Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Citizen Archivists and Librarians

A recent essay in Harper’s discusses the work of Rick Prelinger and Megan Shaw Prelinger, terming them “experimental amateur librarians.” Considering the Prelingers formation of a library of cast-offs and printed ephemera, numbering about 50,000 items and located in San Francisco, Gideon Lewis-Kraus – in his “A World in Three Aisles: Browsing the Post-Digital Library,” Harper’s 314 (May 2007): 47-52, 54-57 – considers how and why they have opted to gather this miscellany of printed stuff in the midst of all the hoopla about the demise of print and the success of the new digital library. As Lewis-Kraus reports, “They think the conflict between a so-called digital culture and a so-called print culture is fake; they think we should stop celebrating, or lamenting, the discontinuous story of how the circuits will displace the shelves and start telling a continuous story about how the two might fit together” (p. 47).

The Prelinger library provides a different message in our digital age. Made up of 30,000 books and periodicals and about 20,000 pieces of ephemera, the items were “obtained from used-book stores, shrinking institutional and public libraries, periodicals brokers, private donors, and eBay” (p. 49). What the Prelingers are seeking to do, in this era of the new Library of Alexandria, is to “preserve a space for the physical, the limited, and the fussily hand-sorted alongside the digital pile. And they think there is a way that the small private library – a phrase that, up until now, has tended to connote a marble-busted terrarium of leather-bound wealth – can be reimagined to do just that” (p. 49). As Lewis-Kraus suggests, “every Library of Alexandria on some broad boulevard needs Prelinger libraries tucked away in the alleys behind” (p. 56). Clearly, the image here is that a library is a place where one finds books, not just computer terminals.

A considerable portion of the essay describes the Prelingers’ classification scheme for their library, one that will drive librarians and archivists to distraction with its focus on “browsability,” but this is not the message of the essay of most interest to me. Prelinger, known for his efforts on ephemeral films, orphaned works, and the Internet Archive, speaks through this essay about the promises and distractions of our modern information age. Here is how the Prelingers’ work is described: “The promise of the Internet-as-Alexandria is more than the roiling platitude of information. It’s the ability of individuals to choreograph that information in idiosyncratic ways, the hope that individuals might feel invited by a gravitational pull of a broad and open commons to ‘rip, mix, and burn’ – to curate. This new sort of curator, in effect, is one definition of blogger: an amateur experimental librarian for the Internet, the curator of (in blogger/writer Cory Doctrow’s phrase) a digital wunderkammer, a private informational choreographer who has made her alignments public” (p. 56). This is a powerful idea, one suggesting that private citizens will play an increasing role in the preservation of our documentary heritage. It is an idea worth considering and debating.


At 12:05 PM, Blogger Brian said...

I found this article comforting. The digital age is great, but there is something wonderful to be said about this couple who are preserving the things that no one else is thinking to save. I think ephemera has as much to tell us about our society as anything else. It presents aspects of design, language, and technology. My personal favorite is the small 50s catalog pamphlet that was in the set of Wahl shears I received from my grandma. I particularly love the image of woman wearing her all-in-one hair drying unit, which is more reminiscent of space travel than beauty products.

At 3:27 PM, Blogger D. Loon said...

Hello Dr. Cox!

I still think of Rick Prelinger's Pittsburgh visit last year and the discussion it caused among the students, particularly the idea of citizen archivists. I have a lot of sympathy for the notion of the dedicated - and competent - amateur as deserving as much credit as the credentialed "professional", and I have only been able to settle comfortably into a self-identification as a professional archivist with a good deal of qualification.

I appreciate how the emphasis of your instruction was on reading and writing - not even so much on archival theory as on how to approach it. If others learn to approach archival theory and methodology in similar ways through other avenues less officially recognized by SAA or whoever, I think the proper attitude is that whoever isn't against us is on our side. And I don't think it serves archivists well morally to try to jealously guard our status as experts - let understanding of archival principles be promoted among everyone, and if the mark of "professional" archivists becomes simply taking care of records full-time - well, we might not be able to get people to pay us more for our professional glamor, but we shouldn't be in this for the money anyway.


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