Impermanence and archives in the information era

I have been thinking a lot lately about the ideas of impermanence, flexibility, retention, and change. Apart from the aesthetics or poetics of impermanence, it does in a very real sense pose problems to a digital record. We have access to more voices, more information, more possibilities than ever before, yet in some ways we have less. As projects and web spaces necessarily evolve, history and documentation can be lost. Sometimes it is refined, but sometimes it is simply replaced.

As I began a discussion today about digital humanities resources, completion, and evolution, I realized data fragility on that level is something to return to at another time. Here, and now, the concern is on a more immediate possibility of a different kind of record loss.

The broader web and digital records pose challenges that archivists have been debating since the beginnings of the Internet—how rapid, how impermanent a space for communications and public discourse. But it is also a place for public access to many kinds of records, and none seem more important right now than government data. In an era of looming uncertainty about transparency and access to information, the preservation activities of the Internet Archive Wayback Machine seem suddenly radical.

Archivists as activists have been a topic of interest for some time, but it is often in relation to hidden histories or underrepresented communities that such discussion develops. It is a strange twist, indeed, to suddenly view government documents archivists and scientific communities as activists. But as the fear that certain politically unpopular documentation—websites, datasets, papers, reports, communications—may start to disappear, a frantic effort to collect and archive seems like just that.

Business Insider explains this in an article articulating concerns about the possibility of climate change data being wiped from both servers and web spaces.

Tech.Co similarly explains three ways scientists are frantically preserving this data.

The University of Toronto Guerrilla Archiving Event: Saving Environmental Data from Trump was initiated by faculty fearing data loss and the tamping down on access to information. The End of Term Presidential Harvest, an initiative of several university and government offices, took on a tone this year that seems more urgent, more immediate, and more important than in the past. As though data—and history—may actually be erased, not just updated or misplaced.

There are undertones not simply of the usual transience and carelessness in the management and access to information, but of malicious intent. This is put forth, forcefully, in the language of the Internet Archive’s See Something, Save Something initiative. Sure, it’s about anyone pitching in to help preserve websites and digital content, but co-opting and playing on the language of the See Something, Say Something campaign to combat terrorism through heightened public awareness is not a subtle message that the willful “disappearance” of information from public spheres is something against which people must remain vigilant.

Further, digging out and tweeting this 1946 educational film on despotism seems an unequivocal declaration that Internet Archive is watching the political and social arenas and guarding access to information for the future of an informed citizenry:

Despotism
Encyclopedia Britannica Films
1946

Archival activism is alive and more essential than ever, and the task of vigilant preservation and advocating for public spheres just became even more immediate. The message on the part of a great many groups is clear: knowledge isn’t just power, it’s a basic human right.

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Exhibit test materials and learning some new software

Cinderella images

A test background for an upcoming exhibit on Cinderella.

Four Cinderella images

Cinderella test image for exhibit background.

I have been working with the Smathers Libraries Digital Humanities Library Learning Group on an interesting project to learn techniques and tools related to digital humanities work. As part of the exhibits committee I am working with a group of librarians to curate and create an online exhibit using children’s books from the Special Collections Department. The two images above are test backgrounds for a new exhibit on Cinderella and Ashenputtel, the French and German versions of the classic story.

I have been working with Omeka a lot lately (you can see the basics of my first forays into using that CMS from a few years ago in this earlier post), and I have had the chance to experiment with the exhibit creation tools in ways I have not tried in the past. This includes using Neatline, a timeline and geospatial imaging plugin. I am testing the process of using this plugin to create image-driven narrative content (as opposed to map- and timeline-based), which has great potential to create engaging displays.

I will make a longer post detailing more of my process later on, but for now I have posted the above images in order to have base layer images available online; I am still working out sizing and layout details, so nothing is finalized yet. So far the experiments have been exciting, and of course I always love building graphics! I look forward to adding more reflections soon.

Capturing the essence of a visual work

It’s not too often that one has the chance to muse that art and cataloging librarianship have a lot in common, and yet when it comes to describing the emotional impact of visual material they can. I have thought a lot about emotional meanings from an image retrieval perspective over the past few years, ever since reading JungWon Yoon’s article, Searching for an Image conveying connotative meanings: An exploratory cross-cultural study. I am reminded of it now, as I play with the Kiasma Museum’s Tunteella app, which is designed to measure your mood as assigned to images and then recommend a work from the Finnish National Gallery to view based on the emotional profile it has gathered. It’s clever, of course a bit gimmicky, and a fun little exercise. It’s meant to be a quick foray into art engagement, but it also brings up much larger questions of meaning and interpretation, and the limits of the app spotlight a real tension that exists between image retrieval and connotation in imagery.

Connotative meanings and image retrieval
First, it is worth noting that in Yoon’s study she discusses the problem of indexing materials—in this case images—in a way that describes the meaning and emotional content of the work. It’s easier to describe the more concrete attributes, and yet she notes that most often users want an image to fulfill a search based on more than just denotative criteria. A sunlit sky with dark clouds, for example, could convey a sense of ominous impending storm or optimism associated with the clouds parting after a beneficial rain, a lonely and isolated landscape or a beautiful untouched wilderness—trite example, maybe, but it gets at the way experiences and moods inform the way images are seen. And yet, in searching behavior users often want to find an image that conveys a certain mood or emotion, not just a scene. This interpretation, however, is influenced by many factors, including (to name just a few) one’s own mood while viewing at a particular moment, one’s general disposition, and cultural factors, the latter of which Yoon looks at in her study.

But as artists and art historians, we already know that. We interpret visual material and encourage others to consider and find meaning. There is uneasiness in the multiplicity of possibilities, but the expansiveness is also a reminder of the complexity of human experience and the desire to understand things through various lenses. We can index and catalog imagery to a certain point, but there is often something left unaccounted for as soon as minimal labels are applied.

Tunteella
This brings me back around to Tunteella, which relies on a viewer’s emotional interpretations of nine randomly selected works to gauge the prevailing mood through which they are seeing the world. By interpreting your assignment of one of eight different terms meant to express mood, the app decides on your prevailing world view and suggests a work of art you should look at.

Tunteella app screen

Result screen from my interpretation of nine randomly selected works in Tunteella.

The point I discussed above about the subjectivity of describing visual imagery is best illustrated here by two points; first, the same word choices are available for all images and second the same images make it into multiple conflicting categories of the “top ten” list of all the mood options. Case in point, Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s video piece The Annunciation appears at a varying rank in five different categories: irritating, crazy, threatening, voluptuous, and mystical. These indicate, in some cases, wildly divergent experiences of the same piece—threatening and mystical might generally be understood—though not always—as divergent concepts. This is fascinating and perfectly exemplifies the complexity of human emotional responses. We simply can’t describe most visual material in terms of connotative meanings with words that will be universal. The best that we can strive for is finding broad categories and trends for this area of indexing.

Read more about my thoughts on the potential problems associated with defining broad emotional categories for users in a related blog post on my other blog, Writing It All Down.

Directions

I began this blog during my library school studies as an assignment to complete a portion of the original 23 Things program. This is a popular and ongoing LIS assignment because the original concept was so brilliantly conceived. Countless spin-offs arose from nearly every corner of the field, updating with new technologies, eliminating the outdated content, and expanding to pull in resources specific to archives or to information literacy or any other number of topics. Structured exploration is valuable for skill building, but also for cultivating the habit of curiosity and connection—these programs undoubtedly encourage people who would not seek out new technologies to explore and also provide a ready source for those who are naturally curious to see elements that they might have missed in their own expeditions. Either way, the programs are a great asset to the field of librarianship.

For the purposes of this blog I have extended the “things” I chose to cover with specific reflections about the ways they can be used in information literacy instruction or library outreach and programming. Now that I am back to writing in this space, I am shifting my focus ever so slightly. I will still be exploring new social media and technologies and the ways that these can be leveraged in the library environment, but I am departing from following any formalized “things” program—there are too many great resources that I use to artificially limit the process and sometimes the various programs are slow to respond to rapid technological changes. A case in point is the ambitious addition of intermediate and advanced sections to the original 23 Things for Archivists program, neither of which has ever be completed—though the resources that are there are still largely very useful elements. The newest version (which is being updated) is located at a new site, and has a less demanding schedule of additions.

So, as the title suggests, this blog is about a journey. It began in graduate school and is now extending beyond that into my professional life. With that, it is evolving beyond the original thematic confines, though still focusing on the exploration of technological tools and reflections about potential use in the library field. I look forward to my explorations and to the interactions that will happen along the way!

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