The evolution of the archive plays a role as crucial to shaping the future of the book as does the changing form of the book itself. If books can be thought to comprise a culture, libraries provide the social and logistic infrastructure that sustains and nurtures that culture. And the future of the library too, is being shaped by the growth of digital media.
Our stocktaking panel took place last week, with short talks and a discussion between us and three librarians who hold key positions at local Houston institutions: Jon Evans (Hirsch Library at the MFAH), Sara Lowman (Fondren Library at Rice University), and Eric Wolf (Menil Collection Library). Aside from the many obvious and hidden challenges of archiving today, one reality became increasingly clear: the digital era is an inevitability that libraries are wise to embrace.
Coming from the perspective of a boutique collection—that of a private art museum— Eric Wolf introduced the problem of print ephemera in the digital archive. While for him, the issue of archiving miscellaneous materials like checklists, gallery guides, and announcements ensures a record for exhibitions and events that are otherwise erased from our collective memory; the notion of the ephemeral serves as a useful launching point for investigating the implications of digital archives on the future of the library. How do librarians decide which materials are entered into the archive? Is all physical matter worthy of the labor that goes into digitization? What digital medium is best suited for print matter?
The paradox of the digital archive is that its mission is to concretize and to preserve, but that its medium is shifting, dynamic, and immaterial. Digital archives are fragile: they suffer the consequences of proprietary websites, broken links, and bit rot. The Menil’s answer to this has been a very systematic workflow in which ephemera are immediately entered into a system and made publicly available through the institution’s website. Recognizing that ephemera are in fact the type of materials most requested through inter-library loans, the Menil has prioritized increasing digital access to them. What was once—in the analog world—the disposable matter of one-night events, in the digital becomes elevated to the status of historical evidence. With the task of translating existing material to the digital, the librarian-archivist holds the capacity to imbue materials with importance.
In short, the archivist becomes a curator. Jon Evans described his work at the Hirsch Library as increasingly inflected with the task of quality control. To determine whether physical matter is maintained or disposed of; whether it is digitized; and whether digital matter enters the archive; the archivist makes judgments that are both qualitative and quantitative. Certain items may not have been requested for decades, but decidedly hold enough cultural value that they are preserved or digitized. Sara Lowman, on the other hand, matter-of-factly described Fondren Library’s one-copy policy: each item exists in the collection either in print or digital form. In deciding on the most appropriate format, Fondren librarians take into consideration an array of practical factors such as the prohibitive costs of acquiring bundled digital content and the shift of reading habits towards skimming and gleaning amongst digital natives.
Libraries are the social space of the book. Being a publicly accessible university library, Fondren has most strongly felt the effect of the digital on its very architecture and on its engagement by the public. The growth of the digital library has caused the physical collection to shrink, and the removal of book stacks has cleared space and made it available for users as study space. Fittingly, Fondren has taken advantage of this to create space dedicated to engaging the digital, through increased computer areas and media commons. Ironically, they have also introduced an element so old in the history of libraries that it was never in Fondren’s architecture to begin with: a large, traditional reading room where users can continue to make use of the library’s physical collection without leaving the premises.
The digital library brings about the opportunity to re-evaluate what we’ve inherited in the analog world—to both take stock of what we have, and to consider the valuation of books (both print and digital) in a time of seemingly infinite proliferation. In light of shifting modes of content production, we can examine what continues to be important in our information culture, and what can be left to the whims of history.