...some 700 links? yipes.
Alex: I mean, god no....LOL
Sally: Hey, I'm working with a programmer now on a script that will allow the archive to thumbnail images from your entries and automatically load them (& URLs to the corresponding entries) into the Flash file. I don't know PHP, which is likely the language needed to thumbnail your images automatically, so I'm getting help on that. Once that's in place, we should be able to (a) play further with layout aspects! and (b) the archive should automatically update every time you publish an entry. Getting closer...
Alex: and it will still do that animated scale up and down trick?
Sally: my PHP programmer who would work on the thumbnail-ing flaked out on me, seems programmers can be as flaky as drummers... So, I set it upon myself to teach myself Flash-based blog applications. At its simplest, it requires a little PHP, a little XML and Flash, all in conversation with what you post online.
Ben: As for PHP gurus... We do in fact have someone working with us right now who's an experience PHP coder. We're keeping him pretty busy right now with MediaCommons stuff, but I think he could help you out with this stuff in a few weeks.
Sally: I also imagine there should be more than one way to search / browse the archives. One might be a linear "wall" from month to month that we could click/scroll through, another might be a drop-down menu of months say, to the right of the "wall" of images. Any thoughts on that?
Meanwhile, I'd plotted out on my whiteboard a map of the flash file. It looked to me that there were two methods of approach, interface-wise. Either the zoom function would scale up the size of an entire month's calendar, and a re-center or panning function would allow the user to focus on a particular entry - or - the zoom function would simply scale up one entry at a time onrollOver (the original idea).
I am (still) drawn to the first idea, even though I've put it aside, since that would best recreate the sense of approaching a gallery wall, or landing on the (x,y) of Alex's blog. But, caveats abound -- if an onPress fires the zoom and re-center, then how do you click the entry's permalink and/or zoom out? Is this overcomplicating things? Here is an example of an unweildy new zoom (an attempt to manage dragging and zooming).
Then I started to think about loading in individual blog entries from the XML. I talked to my friend Mike about this for a while and in exchange for some brownies (although really only out of his extreme kindness and generosity) he constructed an XML format, sample.xml, and guided me on a way to load in the HTML of each individual entry into a small clip.
The great thing about using the HTML of each entry in the previous example is that it would allow the archives to build completely dynamically. Any changes Alex made in an archived post would reflect in real time in the flash file. Unfortunately, this doesn't cut down on load time and I can't coax the videos and animated .gifs to appear (of which there are considerable number). Here is an example of one entry pulled into the Flash file with HTML. CSS can be incorporated, but it's obviously slow loading.
Mike brought up something I'd wondered too too: are we going to have one XML file for the entire archive? It seems to make more sense for each month to have it's own.
So, after a few weeks, I caught up with Future of the Book's expert developer Eddie Tejeda, and we decided to put an XML document within each month. On an exciting note, Eddie devised a great scheme (script) to take screen shots of all of ITIN place's entries. He's working on getting the image size down, so as to minimize loading time.
Eddie's screen shots would load much faster than pure HTML, but it could possibly cut the dynamism. This would build something like this, only faster:
Most of the hard coding of the archive is done. Design matters remain: At the moment, the entries load in rather like a retro computer solitaire game, and drop down menus are disconnected and unskinned. It's a task to go back and forth between design and developing -- I'm just cutting my teeth on some of this and the dryness of programming can dilute creative inspiration (if this is anything to go by). The archive is very close to complete; it will be a thrill to use this gentler beast.