Category Archives: archives

moldy archives

Did I ever tell you about how I wore a mask when I was in the library basement in Japan, not because I was sick but because the moldy books/magazines I was reading smelled bad?

I’m being reminded of this sensory experience now because my father donated some vinyl to me that is, well, full of creatures. I’m going through it and enjoying it, but it’s not without a price, possibly including an asthma attack. But let me tell you, it’s worth it to listen to some Brian Eno from 1975 that is actually from 1975.

That is how it smells to persist through time!

fans, collectors, and archives

In the course of my research, I’ve been studying the connection between the first “complete works” anthology of writer Ihara Saikaku, his canonization, and the collectors and fans who created the anthology – a very archival anthology. (I say this because it has information about the contemporary provenance of the texts that make it up, among other things. It names the collector that contributed the text to the project on every title page!)

It’s struck me throughout this project that the role of fans – which these people were – and their connection with collectors, as well as their overlap, is of crucial importance in preserving, in creating archives and maintaining them, in creating resources that make study or access possible in the first place. They do the hard work of searching, finding, discovering, buying, arranging, preserving, and if we’re lucky, disseminating – through reprinting or, now, through making digital resources.

As I’ve become more acquainted with digital humanities and the range of projects out there, I can’t help but notice the role of collectors and fans here too. It’s not so much in the realm of academic projects, but in the numbers of Web sites out there that provide images or other surrogates for documents and objects that would otherwise be inaccessible. These are people who have built up personal collections over years, and who have created what would otherwise be called authoritative guides and resources without qualification – but who are not academics. They occupy a gray area of a combination of expertise and lack of academic affiliation or degree, but they are the ones who have provided massive amounts of information and documentation – including digital copies of otherwise-inaccessible primary sources.

I think we can see this in action with fandoms surrounding contemporary media, in particular – just look at how much information is available on Wikipedia about current video games and TV shows. Check out the Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages and other similar wikis. (Note that UESP began as a Web site, not a wiki; it’s a little time capsule that reflects how fan pages have moved from individual labors of love to collective ones, with the spread of wikis for fan sites. A history of the site itself – “much of the early details and dates are vague as there are no records available anymore” – can be found here.)

I’m not a researcher of contemporary media or fan culture, but I can’t help but notice this and how little it’s talked about in the context of digital humanities, creating digital resources, and looking at the preservation of information over time.

Without collectors like Awashima Kangetsu and fans like Ozaki Kōyō and Ōhashi Otowa, we may not have Ihara Saikaku here today – and yet he is now among the most famous Japanese authors, read in survey courses as the representative Edo (1600-1867) author. He was unknown at the time, an underground obsession of a handful of literary youths. It was their collecting work, and their dedication (and connections to a major publisher) that produced The Complete Works of Saikaku in 1894, a reprinted two-volume set of those combined fans’ collections of used books. Who will we be saying this about in a hundred years?

For my readers out there who have their feet more in fandom and fan culture than I do, what do you think?

is it ephemeral?

I work largely with sources that you would call “ephemeral” in my research these days. By that, I simply mean “in danger of disappearing easily, or have already done so.” Things prone to disappearing can range from things like theater playbills and concert programs to magazines and newspapers, to gum wrappers and signs and internet forum posts, not to mention non-archived Web sites and things that can be lost easily in a hard drive crash with no backup.* I’m being somewhat narrowminded by considering “non-ephemeral” sources to basically be books, but they are made for persistence through time, and they are often so redundant that they are de facto preserved through this.

In any case, I’ve been thinking as I write my dissertation, especially the current chapter that I’m working on, about what happens to ephemera when one decides to preserve it in a non-ephemeral form. Here, I’ll use the example of reprinting something in a book or putting it on microfilm. Not all magazines and newspapers are thrown out completely, although they do tend to be tossed out en masse every week throughout the world. Newspaper companies keep archives and libraries bind periodicals for preservation and (through) access and redundancy. Things get microfilmed. Sometimes they are reproduced in a traditional bound form at some point, as though they were books to begin with.

I’m working with two authors in particular who published almost solely in magazines that are now extremely hard to get ahold of, about 120 years ago. I’m studying the act of reprinting those stories in book form, here in anthologies of the “complete works” of those authors.** I talk a lot about the crucial role that reprinting in the form of an anthology plays in access and preservation: without reprints, these stories, published in sources that are very easily lost to us, may never have been accessible at all after a few decades of their original publication. The paper of these types of publications is rarely very durable and as time goes on, the surviving owners of the publications tend to throw them out, or the executors of their estates do it for them.

In fact, one magazine in particular is an extreme example of ephemerality. It was a handwritten magazine – really, a zine from the 1880s – that was passed around between members of a literary club, who annotated it as they went along, writing in the margins and then passing it on to the next member, sometimes making their own handwritten copies as well. In this way, the publication and distribution was profoundly decentralized and depended entirely on the efforts of the members of that club. Yet, they were all quite committed to literature and to each other, and so it was relatively successful – if you can call a magazine with only a few hand-written, hand-circulated copies successful.

The problem with the issues of this magazine (before it later was printed and sold commercially) is that they are literally no longer available. Garakuta bunko from the late 1880s is simply inaccessible to us as literary scholars and historians. There are no accessible copies, and possibly no surviving copies at all. This was the case even in the early 20th century, when the extant copies dwindled to a single set held in a private collection; only the tables of contents were published, reprinted in a book on the literary club. Now, that private collection is even inaccessible, and all we have left are those reprinted tables of contents.

Why is this important? It is now impossible for me to investigate, for example, early uses of pseudonyms by some of the authors that I study, and impossible to read their earliest works to evaluate their first efforts in literature. As this group became extremely influential from the late 1880s through the early 1900s, this is a big problem for studying its development over time, its roots, its connections with the literature of the late Edo period (1600-1867), and its early influence on others. In short, this work has been rendered impossible and these questions unanswerable.

Even as early as the 1920s, there were reprints of the publicly distributed, later issues of this magazine. It was a set of only 500 copies and its preface is extremely telling. Edited by former members of the club, the reason for the reprint is stated unequivocally: the number of surviving copies is very few, they are limited to the collections of private individuals, and the early works of club members are nearly impossible to get ahold of. It has been reprinted for posterity and for access at the time of the reprints. There are those who would like to read the works, and the reprints are made and distributed so it becomes possible again to do this.

This is a noble undertaking, and one that is extremely important to our access now. It is reasonable to wonder whether, if not for this early reprint set, even more of Garakuta bunko would be lost to the ether over time. We have more reprints now, in book form, and they are likely to persist through time thanks to this. But what if those reprints had nothing to reprint?

Finally, I come to the sticking point of all of this. It’s prompted by a question from a month or so ago: if ephemeral materials are preserved in such a way, through a digital archive, through photographs, through reprints, does that fundamentally change their nature as ephemera? I don’t have a concrete, definitive answer to this, but I do think there are two issues at the heart of this. One is a practical issue – the major difference between ephemera and other sources when attempting to create a digital archive is that there is even more impetus for careful preservation, because the danger of loss is so high. If a magazine could almost entirely disappear less than 50 years after its initial publication, what does that say about even more volatile materials? We lose a major part of the historical record and in most cases we will be unable to ever retrieve it. This means that there are historical, cultural, and literary questions that we simply cannot ask – or rather, can never answer. It reduces our understanding of the past and even of the present, given that ephemera can disappear in the blink of an eye, historically speaking.

The other issue is thornier. My answer on reprints or digital reproductions is this: it does not change the status of the source as ephemeral. Rather, I think that in some way it both attempts to obscure its ephemeral nature, and yet also makes it even more evident. What is the need for a reprint, after all, if there is no danger of disappearance? If a work is already persisting through redundancy, is there a need for preservation? And there is the issue of the reprint fundamentally altering the context, and thus the meaning, of that ephemeral source. That highlights even more its ephemeral nature, because by recuperating its pre-reprint context, its pre-preservation context, we cannot help but focus on its ephemeral nature, because we are reprinting ephemera, preserving ephemera.

In other words, we can perhaps think of reprints or digitally archived versions as separate objects entirely from the ephemera that they preserve, and this stresses even more the ephemeral nature of what has been preserved. Of course, a work reprinted in book form is less likely to be ephemeral. But what has been reprinted, a serial in a newspaper or in a magazine, is tremendously so, and this very gap in the nature of the medium is emphasized in the process. These are ephemera, preserved. Preservation does not change the fact that these sources are always, will always be, in imminent danger of permanent loss.***

Thoughts?

* In fact, I have lost some of these things that I had never considered ephemeral until they were gone. How fragile is an older hard drive full of personal data and artwork? Very. How about things you burn to a CD-ROM for safekeeping? Even worse. A personal web site that you had a few years ago? If the Internet Archive didn’t grab it, it might as well never existed. We talk quite a bit these days about the danger of things never being erased if you put them out in public, on the Internet, but they’re more endangered than we give them credit for.

** Take that with a grain of salt; “complete” is more aspirational than literal, and it has quite a lot to do with “completely” being able to know or possess the author as an author, rather than a complete set of works in themselves. I digress.

*** The fact that Garakuta bunko was reprinted in the 1920s, after all, does not change the fact that the original copies of the magazine are in grave danger of being completely lost to us. A reprint is not the same as the source that it reprints. The reprint, if not an ephemeral source in itself (this short print run of the Garakuta bunko reprint suggests that it can qualify as such), is not ephemera. But what it reprints will never stop being ephemeral.

the internet is free for the taking

Right? Right?

As I sometimes find when I check out my Flickr statistics, I’ve got a picture with an abnormally high view count and that means only one thing: it’s been posted on another site with a link to mine.

Usually, I am totally thrilled. I love links back to me. I love for people to see my work and that anyone liked it enough to put it up on their own personal space. Good!

And 9 times out of 10, there is a nice caption with my name under it. For, this is the only thing I really ask of someone using one of my photos. I hold the copyright, but I use a Creative Commons license.* I am leaning toward changing everything to a more lenient one, but in any case, the real point of it is the “BY” clause.

You can use my photos without permission as long as you credit me (and I appreciate a link back to Flickr, which all of the people so far, good and bad, do – this is how I find their postings). I’m sure there are people out there who posted them with no link, but it seems that they generally want to not host the image themselves, and also want to post a small version with a link to the gigantic ones (and mine are non-watermarked full-size images). So I find them in my stats.

This is only the second case of someone borrowing an image, placing it on their site with absolutely no credit at all, and totally making me annoyed at 7:30 am in the morning when I see it happening.

The first time, it was an architecture blog and site, which will remain nameless because they rectified the problem after I commented on the photo (there was no other way to contact!) asking for credit or to take the image down. I never heard back, but lo and behold, after a few months someone must have saw the comment because now it has a very nice caption. I get a fair number of hits from this site so it makes me very happy.

Well, now some person on Tumblr has stuck one of my images in their blog, at least with a link back to the original, but with no caption at all. I hate that. But what makes it really bad is that I can see visibly how many people “liked” and shared the post. “Great, others are seeing my work!” Yes, there is this part of it. I’m not the kind of person who wants to hide my stuff unless I personally am showing it. Far from it!

But here’s the thing that really upsets me. The people sharing this post are sharing it as the work of that blogger – at the very best, as an object found by that blogger. They may be sharing it because they like the photo, but the implied attribution stops at the blog itself. I’m thinking big-picture about “authorship” here, as I am wont to do. I have stopped being the author at this point, without an explicit caption marking it as not the blogger’s work, and not as some anonymous, possibly public-domain thing that he or she happened to find. Something pointing out that the hard creative work was not, in fact, looking on the internet and finding something interesting and sharing it, but was rather my finding the scene, situating myself, taking the picture, editing in Aperture, and creating more metadata than you can shake a stick at. (As usual.)

And on top of it? As you can see from the two screenshots below the cut, these are not only being viewed quite a few times, but they’re being shared – ie., reposted as-is on other Tumblr blogs, also with zero attribution.

A reaction that I have gotten in the past to someone lifting my artwork (including selling it on a T-shirt without permission, even though they defended it with “but we’re not making a profit) is that I’m getting bent out of shape over nothing, or that I can’t expect my work not to be stolen and re-used as people see fit because I’ve put it online.

Here is my response to that: Of course I can’t. But that doesn’t make it right, just, or legal, and I don’t give up my rights the minute I upload something. I am well within my moral rights to address this as a problem and to take polite action to correct the situation. We need a lot of calming down these days: We don’t need laws like SOPA and Protect-IP (I am getting nightmares), and I don’t think the DMCA is an appropriate law either, but that doesn’t mean that taking others’ work and reposting it without attribution – or passing it off as your own, or selling it without permission – is okay.

I think we academics know a word that comes quite close to describing all of this: plagiarism. Mixed with copyright infringement. What a fun situation.

Conclusion: The internet is not free for your taking. But the majority of it is, especially from those of us who are rabidly pro-Creative Commons, if you just ask us.

 

* I toyed once with making all of my photos public domain, but while I’m still alive and while they’re still taken within the past 5 years, I don’t think I can emotionally deal with it yet.

Screen shot 2011 11 17 at 8 44 43 AM

Screen shot 2011 11 17 at 8 44 24 AM

Screen shot 2011 11 17 at 8 37 25 AM

the linked, linear, serendipitous Web

I’m taking a course on Web archiving for the second half of this winter term at U of M, and from the very beginning our major project has got my brain going on theoretical issues and implications of technology and our offline assumptions as they impact our approach to the Web.

Here’s the thing about the Web. (And let’s distinguish it from “Internet.” I am only talking about the Web.) Perhaps the most wonderful, inspiring, and revolutionary aspect of hypertext and hyperlinks are their difference from print, and from scanned book images or e-books treated as paper books. I am talking about text that means something to the computer (in a sense, in that it’s manipulable), rather than the image of words on a page, which is also how I’d describe print media.

How are hypermedia different? Two words: linked, and linear.
Continue reading the linked, linear, serendipitous Web

PORTA – at the National Diet Library

Did you know? (I didn’t.) The National Diet Library (NDL) has a digital archive portal, PORTA, which not only lets you search their own digital holdings but an amazing array of other databases, digital libraries, and archives in Japan.

What’s wonderful about this portal is that you can click to expand the list of resources it will search, and beside restricting your search to specific ones, you can also simply use it as a way to discover new online resources relating to Japan and beyond. I myself learned a lot from poking around PORTA in the past few days while looking at digital archives for a course at the School of Information.

I will write more about this portal later, but a quick link for those who would be interested in using it.

By the way, my favorite thing that I found is the Japanese version of the Wayback Machine, the Web Archiving Project (インターネット資料収集保存事業) at the NDL.

And yes, there is an English version of PORTA (accessed by clicking “English” at the top of the page) that provides English translations of the digital archive titles.

presentation accepted: MCAA

A quick tidbit.

I’ve gotten a paper proposal accepted for the Midwest Conference on Asian Affairs in early October, in Columbus, OH. I’m excited about this conference in particular because of its focus on media and communication throughout history, and thinking hard about how we approach our various fields through this lens (or vice versa).

My own topic is something I will elaborate on later, but for now, let me tell you it’s about the impossibility of separating physicality from social network from archive from publication in the context of a certain book in the late 1800s. To be less vague, I’m going to talk about how one man’s “rediscovery” (via many allusions by a fiction author he liked) of Ihara Saikaku (then mostly forgotten, now Mr. Edo-Period Canonical Author) in the 1880s. Those who got excited about reading Saikaku talk quite a bit about buying, handling, and borrowing/lending old copies of Saikaku’s work, and in their anthology that they published, they go so far as to credit each work with whose archive/collection it came from. The sense of physical ownership – and being able to touch the thing itself – is overwhelming compared to everything else I’ve looked at from this period. It’s fascinating and exciting and I’m looking forward to sharing this finding as well as getting feedback on my methodological approach and conclusions. (Surely weak at best, given that this is news to me and I haven’t had a lot of time to develop my thinking over the past year, buried in a mountain of magazines in the library basement.)

By the way, this probably can’t fit into the paper, but the social ripples of Saikaku popularity vibrate constantly through the Meiji literature and general literary discourse that I read throughout my research. Saikaku love versus hate, going so far as to adopt a pseudonym that translates to “I love Saikaku” while attempting to imitate his style in one’s own writing, republishing his works in random magazines, the changing ideas about whether or not his works qualify as modern works of fiction (小説, now translated as “novel” but then quite contested), and reactions to him – they not only feed into and inform and make clear literary cliques and their interactions, but also literary trends and experimentation in an era where nearly anything goes.

A forgotten author as a window into an historical moment: nothing could make me happier about choosing the path that I have.

a horrible coincidence

A paradox? Not quite.

But a few things have inspired me to think about archives lately – use vs. preservation.

The sad fact is, the more you lean toward preservation, the less access you have. Using causes damage, speeds aging.

Preservation puts a barrier between people and materials. Digital preservation doesn’t capture a full physical experience, just as one cannot “print out” a web site without contradicting the very fundamental point of hyperlinking and the technology of the web.

So the more you use your favorite things, the more you destroy them.
Continue reading a horrible coincidence