Conceptual pirouettes

Another piece from the May 2007 Harper’s: Gideon Lewis-Kraus “A World in Three Aisles: Browsing the post-digital library” has me thinking about collections, legacies, contextualizations, and the bugaboos I struggled with during my 15 years as a Librarian. With all that, this posting may take a while to unreel itself, and I’m thinking to break it up into money quotes from the article (which is eminently worth reading, even if you are not now nor have ever been a Librarian) and my own ruminations. So (with emphasis added here and there for bits I particularly like):

…why do they [Rick Prelinger and Megan Shaw Prelinger] truck across town to spend their afternoons painstakingly arranging and rearranging fifty thousand uncataloged and whimsically classified items, very few of which are overwhelmingly rare or commercially valuable… (pg 48)

…they want to help 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 …can be reimagined to do just that. (pg 49)

The first rule [of the classification scheme] is that locality trumps all other considerations (pg 49)

Megan describes the library as fundamentally a physical organization of their own mental furniture. Their assortment maps out the range of future projects they have considered pursuing, and its varying granularity of organization provides insight into what they have worked through and what they haven’t quite gotten around to yet. (pp 50-51)

The charm of the Prelinger Library lies in the canny and pleasantly unexpected ways one subject blends into another [examples]…This latter transition is one of the conceptual pirouettes that Megan is proudest of, as it bridges the gap between the material and immaterial worlds. (pg 51)

The connections in Rick and Megan’s browsable narrative require varying degrees of imaginative exertion. (pg 52)

…the library is in a constant state of associative refinement, what Megan characteristically calls “brushing the teeth of the granularity” –that is, “work,” which also includes the transport of heavy cardboard boxes from one heap to another. (pg 52)

(Public libraries) are increasingly centered around computer terminals and stupidly grandiose atria that make them feel less like book repositories and more like shopping malls or free Internet cafés. The San Francisco Public Library… was constructed at enormous public expense in the nineties, and the result –a vacuous hotel-lobby sort of space, the actual books peripherized as a guilty afterthought— is unanimously considered a disaster… The reference librarians, reconciled to their new roles as customer-service technicians in the guise of advanced-degree “information scientists,” stand behind high oak-paneled counters and field questions about how to use these Internet resources, or more often how to get the printer to work… (pp 52, 54)

[the Prelinger Collection] is not about browsability per se but tailored and pointed browsability —browsability within a narrative structure and in service to some very particular ideas about the ownership of culture and the cultural frameworks of democracy (pg 55)

The promise of the Internet-as-Alexandria is more than the roiling plenitude of information. It’s the ability of individuals to choreograph that information in idiosyncratic ways… (pg 56)

…the Dewey decimal system is a helpful but ossified structure best suited to the bureaucratic centralization of thousands of different libraries (pg 56)

“We want to foment bursts of concentrated discovery across the spectrum,” Megan told one tour (pg 57)

As I read and re-read this article I found myself alternately cheering and tut-tutting, and here and there scribbling something in the margin, and when I add all that up I end up with the label “provocative” for the whole thing. There are some things that bother me, some scabs I continue to pick and itches that will be scratched.

The actual physical environment of the Prelinger collection centers on

haphazardly rigged shelves, eleven-foot stanchions, a gleaming gunmetal… [consisting of] about fifty thousand items… [including] twenty thousand pieces of what they call “ephemera,” maps and charts and brochures and errant scraps of apposite paper (pp 47, 48)

…so it’s different from my private library in being, well, bigger, but a lot of us preside over collections of a lifetime, which we tend and prune and augment and keep in idiosyncratic order (generally less apparent to outsiders than to ourselves), and which contain precisely what we “have worked through and what we haven’t quite gotten around to yet.” Managing such mathom houses, and turning them to productive use, is the greatest of pleasures for some of us. And now we have the means (via the Web) to put such ephemera into context and present some of their facets to a global audience.

The challenges of array and navigation are pretty profound, and I’m not convinced that the Prelinger approach to classification and order (“locality trumps all other considerations”) is of general utility –though I surely have myself bits of shelvage that are ordered by geographical considerations. Really the important point is one that I can’t find mentioned anywhere in the article: every item has more than one quality/characteristic that makes it worthy of membership in a collection, and a user needs to be able to use those earmarks to find associated items, and needs to be able to attach additional earmarks (OK, let’s call them TAGS) as new relationships emerge as a consequence of use.

A physical item pretty much has to reside in one location (its place on a shelf, or a labelled folder, or whatever), and serendipitous browsing is an important discovery method, but systematic frameworks and tools for managing such dynamic collections are essentially non-existent. The world of cataloging standards isn’t much help if the materials aren’t included in the standards (e.g., my collections of photographs, or of musical instruments, or coffin plaques, or extinct mass storage devices…). Thinking through all of this makes me realize the fairly obvious truth that what associates all these things is a narrative structure, the tales they are or can be woven into. Again, we have the medium for curation and distribution of those tales –the Web– but there aren’t a lot of examples or models out there. Perhaps more accurately, most of the existing examples and models are institutional, and based on grants and budgets and administrations. I need to keep a weather eye peeled for the work of others who are thinking along these lines, while continuing to pursue them myself. Expect to see more about this in this space…

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