Conversion Factors

Originally uploaded by Scriblerus.
I recently asked a professor of mine if she or indeed anyone else knew roughly what percentage of texts existing in manuscript form were brought out in print when the technology became available, or fiscally reasonable to use. She said that she did not, and that if anyone did, she was unaware of it, and that it seemed unlikely to her as no one really knows for sure what is out there in manuscript anyway. I'm interested in this for reasons related to my dissertation, of course--it seems to me that print technology might have blown a large hole in the future of manuscript texts by semi-permanently consigning them to obsolescence. If it doesn't come out in print when print is the proliferating technology, it must have been deemed unprofitable or unimportant (to the extent that those are separate categories).

This scenario has plenty of modern corollaries. My father has the Beatles' Rubber Soul on vinyl, cassette, CD, and mp3. If the powers that be had at some point decided not to "convert" the old version to the new technology, would it simply have vanished? Or just held out until the last of the record players failed for want of a qualified technician?

The digitization of the archive is the current iteration of this problematic. What gets scanned in v. what does not, or, if we've decided that we're going to go all the way with it, we still have to deal with the order in which things get scanned. If it ain't online RIGHT NOW, it might as well not exist, right? I'm not going to go get it, wherever the hell it is, assuming that it's even out there to be had, which we might not know for certain anyway. So what's the Rubber Soul of the literary past? Who exactly is making the decisions about what's important enough to make available now, versus what will be made available in a year, or two, or whenever they get around to it? Talk about your temporal hierarchization (which phrase, if not yet copyrighted, consider copyrighted). This was the subject of an article in the New York Times on March 11: "History, Digitized (and Abridged)." According to the Library of Congress, the article says, "perhaps only 10 percent of the 132 million objects held will be digitized in the foreseeable future" (sec 3, pg 8).

My dissertation buzzword appears in this article: "'It takes a special skill to select standalone collections that have a durable appeal in the marketplace of scholars," says Donald J. Waters, program officer for scholarly communication at the Mellon Foundation (emphasis mine). Durability here is a quality assigned to the material itself more than to the marketplace audience, which I think is a terribly interesting construction. Indeed, it's the one I'm writing about in the eighteenth century. The material and marketplace, of course, affect and define each other. So how does one define the marketplace in order to render what does the defining durable?

I bring this up today because I just spent a couple of hours sorting through old photos and selecting a few to digitize. In doing so, I think I experienced in miniature a taste of this process. I have a couple of thousand photos around here, culled down over the years from a few thousand more. They were good enough to keep; however, nowhere near that amount were worthy of conversion from analog to digital. A lot of factors went into the decision-making process. I was choosing largely for public access--to post them to flickr.com. Public consumption dictated a selection process based on however I arbitrarily defined "quality"--what would have a durable appeal to the marketplace. Then I had to consider how much memory space I have, how much time it would take, etc. I have done a photo-mining exercise before; several of the photos I scanned this time were set aside several times before. I'm not at all sure what determined why I ignored them before, or why I decided this time around that they were good enough to make the cut. Some were just awful: out of focus, bad composition, bad exposure. Other were quite good, but couldn't be posted for reasons of privacy; I don't like my face being splashed around cyberspace, and I presume several of my friends don't either. I have a few photos that I think are quite beautiful, taken in places and with people during events that profoundly affected my life; but they will not be digitized precisely because those moments are so utterly past as to be potentially problematic if allowed to resurface even before those who were principle participants. There is more than the mere record of my experiences to consider when choosing what parts of that record to present.

Obviously, this last section is personal, and not strictly like to that of the digitization of textual archives around the world. But, I am considering what would happen in the future, if nothing but the digital domain made it to posterity. As a scholar of a future age, I would assume that that which I have received in the most direct form was that which a prior age deemed most worth transmitting. Or, failing that assumption (which I imagine would make me a poor scholar), I would be frustrated by the knowledge that perhaps what was truly most important to the lives of those whom I am studying was specifically left out because it was most important.

Which brings me back to the archive, and the transfer of manuscript to print. And the transfer of manuscript and print to digital. And in fact, the transfer of orature to literature. In any case, all of this has been written about by much smarter people than me; I was simply struck today by my reliving a part of the experience with respect to my own little archive.

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