As it stands

March 17, 2008

Happy New Year! …and Martin Luther King’s Birthday! …and Valentine’s Day! …and St. Patrick’s Day! …

Amazingly, after all this time, only 9 unfinished blog posts await revision, additions, content, refinement, wholly redacting, or sending to pasture.

I’m currently swamped with/overwhelmed by memory — possessed; a lifelong pre-occupation of mine without a doubt, even a topic, it could be said, for which I’ve nurtured and collected data, statistics, hearsay, libel, fantabulation and theorization about since as long I can remember.

Which, if you’re wondering, is roughly and reliably since age 11.

My father, before my birth, back when he smoked.

I’ve no idea how often it is I wonder abstractly about what is myself that is absent from my neural vault’s mutable archive of summonable memories. Usually, these thoughts lead me to wonder about everyone else, the monumental sea of consciousnesses which are other than me — or how it must feel to be a tree, what kind of awareness I, a tree, would have about myself and others like me.

I am drifting, sometimes calmly, sometimes nauseatingly, sometimes with a reassuring purpose. I am traveling the globe in my research — through reading about the science and chemistry of memory, the politics of archives, cultural tensions over a peoples’ heritage , the international negotiation over cultural and societal memories; and through actual travel. I will soon be in Leiden and Den Haag, briefly Florida and even Paris, researching the International Committee of the Blue Shield.

(Did you know that this years’ 16th International Congress on Archives will be held in Kuala Lumpur?)

So I cast a line out and this is what I caught. Buster Keaton poetically cradled by Radiohead (and some admirable editing, I should add). Helped me focus, and I hope you like it as much as I do. If all goes well, you’ll be hearing from me while I travel. It’ll keep me tethered, as it were.


People have lost the ability to smile

December 17, 2007


Why do I keep thinking of Ray Wise?


Is it Leland Palmer?…

Leland Palmer redux

…or punk Leon Nash from Robocop?

Leon Nash, before the hair-pulling.

Seriously, though, I think Jack Lalanne is someone worth listening to. His sincerity is palpable, and skin-tight. As one commentator of the video says, he’s going to outlive us all. If you don’t believe me, check out his recipe for fish —



I mean, I feel like a voyeur somehow. How does he do that? it must be his inescapable finger push-up style. He uses television to massage our minds. His power over me is almost as stupefying as the bean-pile,

check it out

from images-trippy

Seriously, it’s not a flash file. Like the zen koan says, it is neither the wind nor the flag that moves, it’s your mind. (check out p.345)

Sorry, it’s almost mean to surprise people with it, if you don’t expect it. It’s like slipping somebody lsd unawares.


I should go to sleep, I think I’ve done all that I can do today.


Third time’s a charm

December 9, 2007

The merciless march of time continually surprises me, not due so much to its stealth — rather, due to its ability to blindside me as I watch its approach, wide-eyed, tharn and fearful to move and draw its full attention.

Cog Clock by Balakov

I am nearly done with my first year as a graduate student, and this too is an occasion for no small amount of surprise. I applied for school, was accepted, signed up and attended my first class all in under a month’s time. Talk about breathless…

The thing is, everything I am studying is just so intense and absorbing, and I have hardly a complaint when it comes to sustaining my interest in it all. I can pretty much study anything I want, since libraries and archives encompass every area of human thought there is. Especially archives, as one is dealing very often with primary, irreplaceable personal and institutional documents, the field of study is as large as life itself.

I am currently working on three papers, all due in the coming week and a half. I thought it would be fun to tell you about them…

The first one, for my Internet Publishing class, is concerned with online academic journals and the imminent effect of print-on-demand, networked books and eBooks on access to information as well as prospects for the survival of digital publications. Along the way I’ve read fascinating articles by Tim O’Reilly, John Dupuis (in a guest post to PersonaNonData), and from the 2006 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) online evaluation data.

One of the more intriguing sites I will be referencing in the paper is co-authored by Lewis Lapham’s Quarterly and the Institute for the Future of the Book, intellectually a sort of follow up to an earlier post on Robotic Librarian about networked books. It’s a digital version of the Iraq Study Group Report that offers a promising new model for publishing which I hope will become a standard formulaic publishing touchstone. The base text of the Iraq report is supplemented by annotations by a “quorum of informed sources (historians, generals, politicians both foreign and domestic) [who] add marginal notes and brief commentaries at any point in the text seeming to require further clarification or forthright translation into plain English.”

Their design is extremely simple and intuitive to use, and I can easily see the format reorganized to accommodate several oceans worth of digitally published materials, both interactive and static, yet informationally challenging and sophisticated. In a recent interview I read with Caroline Vanderlip, CEO of SharedBook, she alludes to a study wherein “Hewlett Packard recently estimated that 53 trillion digital pages will be printed in 2010.” Even if the Hewlett Packard estimate is wrong by half, it’s apparent that our fundamental relationship to information is undergoing a monumental degree of transformation, something that will forever alter people’s core notions of right to access, levels of privacy and confidentiality, interactivity, and timely provision of materials.

Interactivity is a property of technology, participation is a property of cultures

My second paper is about Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, one of the most fascinating concordances of cultural significance in the Industrial Age. This is the paper I alluded to shortly before I jumped the track on my blog posts, which I originally thought to write about Black May in Thailand. For a host of extremely sensible reasons, it was much more practical to work on something I could research in local archives, and there is no shortage of local material or of interested, knowledgeable archivists who were willing to provide me with help in understanding the Exposition. (First and foremost, many thanks are due to Newberry, and to the Chicago Historical Society)

Certainly Eric Larson’s The Devil in the White City was also invaluable, largely by helping me to simplify the abstract time-line that existed in fragments in my mind, untethered to any but the most fleeting islands of context. As I am not a native Chicagoan, and not a natural historian, it’s hard for me to easily grasp historical context. It’s a fight every time (unless it’s about the advent of mechanization, which for some reason has interested me since I was 12 or so, no kidding…). Luckily the Exposition tells such a compelling story, and I did not want for a body of available narratives. I’ve found that there are at least 200 books in English about it, and more in German, French, Japanese and French besides. Once I am done with my paper, I am going to condense it into a post or two, there’s just so much to tell…

Grounds of the Columbian Exposition

The first Ferris Wheel (built with over 1 million pounds of steel), the introduction of Cracker Jacks & Cream of Wheat, very likely the origin of 20th century freak shows, and arguably even of Disney Land… Check out this online tour in the meantime, until I have time to cobble together my histories.

My third paper is the most intimidating of them all, and the most far-reaching. I am likely going to stretch it out into an independent study for my final Spring semester; in fact, if all goes well, I will turn it into both an address to professional archivists in June as well as a manuscript for a non-fiction book.

I am writing about unwanted histories, and the ways in which individuals and societies react toward their destruction/burial/ exposure/alteration. I am starting my story with the age of the armarius, the monks who were responsible for the preservation and provision of books from the 8th century onward. At times the armarius was called upon to destroy a given work which was officially proscribed by the church — a conscientious book keeper might scrape the offending author’s name from a vellum sheet and substitute an accepted name, or perhaps would find it easier to bind the pages with several other works and just not record the condemned works’ existence; both were documented practices. I hope to end the paper with Executive Order 13233, Bush’s attempt to prevent the accession and provision of Presidential papers that were previously protected as public property under the Presidential Records Act. Honestly, though, every President whose records fell under the aegis of the PRA (meaning everyone since 1978) tried to circumvent its scope and effect, Bush was merely the most successful in doing so. Here’s hoping that HR 1255 eventually passes through with flying colors…

The Basics by phatcontroller

In the meantime, please do wish me luck. I have yet to write about 25 or 30 pages, and to prepare my three presentations. Seriously, how can it possibly be December already?

stubborn necessity

August 19, 2007


Emerging electronic media , although transformative in many ways, are not reinventing our relationship to books. As with any change in the human environment, polarizing opinions tend to dominate ways of understanding. This will obscure genuine trends, making it harder to imagine what a book in 2015 might look like. First it might be best to observe the historical book of yesterday.

Books, as a communicative form, have maintained a dominance over informational authority, dissemination of meaning, and community imagination across a global culture for centuries. The dynamism of oral historical transmission is not possible once the word is written down, but almost every other significant intellectual and relational human development is arguably attributable to the book. Religion is able to define values and right behaviors, lawmakers are able to establish precedent, merchants are able to codify national and international bartering systems, and policy makers are accountable to history. Once Averroes (nee Abul-Waleed Muhammad Ibn Rushd) reintroduced the West to Aristotle, a revolution of individuation began which we continue to work through to today.

St. Matthew from the Gospel Book of Charlemagne, c.800-10.

from St. Matthew, from the Gospel Book of Charlemagne, c.800-10.

Manuscripts were instrumental in this, yet without standardization, context and meaning could change. The first widespread re-imagining of the book occurred with Gutenberg’s movable type. (Though China achieved this with baked clay over 400 years earlier, the basic realities of Chinese script prevented common use.) The Gutenberg Galaxy as Marshall McLuhan labeled it, enabled text to be set in a way previously not possible. As more and more copies of a work were produced, identically and rapidly, paradigmatic precedents could be more quickly established. People were able to communicate more effectively, much like the initial standardized catechisms for Christians, yet more personally and frequently.

The manipulation of meaning in a written work prior to printing presses has never entirely gone away, though it was slowed for a time once editions numbered in thousands. Anxiety about losing authoritative, factual information is justified, especially in a world where entities such as Google are becoming global repositories on an unprecedented scale.

Yet this anxiety must be contextualized. The West, circa 1200a.d., did not even know what it was missing until Averrose translated Aristotle. How many books are really in the Bible? And written by whose hand? Absolute meaning is illusory, a reflection of a human need more than an accurate representation of truth. This scientific, rational age is dependant upon the assumption that facts, once discovered, are eternal. Books reflect all dimensions of human experience, and their authority is granted by a wish for it to be so. Through neglect, propagandism and selectivity, meaning is negotiated over time.

Propaganda Billboard in Iran

from Crazy and Funny Billboards

Part of the problem with wondering about books’ future is that historically the idea of what a book is has changed. For me, today’s eBook is akin to the copying of books by monks from Charlemagne’s time until the printing press. Manuscripts would change, depending on the inclinations of the monk, his attentiveness, or even the physical degradation of the source text. Something like Wikipedia, though materially sped up, is as malleable as a handwritten manuscript.

Our imagined book is fixed in time, a static recitation of alphabetic or logographic symbols. This is a very limited definition of what a book is. For Max Ernst or Paul Eluard, a book might be a collection of collages in lieu of words. For Alexsandr Rodchenko, a book may contain coins, twine, letter pressings and glass. For Katsushika Hokusai, a book may be a printed fan, a single sheet of paper bound accordion-style, or even a tiny box of lithographs centered on a single theme. The “Museum of the Book” already exists, and even did as a concept in the time of Charlemagne, when he sought to re-establish the lineage of Roman philosophy nearly lost to Visigothic and Vandal raids.

The question then might properly be “What is the possible effect that digitalization will bring?” The primacy of books can be attributed to many factors: portability, accessibility, affordability, durability, familiarity, and readability, among others. Until digital means can approximate or replicate all of these conditions, books as physical artifacts with paper bones and inky blood will not be replaced.

Portability for electronic books is on the verge of realization, as is accessibility. Affordability? Maybe not. Durability is unlikely, considering that many manufacturers rely on either inferior craftsmanship or software updates to ensure a continual need for purchasing new equipment. Familiarity can only be established over time. A foremost concern is readability, for though the human eye will adapt to longer exposure times to electronic stimuli, it remains difficult to enjoy an electronic work for as long a time as one can a book.

Moving images will survive, though perhaps that is too young a model. Music has undergone about as many transformations as the written word, be it private amusement, communication, traveling minstrels, orchestral engagements, wax cylinders, vinyl and digital storage. Books will continue to thrive, fluidly, stubbornly, but mainly out of necessity.

Writing Cards

Orphan Photography Archives

August 8, 2007

Photo 334 from Mirror World

People are so endlessly creative that the lost and found pile is certain to be equally large. I mentioned in an earlier post about the preservation of film that there are innumerable orphan films, more of these in fact than film with clear lines of provenance. Other times, the copyright on a work is intentionally left unclear, lost to time and memory, by the peculiar generosity of some talented individuals.

And sometimes you find something stuck to a wad of gum on the sidewalk, blown about in the wind until it catches on some barbed geegaw poking up, rusty & askew. Stuff like you’ll find at Found Magazine, or more narrowly at the magnificently stupid & addictive blog Passive Aggressive Notes, which archives passive-aggressive notes from roommates, neighbors, coworkers, and strangers. (I need a scanner so I can send in a years-old note written on Kleenex tissue that was left on my car by a neighbor in a plastic bag weighted down by rocks…)

I wanted to highlight three collections today that archive photographic misfits & the public domain. Partly it’s a way to share my joy from finding the collections, but it’s also in honor & in deference to all of those whom I borrow from in assembling this floating futurist island Robotic Librarian.

Photo 220 from Mirror World

First up is Mirror World, which archives photos of unknown origin. There are some incredible treasures to be found here, true marvels of photography that seem as though they’ve lain dormant over centuries, spontaneously generated before the invention of tintypes, daguerreotypes and photograuvre. He currently hosts about 300 photos, and would like to know about any others if you might know of some. One caveat: there are a number of nudes, primarily of women, on this site. I’m not talking Hustler or Nugget-style photos; in fact there’s nothing that would be out of place in the Kinsey Institute Photography Collection. Merely a warning for those at work, or disinclined to view such things.

FBI Urgent Warning by OWI, ca. 1943, National Archive — PINGNews

Photojournalism is also a rich vein for sifting by magpies. Ping News on Flickr has assembled a massive collection of public domain photos of government origin. Split up into categories for Library of Congress, NARA, Photos and Posters from the New Deal Era, State Department and Related Agencies, Making History, DOD and related, NASA & space images and International Organizations, this is clearly a museum worth visiting.

From the Open Library scan of The Story of Jack and the Giants, ill by Richard Doyle

from The Story of Jack and the Giants,
London: Cundall & Addey 1851, ill. by Richard Doyle

Finally, there are numerous organizations attempting to assemble a global archive of lost and/or public domain materials. Finding these materials can be especially difficult, since it’s impossible to know how to find a lost collection if you don’t know it exists. The Internet Archive is “building a digital library of Internet sites and other cultural artifacts in digital form.” Luckily for us, “like a paper library, we provide free access to researchers, historians, scholars, and the general public.” In an interesting update, which will likely have antecedents I am unaware of, and will likely influence every other state in the union, “the Internet Archive is now officially a library according to the State of California!” as of 25 June, 2007. I know this isn’t, strictly speaking, a photography archive, but the spirit is the same. And book scanners are glorified high-resolution cameras, for traditional scanning equipment is just too slow as I understand it.

Anybody out there in Library-land know more about this library-status precedent for an online collection? Is it a precedent? Please enjoy and patronize today’s collection, and if you know of anything of substance that I missed, please do let me know.

1000 4th Avenue, Seattle

July 16, 2007

Seattle Public Library by Mark Paciga

As promised, I am writing from the Charles Simonyi Mixing Chamber, floor 5 of the central Seattle Public Library (SPL), Rem Koolhaas branch. I have investigated a small portion of SPL’s treasures and peculiarities which I will try to describe in brief, and it is already clear that it would be easy to burn a few days in deep study here. There’s a little chocolate and espresso busker on floor three, conveniently located near the welcome desk, that I am sure could make the hours just melt away. I do not have the luxury of time today, though, since I need to return to my friend’s house shortly to begin on a homework assignment that is due just hours after I disembark from my aeroplane in Chicago, some days from now.

First off, the workstation itself: the chairs are all solid orange, retro Eamesesque & molded plastic. This keyboard is surprisingly sprightly, and there’s something really inviting about that. Of course the web browser is Internet Explorer, since, if you don’t already know, this building was funded in part by a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation largess (though the public’s enormous bond measure accounted for most of the funding). IE is so buggy, and Robotic Librarian is not displaying properly– I need to figure out why, and if this has been the case for any of my readers I apologize — I use Mozilla Firefox to compose and troubleshoot my work. All of the workstations are in an open air hall, with wonderful diamond-shaped views of Seattle’s bright & hazy atmosphere. Every screen is outfitted with those dimming monitor-hiding privacy thingamabobs, and the Internet access is unfiltered unless filters are requested by a parent or guardian. Seattle Public apparently has a custom designed gateway for children which I think is a nice touch; it might even be something fun for kids who get excited about having their own private browser which adults don’t use.

The whole SPL complex is strewn with artworks, some borrowed from other continents, some traditional paint work & sculptural, and some commissioned for the site. My favorite commissioned work is probably the wood planks on the 1st floor, which are covered by Ann Hamilton’s raised & polished sentences culled from SPL’s book collection, showcasing first sentences in eleven languages running backwards and right to left like an enormous printer’s block. There are also strangely intrusive modernist video/electronic works. Tony Ousler’s projected face eggs in a wall space to your right as you descend an escalator from floor 5 to 3 is the most unsettling, apparently babbling (quite loudly) about its current condition, though when I rode past the bald-headed Asian-faced one it accused me of being Empty.

Seattle Public Library by Gabi in Austin

There’s also the compelling OCD-inspired digital artwork on floor 5, dominating the empty space above the IT/reference desk. George Landry’s work is Making Visible the Invisible, continually ticking off numeric data like an opinionated stock market predictor. Six LCD screens tabulate real-time circulation info gathered from SPL branches and display them in four themed visualizations:

Seattle Public Library by Librarian in Black, Flick Sept 17 2006 creative commons

  1. Vital Statistics book, DVD, CD and video check-out stats
  2. Floating Titles anonymous correlative map of book & DVD (in red) and Cd & video (in green) titles, which allows one to read Dewey Decimal locations spatially on a horizontal plane
  3. Dewey Dot Matrix Rain where columns of Dewey classifications for circulated books can be read left to right while non-Dewey classified materials fall vertically in a yellow, blue and gentle green rain (a comment on Seattle’s weather, or an attempt to replicate The Matrix‘s famous opening title sequence? Both?)
  4. Keyword Map Attack showing another Dewey derived digitalscape as a genealogy of keyword designations for checked out books.

I think it is a fascinating artwork, light-years removed from early Lumière actualities when people ran from their theater seats for fear that an approaching cinematic train would emerge from the flickering screen. Legrady’s digital artwork is remarkably suited to our finely networked infosphere and altered ability to read pure data, yet it makes me somewhat uncomfortable. Considering the far reach of different emerging correlation technologies, the vast body of data which summarizes our interests that is being collected by Google and its ilk, and the SPL’s eager adoption of RFID technology, it seems that Making Visible the Invisible could compromise patron’s privacy rights. Not necessarily by what is fleetingly displayed, which is little more invasive than something like the scroll bar on top of Technorati’s main page, but I just don’t know if data is gathered by Legrady’s installation and how it is used.

The library is eleven floors, though only nine are accessible to the general public. The interior of the building has a distinctly European modern art museum feel to it, for me slightly reminiscent of both the Stedelijk Museum near Centraal Station and the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam’s Vondelpark — the Stedelijk for its austere geometry, and the Van Gogh Museum probably because of all the metal flourishes and oddly proportioned interiors of the Exhibition Wing designed by Kisho Kurokawa and opened in 1999:

Van Gogh Museum by Kent Wang, Flickr creative commons Aug 6 2005

However it is the interior detailing which dominates Koolhaas’ architectural achievment, not just the hulking asymmetry of its exterior. There are richly colored yellow escalators festooned randomly about the different floors, which by-and-large bypass the alternative shorter floors of SPLs design. Riding them reminded me in length of some of the disorienting & claustrophobic subway escalators in downtown DC, but with the candy-colored luminescence the ride inspires joy rather than existential angst.

Seattle Public Library by deVos

Everything about the organization and planning is noteworthy, and I know that there are detractors but to me the accessibility of its materials is wonderful. (The most noteworthy being the book spiral on the upper floors, allowing for continuous, uninterrupted browsing.) There are so many SPL librarians out and about to help people navigate the space, as well as informational pamphlets, tutorials, and tours. Labels are omnipresent, ambient lighting is emphasized, and ease of use is clearly a guiding operational philosophy. Seattle Public is incredibly playful; learning should always feel like visiting a children’s playground.

SPL is all about orientation of space. No two floors are exact twins, it seems, and the mood of each space is efficiently demarcated. The 4th floor is certainly the most unusual; my post from two days ago opens with a picture of this floor, all bowed, curved and red. Every room on the floor is for meetings, and their interiors are painted a “calming blue” from bottom to top. I was hoping to check out one of the meeting rooms but had to content myself with walking a mesh screened overlook walkway, observing the people sipping coffee and browsing new fiction on floor 3 — no attendent is assigned to the 4th floor on Sundays, and the public tour at noon was canceled due to a shortage of interest.

Instead I decided to focus on two of my goals for the trip to SPL. I wanted to use the Mixing Chamber certainly, but I also wanted to evaluate the extent of their reference business materials. On the way I distracted myself with the 6th floor collection of magazines and periodicals, but let me mention some of the business treasures first.

Initially I was surprised at how small the business collection seemed to be. The shelving was about four feet tall in this section, and though it seemed modest for the size of the library, at least it was divided up into clear, easy to browse divisions:

  • Small Business Collection
  • Fundraising Resource Center
  • Investment and Company Information
  • Business Newspapers
  • Financial Letters

The financial letters section is the most curious to me, and I still don’t quite understand the term. Are financial letters recommendations and reports from opinionated or respected sources? The titles were equally vague (to me at least) implying the need for insider knowledge about the source before one would chose a particular one: Cabot Market Letter, Chartist, Harry Schultz Letter, John Dessauer’s Investor World, or Prudent Spectator, for example. They’re so fascinating for someone who is eager to learn but unschooled in business literature.

Thinking I was finished evaluating the business resources, I turned around and noticed a tiny sign above a photocopier, talking about the Barry A. Ackerly Business Collection and it’s significance. Around a shaded bend I continued, and this is where the true marvels of SPL’s business holdings make their debut.

I am beginning to appreciate how difficult it is to find certain information about business unless it is studiously current and accurate. So much of the value in data provision and knowledge management is currency coupled with solid analysis. Old business data is often discarded or neglected in order to make room for a percentage of new available data on contemporary industries. In this way the Ackerly collection is a fascinating resource for anyone wanting a deeper, more nuanced understanding of any particular industry.

Many of the Ackerly holdings reach back to the late 18oo’s and early 1900’s, with complete records of stocks, bonds, holding companies, currencies and values that would be impossible to find without access to these primary resources. (ie National Stock Survey from April 10 1929 onward) Many of the works detail older business philosophies, leadership manuals, reports from head offices, and a wall of business serials that stretch forward from the late 1800s.

One of my favorites was the Moody collection, which represents a vast combination of interests and methods of collating data. Moody’s Investment Letters alone seemed to go through about 4 iterations from 1925 to 1960: Moody’s Investment Letters, Moody’s Investor Services, Moody’s Bond Survey, and Moody’s Stock Survey. Perhaps they represented different works, but the dates would not overlap in the sequence and the physical look of the volumes were consistent over time, implying a unified serial. Perhaps my favorite Moody’s series was the early 20th century Moody’s Manual of Railroads & Corporation Securities. Each fat volume spanned a year, and I suspect only a professional basketball player could pick a single volume up one-handed. The accounts of the industry were related both in numerical lists as well as charmingly personal assessments, but perhaps the true find in each volume was the extensive collection of fold-out railroad maps, arrayed regionally. A reference librarian kindly scanned in this sample from the Missouri Pacific Railway for me:

Map of the Missouri Pacific Railway, St. Louis, Iron Mt., & Southern RY, and Leased, Operated & Independent Lines

I wish I could’ve had every last map scanned…

As I said before, I did get distracted on the 6th floor by the magazine collection. Its scope is simply spectacular, and this floor more than any other is where I could imagine losing several years of my life catching up on the past century and a half worth of idiosyncratic & mercurial writings. From lamp annuals to industrial surveys, records of jurisprudence, lifestyle quarterlies, horticultural companions, design compilations, archaeological abstracts and who knows what else, this is by far one of the most compelling collections of magazines, periodicals and journals I have ever gone through.

For one, there is The Leisure Hour from the late 1800s, with continuing articles on “Statesmen of Europe,” unusual travel surveys of England and rather uncomplimentary ones of the States, a great illustrated article about microscopic life called “More Marvels in Mud,” the oddly placed sub-Victorian poem, and great little collections of Varieties:

Electric Road Car. — In the final week of October 1890, a long car or omnibus propelled by electricity made a first public journey in London upon the Kilburn and Maida Vale road. The steady, noiseless progress of this novel conveyance was a surprise to those who witnessed the passage of the well-laden vehicle as it glided along the level way. If the venture is successful, the change from horse-drawn vehicles will be welcomed. Road steam-carriages are, on some accounts, objectionable in cities, but the electric car seems well adapted for passenger traffic. In a recent number of the “Daily Graphic” an account of the earliest road steam-coach was reprinted (with an illustration) from the “Saturday Magazine” of October 6, 1832. The writer described his journey in this conveyance–invented by Captain Ogle, R.N., and Mr. Summers–from Oxford to Birmingham.

I love it so much. If you ever come across one of these gorgeously printed and illustrated magazines you should spend a little time with it, they’re very charming.

They seem to have an enormous number of early machining trade journals, which is, I must admit, for my collage-making and for my interest in design, one of my numerous fetishes. A genuine treasure, from the oversized portion of their stacks, is a lengthy run of the Oil, Paint & Drug Reporter from the early part of the 1900s. The ads alone are worth the ticket, and the reports on trade & investment news range from the numbingly banal to the curiously cracked, with a typical report in 1903 sounding like this:


There continues a good demand for domestic grades, and the outlook is favorable to a large business up to the beginning of warm weather, as consuming industries are very busy. There is a steady tone to the market, and we hear of no change in prices.

What exactly is a “consuming industry”? Is that a Britishism for chemical or industrial industry? Isn’t every industry technically a consuming one, after a fashion? The periodical reports of “Drug Trade Bowling Scores” were also peculiar. At first I thought it meant something else, something mysterious and out of fashion, but no, they literally were the collected scores of competing drug trade teams. Is bowling the golf of the drug trade? Who knew? In 1903 Johnson & Johnson was hot, repeatedly beating the pants off of teams such as the NY Glucose Company players, though interestingly of all the scores I saw no individual player topped 200. Has every living sport gone through the same upward curve in gross skills? I just think about a 50s football team playing a modern one, and it would be ugly…

Well, the Mixing Chamber only permits an hour of use, and this post was not finished by then. I didn’t realize how much there would be to tell from my short visit. I haven’t even gotten into the 2nd floor vacuum-tube, RFID-supported, SPL robotic material sorting conveyor system, but I think that deserves a post all by itself.

Tour of Seattle Public Library 4/06 by mstephens7

In the meantime, I hope I conveyed a bit of the Willy Wonka quality of the Seattle Public Library, and I may have a follow up post when I have more opportunity to look over all the materials I gathered while there. While it’s not necessarily a replicable library model for even the most well-to-do public library systems, there is much to inspire and provoke in their organizational philosophy. I feel like SPL stands as a public affirmation of the value of libraries, at a time when the profession is being uncomfortably stood before a mirror in the public square; we are rapidly learning how to properly value and promote ourselves while redefining our service and ethical values for a more openly vocal & diverse patron base as well.

Film Preservation

July 11, 2007


For several nights now I have been fast at work programming a web resource for film archivists. This is an assignment for a class I am taking on Internet fundamentals, and once the work is done it will go live on the web. I am exhausting myself in an attempt to streamline my CSS and XHTML, and provide solid content. Keeping this blog has not lessened my appreciation of what it means to go live, as I thought the ease of it might do, but instead I feel a greater sense of responsibility, to myself and to the library profession.

I think back to my days as a bookseller, and I can feel the weight of the published word, nearly stifling in volume and density. The number of books which would pass through my hands as the head receiver seemed large, if I let myself forget about all the other book stores in the world. My bosses kindly let me take home all of the catalogs of upcoming publications and backlist titles, ostensibly for my collage making, but really I had a strong desire to know just what the larger environment of book publishing was like. Reading thousands of book catalogs each year can be inspiring, anesthetizing, deeply informative, and even heartbreaking. There are just so many books published every year, so many left over from last year, and years before, just so many voices…an atomic accumulation of paper-bound mycelial axons, slowly communicating with the global mind.

As I research more and more about the state of film preservation today I am beginning to feel a familiar sensation. Reel after reel of film is degrading and hard decisions are being made in the triage of our cinematic heritage. There are significant concerns about access and viability which need to be decided first. A majority of the films which are in need of restoration are so-called orphan films, meaning films for which no clear copyright or provenance is established.


“Orphan films make up the overwhelming majority of our cinematic heritage, and are a vital part of the culture and cultural record of the twentieth century. Indeed, the Library of Congress declared that it is in the task of restoring these orphan films that ‘the urgency may be greatest.’ They include a vast treasure trove of newsreels, documentaries, anthropological films, portraits of minority life in the U.S., instructional films, and even some Hollywood studio productions. While it is both a tragic shame and an unnecessary loss to our culture that scholars and citizens are hampered in making use, for example, of
orphan books and musical scores, the difficulty of access to orphan films is a matter of crisis because these works are literally disintegrating. At a time when digital technologies allow for more sophisticated and cheaper restoration and distribution of old films, uncertainty about copyright status has impeded restoration efforts. Worse still, in most cases the films are completely unavailable to the public even for simple viewing.”

Quoted from the Center for the Study of the Public Domain paper Access to Orphan Films


The situation is similar in other nations as well. Even Hollywood, with its awe-inspiring reserve of liquid assets, has been unable to preserve much of their history. “Of the tens or hundreds of thousands of movies made before 1950, fully 50% are already irretrievably lost. For films made before 1929, the loss rate is far worse: over ten years ago, the Library of Congress estimated that 80% of films from the 1920s, and 90% of films from the 1910s had already decayed beyond any hope of restoration.” (See The Silent Era: Lost Films for a small sample)

Digital restoration or archiving is an increasingly standard solution. Digital preservation is believed to be a cure for many photographic and archival ills, but already there are unpredictable digital dustclouds lying dormant before the breeze. David S. Cohen, in his Digital Proves Problematic article from April 20th of this year, echoes a sentiment familiar to agencies already invested in digital preservation. Apparently “the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ Science and Technology Council warned in 2005 that within just a few years films shot with digital cameras could be lost.” He cites Andy Maltz of the Academy’s Sci-Tech Council that “they had found archival tapes unreadable just 18 months after they were made.”

Fortunately there is a significant amount of work already being done by remarkably dedicated associations and individuals. The George Eastman House, the Library of Congresses National Film Preservation Board, and the Association of Moving Image Archivists are all wonderful agencies in the United States working toward reversing daily losses. Internationally UNESCO has gone a long way toward establishing standards of practice, and much of the work being accomplished today can be attributed to several reports they have issued since the late seventies. Just as incredible, and perhaps the most significant foreign association is The International Federation of Film Archives. Not only is their list of member organizations a formidable networking tool, but they have developed a beautiful Code of Ethics. Just look at these two principles:

“1.4. When copying material for preservation purposes, archives will not edit or distort the nature of the work being copied. Within the technical possibilities available, new preservation copies shall be an accurate replica of the source material. The processes involved in generating the copies, and the technical and aesthetic choices which have been taken, will be faithfully and fully documented.
1.5. When restoring material, archives will endeavour only to complete what is incomplete and to remove the accretions of time, wear and misinformation. They will not seek to change or distort the nature of the original material or the intentions of its creators.”

I admire FIAF very much and I am thrilled to see so many countries represented on their membership roll. Who could imagine that organizations from the US, China, North & South Korea, and Iran would all subscribe to a Code of Ethics like that?  They do say film is a universal language.  (But then, they also say that math, English, cookies, glossolalia, Google Translator and love are universal languages, so maybe they’re not to be trusted)

I will post a link to my site once it goes live, and hopefully I’ve done enough researching and vetting of information to be of use to someone, somewhere. There is such an accumulation of noise in our informational substrate, and I hope to sustain my focus while navigating through it. I don’t want to become another monkey plugging away at reauthoring the Library of Babel.