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.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Old Media, New Media

As Lisa Gitelman states in a number of places in her book, Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), she is fighting against the notion that media tends to move along an “inevitable path”; it is not always progressive, confident, converging, or harmonious (among a variety of characteristics). The reception and history of media is more complex than that, even to the point as not always having a clear meaning. The strength of her analysis is to remind us, archivists, librarians, and other information experts, that the historical and social context of media is extremely important: “The introduction of new media . . . is never critically revolutionary: new media are less points of epistemic rupture than they are socially embedded sites for the ongoing negotiation of meaning as such” (p. 6). So, she argues, it is useful to look at old media in order to understand new media.

This is an interesting book for archivists. Gitelman’s case studies include recorded sound in the 1878-1910 period, now part of the documentary heritage archivists work to preserve, and the emergence of the World Wide Web, part of the digital heritage archivists are still stymied about to preserve in some meaningful, usable way. Through her discussions, Gitelman plays with the meaning of document, record, text, bibliography, manuscript, evidence, page, archive, and inscriptions – all in ways that step in, out, and around conventional ways archivists have considered such terms. In both case studies, Gitelman examines the full historical and technological contexts supporting these technologies. For example, she states, “sound reproduction became defined by and against an existing field of metaphors, attitudes, assumptions, and practices. Varied constructions of mimesis and music formed important contexts for the uses and users of the new medium” (p .68). She considers the digital networks and texts as arriving “amid an existing textual economy, a world and workplace powerfully self-constructed according to the logic of contemporary media: print publication, broadcasting, Hollywood, and the record labels, but also punch cards, printouts, and paperwork. Experiences with digital networks have helped to construct a coincident yet contravening logic for digital texts, partly in response to material features of the new medium, and partly in response to the hugely varied contexts of their ongoing reception and development” (p. 95).

For the archivist and others interested in the nature of recording technologies, this is an interesting scholarly study providing a richer way of examining of old, new, and emerging information technologies.