Scott Trowell – Question 5
5How do digital representations of archival materials change our perceptions of those materials, and in particular, aspects of those materials not considered previously editable or archivable?
Faculty of Arts and Humanities Librarian – University of Sheffield
Collections Manager for National Fairgrounds Archive, Western Bank Library – University of Sheffield
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 It is important to talk here about a change in general perception that digital transformations have brought about in everyday life, as this has an encompassing effect on the consideration of changed perceptions regarding digitally transformed archival materials. Disembedding singular aspects of digital transformation from the general picture of societal practice is a dangerous practice, though we see this taken up as a critical methodology in many situations.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 For instance, there is a burgeoning body of writing about digital cultures and the crossover into information sciences like librarianship and archival studies. Weinberger took up pole position here and deliberately ruffled many feathers in the information science milieu with both the title of his book, Everything is Miscellaneous (clearly an affront to the archivists), and the simple dedication on the first page: “to the librarians.”1 He presents a history of the keystones of information science in the first order of order (things collected and arranged singularly) and the second order of order (the development of standards and multi-faceted catalogs), with an aim to see them cast to extinction and irrelevancy with the third order of order, the digital age. Weinberger argues that we are no longer dealing with atoms—things being in only one place at a single time—but instead with bits that can be anywhere and everywhere in a single instance. With this super-fluidity that derives from moving from physical to digital we also witness new demands on metadata creation and control, to the point that control may be relinquished entirely. Any archives or libraries that remain open can be staffed by elderly volunteers, as the place of physical information holding becomes a museum of itself. Amen.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Clearly, any archive, digital or otherwise, would suffer if everything were simply classified (or unclassified) as miscellaneous. Weinberger seems to think that miscellaneity is a way forward born of a new necessity, deriving from free-floating collections on shared digital hosting sites with items constantly reclassified through “likes,” user tagging, and folksonomies. The thrust of his work is that the organizational jump to third-order ordering necessitates a conceptual jump. As well as everything being anywhere and everywhere at any given moment, then similarly anything can be described in any and many ways over an infinite course of time. We would argue that this is neither a necessity nor a pre-condition for organizing information. User input has prevailed in first-order and second-order information systems—think of penciled comments in books or hacked card catalogs in libraries. But just because the digital third order allows this practice to be both accelerated and instantly sharable does not mean that the basics of an underlying cataloging and classification system needs to be abandoned. Discovery and navigation by likes and comments can be an alternative or a conjunctive method to good old catalogs, but never a replacement.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 This third order of ordering is part of a wider digitally transformed world. Whilst considered an aspect of information science it promotes different perceptions and relations to objects and information, but it also needs to be situated in a wider construct. This new mindset might prefer a blank slate of the generic miscellaneous, but overriding factors and forces sit above this. The digitally enabled world has seen something akin to an “inversion of privacy”—every detail of every life is projected onto everybody else via a surplus of scripted reality television, or grasped (engaged?) through “likes” and “re-tweets.” Material is re-used, circulated, and re-used again in a “postproduction” manner.2 The things we relate to, the way we relate to them, symbolically and emotionally, and our use of them has expanded beyond all previous understanding.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 This new world presents challenges to both archivists and scholarly users of archives, who need to find a balance between submitting to this new mentality in a hegemonic manner and grasping the power of the digital.