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?

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Kicking Up Dust

September 28, 2007

A natural ebb and flow merges where Robotic Librarian lay temporarily dormant, assuming a posture of frayed edges. Or, long time no see.

At least six posts await completion, often begun with a kick of espresso when I haven’t the time to complete them. As I truck along in my third semester, getting my hands dirty with archival dust, I am hoping to discover a continuum of balance for work and play, as well as an affordable wireless connection. Without a connection at home I am discovering that I have difficulty with scripting posts. (Please let me know if you know of a reliable service that would be $20 or less a month…) Part of it is that I no longer have the free time between assignments to relax with hyperlinks and electronic free-association. If I have time to be online, it is planned and a necessary part of my school work for that day. I am in the midst of tackling this, and my eager enthusiasm for discussing librarianship has not dimmed.

In the coming weeks I am developing several different projects concerned with memory, all thematically related by their intimacy with “collective memory.” How do we decide that an event is memorable, and deserves a place of honor or respect in our cultural narrative? The first paper I am working on will be about the UbuWeb archive of avant-garde, ethnopoetic and outside arts. A massive, growing non-profit, wholly volunteer outsider archive, it strives to accumulate documents and evidence related to some fairly obscure threads of human society. Through interviews, videos, images, transcripts, podcasts, blogs and happenings, a wildly cross-cultural portrait is emerging of Ubu Roi and Dada’s children. Like this mesmerizing 1973 Matsuo Ohno video of Taj Mahal Travelers on tour, for instance.

I am also looking into writing a proposal for an internationally focused, professional film archive journal, as well as completing a large final project about the ongoing cultural memories of Black May, Thailand’s 1992 grass-roots uprising against General Kraprayoon’s military dictatorship. The protests led to a bloody confrontation at the Kreung Thep (Bangkok) Democracy Monument, near Rachadamneorn Road. It was slightly overcast in 2005, several days shy of the King’s birthday, when I visited this art deco oddity for the second time during my trip…

Thailand’s Democracy Monument, 02 December 2005

Hopefully I can find video of the surreal television broadcast inspired by the riots, where HM The King publicly berated the two leading political figures, the military man and the democratic leader, before leaving up to the to quell the disturbance caused by their difficulties. Amazingly, the violence ended with a peaceable transfer of power back to the monarchic democracy Thailand has enjoyed for over 70 years. (Anyone who might have access to any online materials about Black May, please let me know, I need anything and everything I can find.)

And so Robotic Librarian is not merely an archive of dust, and you will hear from me again. Until…


Robotic Mnemonic

July 1, 2007

Being a librarian is a complex business, and pretty much every discipline of study out there exists because of a historical respect for the values which guide our profession. Or, at least, because of the impulse which guides some of us toward the study and practice of librarianship. Without an overarching belief in the equitable value of all information, and without a heartfelt need to preserve cultural memory, where would we be?

As Andrew Robinson discusses in The Story of Writing, language has been used to obscure history and propagandize right from the start. After a battle at Kadesh between the Egyptians and the Hittites in approximately 1286BC, each side proclaimed themselves the victor in graven inscriptions. In the 20th century, Stalin routinely demanded falsified photographs to disguise the absence of the disappeared, and more recently Time magazine got in trouble for editing a little cover photo. Or two.

Fauxtography and its antecedents are a fascinating study, and one that helps properly contextualize library values and practice. I am obviously a fan of advocacy; I do not believe in pure objectivity, and in fact I feel that perpetuating a myth of objectivity only harms professions that are held to it, such as journalism and librarianship. (Edward R. Murrow, we have not forgotten you.) Language itself carries millions of unspoken processes for discrimination without which we could not function or meaningfully communicate, yet simultaneously erects borders that proscribe meaning & communication.

Lukasa (Memory Board) of the Luba people

“Is there a difference between history and memory? Simplistically, perhaps, one tends to think of memory as personal, selective, amorphous and emotionally charged; and of history as memory made to some degree objective, sorted out, verified, supplied with missing events, dates and causes.” Isn’t it incontrovertible at this late date though that memory creates history, and vice versa?

I love trying to understand cultural conceptions of memory, and how we organize the stories we tell ourselves. If you’ve even been involved in a car accident or argued passionately with a loved one you know how forceful dissonant memories can be. Communities coalesce around shared coruscating facets of memory; our own personal Rashomon Effect. Memory is central to librarianship, and it is so important to preserve memories of our selves and our world unedited. Every time history is re-imagined, or reshaped by contemporary understanding, we lose something in the translation unless the original memory is preserved.

A librarian is a steward, yes, but also a bulwark as well. After the Roman Empire’s influence dissolved by assimilation selfless Abbots and monks preserved dangerous philosophical texts at risk of losing their lives — hiding them in walls and chests, scraping front pages of heretic authors’ names and copying onto the palimpsest names of condoned writers, or even rebinding works so that several texts could be hidden by the authority of an acceptable one. Almost every early religious culture was involved in this form of preservation, be it Islamic, Zoroastrian, Buddhist or Christian. Without such work the records of cultural memory would be illegible maelstroms of dust.

Huichol yarn painting by Rojelio Beuites

Digitization offers so much promise…I can’t wait to see how the Armarius project is going to develop. Just as amazing is the British Library’s Turning the Pages project, which offers to the world community a chance to interact with very rare and fragile primary texts otherwise impossible to share. Familiarity with digital platforms, social networking and what have you, is at root a form of multilingualism which can only complement our respective native languages. As a librarian I feel responsible to history because, at the end of the day, librarianship is a socially sanctioned mnemonic.


Being Murakami Haruki

June 17, 2007

“Hajime,” she began, “the sad truth is that certain types of things can’t got backward. Once they start going forward, no matter what you do, they can’t go back the way they were. If even one little thing goes awry, then that’s how it will stay forever.”

South of the Border, West of the Sun p.147

For me, possibly the most important passage Murakami ever wrote, as far as understanding his work. He is one of my favorite modern authors, likely my absolute favorite, though it is hard to express why. At times maudlin, at other times a little too cozy and smug… but those moments are luckily few and far between. His work is able to touch me so directly, snaking stealthily under years of disillusionment and cynicism by stoking any lingering fires of sentimentality and, most meaningfully, nostalgia. As Yeats sang so beautifully for wandering Aengus, “I went out to a hazel wood because a fire was in my head…”

disappearing act

Somehow I was introduced to Murakami around when his first English translations were coming out, and the first book I read was a hardcover edition of A Wild Sheep Chase. A wicked mashup of noir, Raymond Carver, and Albert Camus, I had to read it a second time almost immediately to convince myself it was real. Strangely it took me several years to read another one, and once I did, I couldn’t stop until I read them all.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is a masterpiece. A Wild Sheep Chase is good, but I didn’t know at the time that it was the third in a loose trilogy, sometimes called the trilogy of the rat after a character who is, by the time of Sheep Chase, already a ghost. Wonderland embodies everything that is so beguiling about Murakami’s work.

(And, curse the powers that be, but Pinball 1973 and Murakami’s first novel, Hear the Wind Sing, are not yet available in English outside of translations for sale only in Japan for Japanese students of English. I want to publicly thank a remarkably kind book rep, Bill Verner, who years ago gifted me his personal copy of Hear the Wind Sing, which, if you find it on abebooks or ebay at all, will cost you over a hundred dollars! Bill has translated several Paco Ignacio Taibo II books into english, by the way, and they’re very well done.)

There are two major elements to his best stories, obsessions that he shares with several other Japanese artists, but that are hard to meaningfully isolate. Often his characters are divided into halves, and seek unconsciously to remedy any blindness this may cause. The borders of memory are fragile, and Murakami exhumes what we hoped would remain buried, the tender sentiment of past regret. What brings me back to his stories, especially Hard-Boiled and one of my favorites, after the quake (originally All God’s Children Can Dance in Japanese) is how he works his way under my skin so that I am inhabited by his nostalgia, like wearing a diaphanous cloth of which I am aware only in the breeze.

Just as frequently, women disappear in his works, literally or existentially, sometimes hard to tell. And yet he manages to turn those moments into haunting ruminations on memory, like an emotional transliteration of the Schrödinger’s Cat paradox. Luckily it doesn’t seem like a parlor trick, except in Sputnik Sweetheart which should be avoided at all costs, because the core mystery is a mystery which bedevils him as well.

He is able, like Luis Buñuel and David Lynch, to communicate an ephemeral dream state so that you feel like it’s your dream, and that it is your consciousness that is divided. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and Norwegian Wood make this division quite literal; in Hard-Boiled every other chapter vacillates between two wildly different narratives, and in Norwegian Wood the book was published in two volumes (at least in Japan and in England), a red and a green edition.

Norwegian Wood, both editions

 

(He became so popular at the time, with so many school kids identifying with one book or the other that it became fashionable to dress up in the color of one’s favored book. He fled Japan soon after, unwilling to suffer the widespread recognition, though today I think he does go back.)

I am thinking of him lately because a new novella came out last month, After Dark, and I haven’t read it yet. I was spoiled for years, working as I did in bookstores where everyone knew how much I loved his work, so I would get first dibs on advanced reader editions. When I returned from an absence to work at Malaprop’s Bookstore, the owner showed her appreciation of me by gifting me a signed hardcover copy of after the quake (how cool is that!). I didn’t even see any ARC copies of After Dark at BookExpo this year…did I miss them or is it a sign of tightened purse strings in lean times?

Murakami also features librarians in several of his works, most memorably in Wonderland where a man unwillingly has had his shadow severed from him by an axe-wielding gatekeeper, and is trying to find out how to keep his shadow from an early death. He is called upon by the town librarian to read the skulls of some mysterious animals; reading the skulls summons up magnificent memories while stripping him of his own. Also, in Kafka on the Shore, the main character winds up befriending a gender dysphoric librarian as well as the unusual library director Miss Saeki.

So if you’re up for a bit mental dislocation (a la Philip K. Dick) or an atmosphere of ruminative nostalgia (a la Raymond Bradbury) be sure to check out some Murakami. At least, if you have some time for a new literary obsession.


The Dread Pirate Wiki

June 15, 2007

This morning I decided to follow up on my visit to protest.net, (mentioned in my last post) and the lack of activity I saw on it. I couldn’t believe that my old programmer friend would let it lie low unless he had something else more significant going on.

Little did I know… It turns out that he is even more involved than ever before, and more broadly advocating for his beliefs. You can check out his blog, Anarchogeek, to see a bit of what occupies him these days. I was wrong about protest.net’s inactivity, I just wasn’t looking in the right places. Even more amazing to me is that he’s involved with programming for Indymedia, a group I first heard of through Asheville Global Report. Both are essential sources of under reported news from around the globe.

Web Header for AGR

(I miss Asheville, NC very much, and one of the reasons is the Global Report. You can’t find a more dedicated volunteer staff trying to make sure that buried news reports get some press outside of politically aligned outfits such as NPR and the Nation. I was especially excited to find that, even with operating expenses in the red, the Report is distributed up here in Chicago as well. I found copies at both Alliance Bakery on Division, east of Damen, as well as at Earwax cafe on North, also east of Damen. Congratulations to Eamon et al.)

All of this got me thinking again about wikis and social networks, and the general distrust of library professionals about their reliability or security. Annalee Newitz, with Alternet, has a wonderful little article about Wikipedia activism, pointing out why it is important to be active in supporting & contributing to wikipedia. If it’s worth having an opinion about in the first place, then isn’t it worth the trouble?

And wikis themselves are proving to be very popular business tools, especially when preparing for industry get-togethers. Perhaps we could use them to collaborate with the ALA in drafting meaningful policies for local administrative use? Or in drafting legislation for national advocacy? (If this is already happening please don’t feel shy about letting me know about my ignorance…)

Many library professionals seem to feel forced into the debate because of the growing numbers of users. And libraries cannot be faulted wholesale for tensions about the quality of new information sources, as we are acknowledged leaders in tech heavy environments, with much technological acumen. We are picking up on valid problems. (Sorry for a lack of links there, I’m not able to reference some good articles without compromising copyright issues, but check out Library Journal as well as several emerald-library articles)

One limitation I see in our involvement with Ning, Second Life, MySpace, Facebook and their ilk is that we are leaving the design and programming to others. Apart from Casey Bisson’s Scriblio (formerly WPopac) project, using open source blogging code to enable a user-friendly library catalog interface, there isn’t much going on with librarians generating unique coding outside of individual webpages.

Which brings me back to my friend, who is working on a Ruby on Rails book for O’Reilly Media. Some of the work he is doing can point the way toward open source networking frames possible in library environments, so we don’t have to rely solely on Google to scan our books, or Yahoo to author our widgets and apps. My point is, there are dedicated professional programmers, outside the library profession, who might be willing to help us out if we ask nicely enough, and are willing to learn some of it as well. Just check out Change.org to see some of the networking possibilities available if we meet the net head on. We need to harness the Wisdom of Crowds, not condemn it outright as Michael Gorman is often doing these days. We’re all in this together, right?