The means of production

"Digitization projects" in Google Images, 2014.

“Digitization projects” in Google Images, 2014.

I have heard board members of my archives say “Why can’t you just digitize all this and get it online and let people do their own research?” and before lifting my own brain out of its very casing and gnashing it in my jaws only to disgorge the bolus of stewy brainflesh onto said board member’s horrified face, that is BEFORE DOING WHAT IS THE ONLY REASONABLE RESPONSE TO SUCH MADNESS I think about the ways to address people who think computers are magic, and there’s lots of them, the ways I mean although there are also lots of people sufficiently baffled by their own phones to presume that physical laws SHIT LIKE TIME AND SPACE don’t apply to digitization projects, lots of ways to address these people like: The digital archives doesn’t run itself, its public face and its dark storage have hardware and software and intellectual infrastructure; Oh, the Cloud is something we rent from Amazon and give away to the NSA; Stuff you post online doesn’t need description and classification and contextualization because it really doesn’t matter, stuff we do does because it matters; I know you think this is a Knowledge Management™ problem to be handled by a corporate IT department, but you will find that model fails the humanities majorly, where content needs foragers, guides and interpreters, that is, archivists; Also — and this has seriously been bruited in my general direction — you can’t digitize archival material in order to shred the paper and no longer have an archives of things because remember microfilm in the 1920s and how it would lead to a paperless office and then we shredded or burned miles and miles of paper and then discovered that leaving acetate in tightly-sealed metal cans is bad and we basically lost everything yeah that’s not happening again WHY IS YOUR DEATH DRIVE SO STRONG; Or, an easier way of saying this is researchers surprisingly frequently want to see the real thing, and whatever its virtues as a class of being, “the digitized” is not the “the real,” and for most of us the world is not perfectly simulacral. No, I don’t say any of those things. I just say, You don’t have the money or the patience to do that.

Now comes the New York Philharmonic with a big awesome program reviewed in the Times with the same OUT OF THE DUSTY-MUSTY INTO YOUR IPAD tics and tropes we’re used to but which, read carefully, helps me out immensely, viz.:

The Levy Foundation’s first grant of $2.6 million in 2007 put 1.3 million images/pages up by 2011. The new grant of $2.4 million intends to put up an additional 1.7 million images/pages, to cover the whole archival holdings of @nyphil through 1970. A timeline isn’t mentioned but let’s just figure that doing 125% of the last project’s work for 90% of the funding takes the same amount of time — we get better at this stuff over time, after all, I’ll happily grant that, I mean I’m a Marxist, not a jagoff — and the archivists get 3 million images/pages up by this time in 2017. Figure that’s 6000 images/pages per cubic foot, so 500 cubic feet. That’s $5 million, over ten years, for five hundred cubic feet of text and images. $10,000 per box. You don’t have the money for this.

Let’s also consider although this is really minor and nitpicky and I ALREADY HATE MYSELF FOR BEING THIS WAY WHAT IS HAPPENING HERE that invariably stuff we did a decade ago isn’t the greatest — GIF access images? Stuff in grayscale? At 300 dpi? — and some refreshing might have to be done on the 2007 stuff by the time 2017 rolls around. And let’s not forget LET’S NOT FORGET that this is a well-tempered clavier of collections: small, nutritious, informationally dense, weeded, secure, globally significant, fairly old. Think briefly of all the collections you’ve run across that are unweeded, physically insecure, intellectually uncontrolled: now multiply the per-box cost of the digitization project by every bad attribute those collections have. Good, got a number? Multiply by the size of your holdings because you did say “all this stuff” didn’t you, you smug jagbag. There’s your total figure. Is your archives 1000 cubic feet, and is maybe a quarter of that in need of weeding and feeding? $15 million please. How long will it take you to raise that? How long will you pay for refreshing, post-production, and permanent storage and accessiblity of all this stuff? You don’t have the patience.

Magical thinking is abundant in donor/board/one-percenter circles, and why not I mean suppressing wages by offshoring and making up for the slackening in demand with easy credit is in effect magic and it worked FANTASTICALLY WELL WITH NO PROBLEMZ UNTILL OBAMA, so this whole post is in a sense an exercise in pleonasm THIS WHOLE BLOG IS AN EXERCISE IN PLEONASM BRAH but what scares me is that just as our funders have lost touch with archives’ means of production, in aiming to please our funders we recapitulate their blindness. I have a colleague who’s bringing in a terabyte of images every month from her scanning vendor because that’s what funders want and in the meantime begging for a regional digital archives to get up and running so that she can get cheap near-line storage. We’ve ceded control of the means of archival production and are in effect intermediaries between imaging vendors and money men. Which means maybe we reconsider what the product of an archives is with a little more specificity than usual so that we can talk about structures and functions and how we can get a hold of them.

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7 comments
  1. archivesforever said:

    Thank you – this is one of the best explanations I have read on this topic. Most paymasters seem to have trouble distinguishing between digitising and born-digital. I have lost count of people who say – why can’t you just digitise it (100 linear kilometres!) Also 90% or more of the average file is not worth digitising.

    • You’re quite welcome. Records management is our friend, guys! Same reason I’m sceptical of “upside-down” or digitization-first processing AND SO MUCH ELSE MAN I NEED TO RELAX

  2. Neil Coup said:

    “What oft was thought, but n’er so well…”

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