Some notes on information storage (1)

The Zeds, blog of Halifax-based librarian Michael Steeleworthy, is a blog I read regularly. You should too: it contains any number of great meditations on library science, on the mechanics and theory of archiving and transmitting information. Michael’s most recent post, “On information literacy, information-seeking, and microfilm”, deals with how new students–by extension, new library-users generally–can often be thrown off by old non-computer formats of information storage, here, microform.

This weekend, a student stopped by the reference desk for help locating film reviews in old newspapers. She was a little frantic and a little confused by her Theatre assignment’s requirement to use primary documents from the 1940s. The 1940s! She didn’t know how to search an electronic index on a computer let alone rifle through print indexes and then move to the microfilm. Although she was a fairly smart student, this one was going to need some time.

The other librarian at the reference desk started things off by showing the student the New York Times Film Reviews, a print item that indexes film reviews by film name, actors, and perhaps directors; this text almost put the student in the right direction. I say “almost” because like everyone’s first experiences with microform, the student was thrown off by the idea of handling film, using a giant metal reader possibly older than her parents, and working her biceps to wind through a reel from the 1940s. There would be no mouse-clicks and no print-to-PDF options on this research assignment.

Me, I’ve a non-trivial fondness for old formats of information storage. They can be great: that’s how I first heard Leonard Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan”, for instance, chills running down my spine when I heard the introductory synth line on that lent LP back in the media room at UPEI’s Robertson Library years ago.

I find there’s a certain romance to microfilm and vinyl and the print indices and everything else. They do have advantages, measurable ones, over computer based services.

They do have more transparent architectures, internal workings, than the perfectly self-contained and non-transparent techniques of the computer.

Researching with microfilm is unlike using a search engine, which combines the steps in information retrieval into one act, thereby muddling our understanding of how the information is organized and how it can be retrieved. Instead, researching with microfilm requires an understanding of the field’s controlled vocabulary, of the kind and amount of primary documents in the field, and the tools required to access them. There is a little bit of work involved, but it makes the treasure to be located all the more valuable.

That relates to the systematization of information. One point about them that doesn’t relate to that is the way in which old methods provide a sheer physicality that computer-based information storage services lack.

[I]t seems that every time I load a reel of film on a microfilm reader, the student immediately becomes curious about what’s going on. This is more than a need to watch what I’m doing so they can hopefully reload the machine the next time they have a problem. Instead, they become interested by how a small reel of film, only a couple inches in diameter, can contain the information they are looking for. (Tonight, not only was this student interested by my handiwork; some other students studying in the room walked over to ask what I was doing and what the film stored.) This is a newspaper reel: an archive of two weeks’ worth of news in 1940, waiting to be read by whoever needs to access it. And unlike a digital archive, they have to manipulate the reel with their own hands. Information has become a physical object which they can own for a moment or two.

(I know that some of my co-bloggers have made use of archives based on methods still more arcane than microfilm, hand-written and illustrated manuscripts, say. Do you get that sense, too?)

And me? My attraction to old methods of information storage and organization lies in part in a certain imagined, selective nostalgia, a sense of partaking in a well-established tradition, of belonging to a community of researchers and knowledge and writers that transcends the community that exists in this moment. It lies in greater part in my appreciation of the fact that this information just isn’t readily available on the Internet, maybe not even adequately indexed, that there is so much information that is out there and that needs to be saved, and excitement at the fact that I’m in a position via my researches and my presentation of my researches to share them. The past really matters to me, you see, for intellectual and more personal reasons. Anything that preserves something of the past is precious, and merits profound respect.

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4 Responses to Some notes on information storage (1)

  1. Matt Warren says:

    I bet those rolls of microfilm will last quite a while, if stored properly. If some great digital calamity befell us, what would future generations use to study us? Whatever can survive.

    Also, microfilm materials can be accessed through non-digital means. The associated reading technology is far simpler to re-develop if that were a problem.

    I haven’t messed with microfilm in a great many years. It was very fun to read your thoughts and take a short trip through time.

  2. Let me just say, as an archivist: I *hate* microfilm with a passion. It’s very hard to read, especially the older microfilm which often looks like a negative, so the text is white and the background black. I actually prefer that for the internet but not for poorly handwritten recorded documents. Also, with a box of documents, I can flip thirty pages if the section is boring me, with microfilm that’s much harder to do.

  3. Some questions for you:

    – Does nostalgia affect utility? Although IT has taken away many of the physical steps in the information search that once lent it a certain mystique, it has made our information systems far more usable than they ever were, and they have made information retrieval in general far more effective. The sheer amount of useful information that is in a collection but “lost” because the indexes and collections have not yet been digitized is in some ways a travesty, I think.

    – Should all information be saved? I don’t think so, and most people would agree. I think this actually contributes to the sense of nostalgia around old information systems. We tend to discover some interesting piece of data, be it a statistical table, a newspaper article, an old serial or what-have-you – and we tend to fall in love with the fact that this piece was ‘sitting there,’ patiently waiting all this time, until it was found by us. But the thing is that most recorded information in our world is ephemeral, and it can clog up our collections. If you work in LIS, you don’t want to have too many “accidental discoveries” on account of the sheer volume of info you have. It’s finding the balance between knowing what to keep (i.e. what might be valued in the future) and what can be disposed of.

    n.b. These are just thoughts to put out there. Apologies if I sound at all contrarian. Also, thanks for citing my post – I appreciate it!

    p.s. You may like to look in to what UPEI has been doing with the Islandora project. The Robertson Library has built an open source digital repository; it’s been very successful and could quite likely become a game-changer in the field.

    • The problem with throwing out information is you don’t know what will be useful to future researchers. It’s like putting all old newspaper articles on microfilm so you can throw out the papers to save space… only now someone wants to study newspaper advertising. Whenever archivists throw things out to save space (which thankfully does not seem to happen anymore) they invariably choose something that was not considered by that generation’s researchers, but you never know what will be important in the future. I wouldn’t.

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