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Friday, February 17, 2006

Archive fever, vol. I

Last week, I attended a fantastic conference at Rutgers devoted to Jonathan Swift's A Tale of a Tub (1704). I was especially interested in the panelists' discussion of how Swift responds to the developing public sphere of print commerce. The restrictions on how many printers could exist in England ended after the lapse of the Licensing Act in 1695, and printed material soon glutted the marketplace. A Tale of a Tub satirizes the influx of persons with vested interests in the publishing industry: there is a dedication to a lord, a dedication to Prince Posterity, a postscript, a booksellers' note, a preface, an introduction, and an apology in which the speaker insists that he hasn't read everything that's attributed to him in the text. It's hard to sort out what's Swift and what's Swift's satire on others, and a few people at the conference wondered why we were trying to pin down an author function on a text that's all about the instability of authorship in a time when print was displacing manuscript circulation as main way to circulate writing.

I've noted previously that Swift's concerns from the early eighteenth century about the effects of mass circulation on writing bear some resemblance to contemporary fears about how blogging, text messaging, and the Internet will change communication. I think you can track cycles of fear-mongering (no one will be able to communicate anymore!), gestures to nostalgia and preservation, high-flying hopes, and experimentation at any times of technological change. That's why I love the eighteenth century! I'd recommend the essays in Regimes of Description: In the Archive of the Eighteenth Century for some valuable perspectives on the issue.

I was led back from the eighteenth century to today with a few reminders of how those cycles are functioning in the debates about how to digitize archives. This article from Wired about digitizing the National Archives is a departure from what I usually see in the magazine in its reactionary tone about nostalgia and removing the human from the archival system. Libraries and private digitizing services are dealing with huge questions about cost and how to maintain and update digitized archives--and the author wants to mention four separate times that the archivists are socially awkward?!

Why, let's turn to Swift's dedication to Prince Posterity:
What is then become of those immense Bales of Paper, which must need have been employ'd in such Numbers of Books? Can these also be wholly annihilate, and so of a sudden as I pretend? What shall I say in return of so invidious an Objection? It ill befits the Distance between Your Highness and Me, to send You for ocular Conviction to a Jakes, or an Oven; to the Windows of a Bawdy-house, or a sordid Lanthorn. Books, like Men their Authors, have no more than on Way of coming into the World, but there are ten Thousand to go out of it, and return no more.

(in case the language is too arcane: that's an outhouse, an oven, a whorehouse, and a lantern as possible ends for the books)

And here's a rambling column by Jeanette Winterson about digitizing books. Some of the points are interesting possibilities, but others aren't properly explained:
"Too much is being published. It is time to use new technology to slim the bloat. It is no shame to find other formats for publications that should not be books at all.

"And then I have to argue against myself and realise that censorship and the rewriting of history will be much easier when books are no longer books."

Here's Swift worrying about Prince Posterity:

'Tis not unlikely, that when Your Highness will one day peruse what I am now writing, You may be ready to expostulate with Your Governour upon the Credit of what I here affirm, and command Him to shew You some of our Productions. To which he will answer, (for I am well informed of his Designs) by asking Your Highness, where there are? and what is become of them? and pretend it a Demonstration that there never were any, because they are not then to be found: Not to be found! Who has mislaid them? Are they sunk in the Abyss of Things? 'Tis certian, that in their own Nature they were light enough to swim upon the Surface for all Eternity. Therefore the Fault is in Him, who tied Weights so heavy to their Heels, as to depress them to the Center. Is their very Essence destroyed? Who has annihilated them? Were they drowned by Purges or martyred by Pipes? Who administered them to the Posteriors of ------? But that it may no longer be a Doubt with Your Highness, who is to be the Author of this universal Ruin; I beseech You to observe that large and terrible Scythe which your Governour affect to bear continually about him. Be pleased to remark the Lenghth and Strength, the Shaprness and Hardness of his Nails and Teeth: Consider his baneful abominable Breath, Enemy to Life and Matter, infectious and corrupting: And then reflect whether it be possible for any mortal Ink and Paper of this Generation to make a suitable Resistance. Oh, that Your Highness would one day resoulve to disarm this Usurpation Maitre du Palais [Swift's note glosses this term as Comptroller], of his furious Engins [sic], and bring Your Empire hors de Page [Swift's gloss: Out of Guardianship].

But the real source of my ire is Russell Baker's review of Nicholson Baker's new book of prints of nineteenth-century American newspapers, The World on Sunday: Graphic Art in Joseph Pulitzer's Newspaper (1898-1911), in the New York Review of Books. I'm expecting The World on Sunday to be a fascinating look at what Pulitzer and other American newspaper publishers could do with innovations in printing presses and typesetting. I'd love to read about that. But Russell Baker in his review takes a tired tack of focusing more on a negative comparison to contemporary changes in reading practices. This is nostalgia disguised as argument:

"The CBS show Sunday Morning is network television's one attempt at an electronic version of calm, old-fashioned Sunday journalism, and an elegant show it is. Little else, however, varies from TV journalism's routine daily style in which the usual suspects are rounded up again and again until the mind goes numb. With news channels running ceaselessly, journalism becomes as omnipresent as wallpaper. Tirelessness is its strength and monotony its style, though sometimes it does something absolutely irresistible.

"An assassination occurs. The World Trade Center falls. War begins. A mountain explodes. The Indian Ocean rises up in boiling rage. Then things grow calm.... Police helicopters pursue a stolen car. Missing Girl is found dead. The President arrives, departs, declares, challenges; earthquake kills thousands; raid nets millions in cocaine. It fills you up while leaving you famished."

This argument is in full force in Nicholson Baker's Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper. Some of Baker's points are useful critiques of some library disposal practices, but I'm not sure how he wants to make compromises. Russell Baker calls Nicholson Baker "a warrior in the struggle against America's throwaway culture" for his dedication to preserving old newspapers that libraries had thrown out because they were shifting their attention toward digital and microfilmed collections. Librarians are seeing a huge shift in technology and have many concerns about how to finance, maintain, and make accessible these collections, but I don't think hectoring them is the best way to engage in a productive discussion. I hope those quotations from Swift demonstrate that worries about throwaway culture are nothing new. But just in case, here's one more about how a glut of books turns them into disposable items:
To affirm that our Age is altogether Unlearned, and devoid of Writers in any kind, seems to be an Assertion so bold and so false, that I have been sometime thinking, the contrary may almost by proved by uncontroulable Demonstration. 'Tis true indeed, that altho' their Numbers be vast, and their Productions numerous in proportion, yet they hurryed so hastily off the Scene, that they escape our Memory, and delude our Sight. When I first thought of this Address, I had prepared a copious List of Titles to present Your Highness as an undisputed Argument for what I affirm. The Originals were psoted fresh upon all Gates and Coners of Streets; but returning in a very few Hours to take a Review, they were all torn down, and fresh ones in their Places: I enquired after them among Readers and Booksellers, but I enquired in vain, the Memorial of them was lost among Men, their Place was no more to be found. [the notes to the edition edited by Claude Rawson note that the Hack is here referring to John Dryden's "Discourse on Satire," in which Dryden tells his rivals they won't be around for long.]

I'm certainly not advocating ignoring Baker, Winterson, or the archivists at the National Archives--but let's separate the anxiety and the heady nostalgia from a genuine discussion about how reading and writing may change over the next several years and beyond.