Category Archives: ephemerality

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.

mishima__bot 三島由紀夫

The Internet never ceases to amaze me. Thing found on Twitter today:

@Mishima__bot 三島由紀夫

Here is its description:

1925年(大正14)1月14日に生まれ、1970年(昭和45)11月25日に自殺。代表作は小説に『仮面の告白』、『禁色』、『潮騒』、『金閣寺』、『鏡子の家』、『午後の曳航』等。当Botでは『金閣寺』を一とし彼の試論+対談+代表作よりあらゆる名文句を抜粋。参照作品合計50作の中から、セリフパターン3,000以上を呟く。

Yup. It’s a “bot” that posts famous quotes from his works. To Twitter. Mishima Yukio lives! I highly recommend following it if only for the uncanny tweets you will find in your フロー. I almost want to set this thing to send me texts when it tweets, but it posts too often.

Iseya Opens to Commemorate Ichiyo’s Death

If you were in the Tokyo area today and lucky enough to hear about or come across this shop in the Hongo 5-chome area (Bunkyo-ku), Iseya 伊勢屋質店 (a 19th-century dime store) was open just for today, to commemorate the anniversary of Higuchi Ichiyo’s 樋口一葉 death. From @frognalway, info and a photo if you follow the link:

伊勢屋質店の外観。一葉の命日(11/23)に年に1回の公開をしているんですって。

Ichiyo is one of the authors I study, and is the woman you’ll find on the current 5000 yen bill in Japan. She died in 1896 of tuberculosis, at the age of 24, and just as she began to climb to the heights of an amazing literary career.

The question always remains, would she have been as famous – or as widely accepted by all of her male fans, friends, and critics, who were the big shots of the Meiji literary world – if her life had been longer, forcing her into a category after all, or into choosing between marrying (and quitting) or writing (and not being the right kind of woman). But that is only a what-if; for her life was far too short, and difficult, and poor.

By the way, this shop is allegedly the setting for her most famous work, Takekurabe たけくらべ.

why I’m on Google+, and why I love Twitter

Why not?

I thought I had all kinds of answers to that. My kneejerk reaction to just about any new social networking service is “because it’s annoying.” Possibly, it is still totally annoying and I may come to neglect it as much as my Facebook account (which I largely have because “librarians are doing it” and I’d rather have a visible page that I control speak for me on the internet, rather than let others do it).

Here are some reasons why – and why I haven’t found it that annoying (yet).

It’s largely based on the fundamental difference I feel between Google+ and Facebook. Facebook is for personal stuff, even when it’s at work. I have a busy job pruning my account if I even allow people to be able to post on my wall. I use it to broadcast that I have a new blog post, and to broadcast my Twitter feed to people who don’t use Twitter. But the majority of my “friends” on it largely use it as a social space to socialize in inappropriate ways with people who aren’t really their friends. If I’m presenting my Facebook identity to the world, under my real name, I’m going to be very careful about how I present myself – and being careful means very, very limited information. I have enough on there to look legitimate, but I see it as a way to market myself, not a platform for socializing.*

Why do I see Google+ as different? I think it’s the general feel of it. It feels to me like Twitter, and that’s a very positive thing. I love the Twitter model. No reciprocal friending expected; follow people whose posts you think will be interesting (like a blog), who you probably don’t know in real life and don’t have any expectation of contact with. (I have to say an @ message from someone I was following, or from someone following me (one way), is exciting and flattering. So that’s good too.) There’s no need to grow an insane network of people you don’t keep track of and don’t really know. They can follow you, but you don’t have to follow them. Prune as needed.

The second thing I love about Twitter is the sharing, and Google+ has integrated that with both +1 likes and the ability to post to your feed. It’s like Twitter on crack, only if Twitter were a tired old wrestler rather than a nimble little bird. There’s a lot to be said for the 140 character model. I personally think it’s the force that drives the insane level of communication that goes on there every day. It’s so easy to post, so quick, and so easy and quick to send an @ reply. But even quicker to hit “retweet.” It’s a magical system for dynamically generating temporary networks that ebb and flow, that come together out of nowhere and then just as quickly disappear.

Someone referred to Twitter as “ephemeral in nature” when talking about its downsides. I think rather that this is a strength. Twitter moves at the speed of the little events of everyday life, no matter if they had to do with what you’re eating for lunch, the conference session you’re sitting in on, or trying to avoid the cops at a demonstration.

And its the quickness of Twitter that I would argue leads to its power in briefly but powerfully harnessing the masses. As I type, several #anonymous tweeters are calling for a boycott of PayPal. These retweets are traveling faster than I can type. This is a far cry from setting up a web site petition, or even a facebook group petition. I can’t think of a way for information to spread faster, and I think it’s tied directly to the often-derided 140 character format.

What does this all have to do with Google+? I am on Twitter (under my real name) to keep connected with my profession (DHers are big tweeters), communicate my ideas to a big community, retweet stuff from groups that interest me, and generally keep tabs on my spread-out intellectual and personal networks. Mini-updates. And they’re from people I want to communicate with in a largely professional way. Under my real name.

Google+ has me under my real name. If this were a network like Facebook, I’d have already freaked out and registered under a dummy gmail account with a pseudonym. I am very private about my private life. But I see this as more of an opportunity to start turning my Twitter activities into longer-form posts. The huge advantage is that people outside of the wall of Facebook could come across them easily; people who follow other people in DH that I don’t know might find them and comment; and it’s a perfect platform for marketing myself now that I’m going to be searching for a job in the upcoming months. It’s the platform I’ve been waiting for: professional Twitter+.

Of course, Google+ is still in the early stages but I don’t see it as a Facebook-killer at all. Facebook will continue to do what it does best: allow people to friend each other and waste each others’ time as effectively as possible. Facebook stays within Facebook. Google+ feels so much more connected with the rest of my Internet life, just as Twitter does. (e.g., the fact that I have it feeding my Facebook status updates.) I’m interested to see where Google+ goes, and hope that the invites keep coming out so I can collect more of the people I know and, just as importantly, the people I want to know.

 

* There’s a time and a place for that; you can find such places on LiveJournal and by using Facebook and Twitter with pseudonyms.

google dropping app support; molly has PPC angst

A decision I made over five years ago has ended up making me quite unlucky these days.

iBook G4 photo

I intentionally bought a PowerPC Mac, the iBook G4, when my iBook G3 succumbed to the infamous logic board defect a year or so after Apple stopped fixing it for free. My first winter semester at Michigan had just started, so I was stuck: I needed the data from my G3’s hard drive even more than I needed a computer, and I knew that Apple would soon drop PowerPC in favor of Intel. Like the idealist I can be, I went for the PowerPC instead of waiting a while for the new hardware, because after taking some computer architecture courses and having done a little assembly programming, I had come to the conclusion that RISC architecture is superior to CISC – meaning that I favored PowerPC over Intel.

Little did I know how ghettoized the PowerPC is out there in the real world. Naive, I had no idea that most operating systems and software are not ported to PowerPC – not even Linux.** In the first few years this wasn’t a problem and wasn’t anything I noticed beyond having a matte screen instead of a shiny one. I still love my G4, with its plucky reliability and long battery life.

Starting about last year, however, more and more software makers dropped PowerPC completely, as OS X only went up to version 10.4.x on PowerPC and many required 10.5, which is Intel-only. Even the software that is still released for 10.4 stopped supporting my laptop, including OpenOffice.***

I resigned myself to having a laptop that is circa 2009 in terms of what it runs. I am okay with running a Japanese version of OpenOffice 3 that will open .docx files for me, and running Adobe CS3 and Word 2004. Honestly, I don’t need the newer versions of these programs for a base model iBook that only has 40GB of hard drive space. What I need is the reliability, toughness, and 5 hour battery life (with the ability to buy new batteries) that my 5 year old friend provides. I have a desktop for everything else!

I have a sinking feeling about it now, though. We have a problem. Google is going to gradually drop support for older browsers, which includes pretty much every browser that I can download for my PPC Mac. While I applaud their strict use of HTML5 (I use it too!) and refusal to cater to legacy browsers that don’t understand it, I realize that I am basically screwed. And how much I rely on Google, frankly.

Here are things I would like to use a laptop for: Web browsing, Gmail, Google Docs, a little word processing, PDF reading and editing, writing, and possibly a little Photoshop. And some Twitter. If I suddenly can’t access or use Gmail or Google Docs, that is a huge blow to using my laptop to be productive – it’s the point of carrying something around that will let me access my files remotely to begin with!

“Get a MacBook,” a voice pleads in my head. They are so shiny, fast, small, and nice. They’re still only 13″ but have a wide screen that makes it seem so much bigger than the 12″ iBook. They have long battery life. I’m kind of in love with them despite myself. Admittedly, I resent the non-removable battery that will allegedly last for the average life of a laptop. But if I wasn’t suddenly losing all software support for my peculiar architecture, I wouldn’t even consider a new laptop.

I just bought the laptop a new battery. It has 5 hours of battery life, does everything I need it to, and is very hardy. It’s relatively small, light, and convenient. It has some very expensive software on it. Most importantly, it simply still works fine and has nothing wrong with it. I abhor wasting things. I am fond of this laptop. If it weren’t for the uncertain nature of old hard drives and impossibility of replacing that without breaking the case, I’d argue that it probably has many years of good life left in it. It’s the Volvo of laptops.

So even if I bought a new laptop (which I can’t exactly afford now), I’d want to keep using the iBook for as long as I can. Why waste it? But why have two laptops, one running Linux?^ (Seriously, I already have a netbook running Linux.) They’re the same size. It makes no sense to keep the iBook around for anything other than preserving my installation of many pieces of CS3. And because I heart the damn thing.

I’m at a crossroads: my PPC laptop is soon not going to just be dated, but unsupported. I don’t want to waste a perfectly wonderful laptop that has seen me through an entire PhD program. I have good software on it. Why buy a laptop the exact same size and type? Because it will save me from Google no longer supporting my laptop, and Web browsers that are actually implementing new W3C standards from not running on it.

Lesson learned: Even though I want superior architecture and don’t jump at trends (like oh, x86?) that I think are not worth it, I have to just go with the crowd, because sooner or later it will leave me behind. I am still not getting an iPad though. How long do you think I can scorn touch screens before I become officially old?

* (Yes, that is how old the G3 was. About three and a half years. Not bad for a laptop with a manufacturing defect that I was very hard on.)
** There are a number of PPC Linux distributions, but specific software may or may not be ported. Usually not.
*** Weirdly, there are a few local language versions of OpenOffice that do still support PowerPC architecture. Since one of those is the Japanese-language version, I now happily use a Japanese word processor and try to keep my language skills current, at least in terms of menu choices.
^ If I could get it to run for the newest AmigaOS I would run to it without hesitation, but I have only gotten reports of it running on a Mac Mini. Don’t think I haven’t considered getting a Mac Mini solely for this purpose. The lack of a monitor is mostly what’s stopping me.

literature in fashion

Now here’s something you don’t see every day – a photoshoot dedicated to literary-inspired fashion in Vogue.

‘Summer Reading Inspired by the Fall Collections’

Oh wait, of course, I have that the other way around. Some creative Vogue employee(s) actually dreamed up novels FOR these outfits.

Now that is impressive. Seriously!

Being that I’m in Nebraska for the summer, I did a cheer for Willa Cather and My Antonia. The first one at that!

thinking in functional programming

My internship this summer gives me the opportunity to get acquainted with and even use some XSLT – misleadingly the “stylesheets” of XML.

XSLT has been hard to wrap my head around, not least because “stylesheets” and “used to format XML” make me think of CSS, not – well, functional programming. It’s been a good many years since I got to play around in Lisp, let alone make something with it, and this has brought me back to those two great semesters of AI electives that introduced me to this way of thinking. It took a few weeks to get into it, but once I “got” how Lisp worked at a more intuitive level, I remember my impression: I am thinking in a different way. It wasn’t just about programming, it was about problem solving, and about a way of looking at the world.

Diving into a functional programming language again has got me thinking about that experience. Learning how XSLT works has of course made me remember a time when Lisp made sense, because XSLT is functional programming. If I had been introduced to it in that way at the outset, it would have clicked much sooner. Now it makes me yearn a little for the time when I didn’t just know that I was working in a different way, but when that way came to make sense and I was able to start going somewhere with it.

But when I learned Lisp in the context of an AI (artificial intelligence) class, I didn’t learn it as “functional programming” then either. I wasn’t introduced to it in the context of lambda calculus, which I came to find much later – last semester – in a natural language processing course. I knew it was different, but I didn’t know how on a bigger picture level.

Now that I have that bigger picture, I am appreciating this way of thinking more and more.

Why is functional programming “hard”? Why is it something that I had to get used to for a time before it clicked? I have an answer this time – because I have been doing imperative programming for so long, because that’s how I was introduced to programming (I didn’t attend MIT after all), and because that has become the natural and intuitive way for me to solve a problem. But imperative programming isn’t a more natural way of thinking about things. It’s a different way. Obviously, these two ways of approaching problems have different applications, but the elegant and concise ways of approaching problems that functional programming offers are perhaps even more appealing to me now.

Because I am not an expert, I write this not to make a profound statement about how to approach problem solving, but to share a great article about where functional programming came from, why it’s so appealing, and the things it makes possible. I give you,

“Functional Programming For the Rest of Us.”

Take the 10 minutes to read this and enjoy!

web travel

Regarding my last post, how to think about what “makes up” the web? Sites, paths, a combination? Something else?

Conceptually the way we typically think of the Web is in terms of “sites” – obviously, “Web site” (with “pages”, like so many leaves) is a commonly understood term. So with my emphasis on conceptualizing the Web as made up of infinitely many organic and spontaneous paths, rather than established and locatable sites, I have been thinking about words to use to describe this ephemeral thing.

How about Web journeys? Is this too cheesy? I think of a journey as sometimes having a destination, sometimes getting there, sometimes getting quite off track, and sometimes only having a vague idea of where it will take place. It traverses sites but is not made up of them.

killing time at the bookstore – not the library

A quick observation – while reading a New York Times article on the closing of Barnes & Noble stores, I was immediately struck by their first interviewee’s comment: I kill time at the bookstore.

The theme of the article is that bookstores are used in non book purchasing ways just as often, and that the demise of a brick and mortar store is saddening those who don’t buy anything on top of both employees and those who do enjoy purchasing while they browse.

Or just browsing, in general. Amazon does a fairly good job of this but it’s far from the real thing.

I couldn’t help thinking about this situation in terms of libraries: because that’s what libraries are for. I think rather than talking about libraries attempting to simulate the bookstore experience – comfortable furniture, events, coffee – we could think of this from the perspective of the large chain bookstore taking over the library’s role in the community.

When it’s far more convenient to get to a Borders or Barnes & Noble (and there are more of them, making it easier to just pop in wherever you are), why bother funding libraries? If they let you hang out and read as much as you want (again, the interviewee talks about reading a book a chapter at a time when he comes in with time to kill), what need are libraries fulfilling, other than letting you check the books out without paying something on top of your taxes?

Why not rethink this upsetting situation in which bookstores are closing as an opportunity for libraries to make their case as the original entities fulfilling this role, and as an essential part of the community?

It seems to me that “community” spaces are more and more private, commercial spaces in the US. The bookstore, the coffee shop, the gym. I can’t remember ever going to a community center in my entire life. And my local library in Ypsilanti is very isolated, a drive away from where I live downtown, and is not even on public transit (which I use most of the time rather than driving). It’s easier for me to wander into the Barnes & Noble or Borders (or three) that are on my local errand runs – and that are on multiple bus lines – than to take a trip out of my way to the library.

Instead of focusing on single focal points, why not a distributed form of libraries – small storefronts, if you will? I can’t think of anything that could serve a community better than more spread-out, accessible, convenient service that promotes itself clearly and loudly as an antidote to disappearing bookstores – and as an irreplaceable part of the private-but-public fabric of the community.

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