Contents Magazine http://contentsmagazine.com a new magazine for new-school editorial Fri, 20 Nov 2015 09:38:16 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.5.1 replica watches http://contentsmagazine.com/articles/replica-watches/ http://contentsmagazine.com/articles/replica-watches/#comments Fri, 20 Nov 2015 09:38:16 +0000 Navin Johnson http://contentsmagazine.com/?p=2878 Continue reading ]]> MB2-701
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The Garden http://contentsmagazine.com/articles/the-garden/ http://contentsmagazine.com/articles/the-garden/#comments Wed, 17 Apr 2013 14:52:21 +0000 Charlie Loyd http://contentsmagazine.com/?p=2713 Three summers ago I was unemployed and sleeping on a friend’s couch. I had nothing much to look forward to, so I spent my time in the past. I pulled interesting-looking books off the library’s history shelves, browsed old aerial photos, and paged through random searches on the website of the Library of Congress. It was comforting to read stories whose endings I knew.

One of the only books I read for the first time that summer was Yasunari Kawabata’s The Master of Go, a novel about a board game match. It’s based on a real game, played in 1938, that Kawabata had covered for a newspaper. It’s oblique and fragmentary. Sometimes I couldn’t tell whether it was supposed to be boring. But by turns so small that I didn’t notice them, it sewed strips and patches into something that moved smoothly around me as I read. I’ve never felt more inside a book—at a time when I was made of fragments myself—and yet I can’t remember a single line to quote. The memory is there but its pieces are not.

Everything felt too much the same to me that summer. Nothing registered properly. I tried to make a virtue of numbness by learning about things that would usually be too painful to look at. I read about famine. By trial and error I learned to winkle food security maps from the government of Ethiopia’s website. I read the development economist Amartya Sen’s claim that a famine has never happened in a functioning democracy. I was trying to remind myself that I could be infinitely worse off—and hoping, in retrospect, to learn how people get unstuck from cyclical problems. When I found something that helped me into the world again, though, I didn’t know it.

I was pawing aimlessly through satellite images one night and noticed a lot of strangely squared-off lakes. A Google image search for Patishar, Bangladesh, one of the villages among the lakes, produced no photos of lakes, but several of a mansion, a residence of Rabindranath Tagore. The name was familiar—a mystic popular with European spiritualists of the 1920s, or something like that. I closed that tab.

Patishar Area

Squared-off lakes of the Patishar area

The lakes were mostly for irrigation, squared off by long pressure from right-angled property boundaries. Development banks were extending microcredit to start small fish and shellfish farms in them. I read that a local forerunner of these banks, the Kaligram Krishi Bank, had run on many of the same principles: taking no collateral, charging only token interest, and lending to groups. Most of the bank’s endowment had come from the purse of the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature, which went to its founder, the hereditary landlord of Patishar, Rabindranath Tagore.

The archives are best just before sleep, as memory and imagination take sway. Every archive has an intended logic, a day logic, with well-defined topics, alphabetical orderings, hierarchical taxonomies, or cross-referenced indexes. At night we see less of what is intended and more of what is there. We notice that the butterfly specimen cases ended up next to the drawers of pressed flowers. The minutes of the astronomy club are on the highest shelves, and some papers of Francis Bacon the essayist got in among papers of Francis Bacon the painter. Nothing can be as crowded with meaning as an archive and not earn its own dream logic of short circuits and coincidences. I looked up this person who had appeared twice in one night. Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941) was a Bengali writer. And I closed that tab.

One difficulty of microfinance is measuring benefit. Should a development bank try to help people be richer? Healthier? Happier? This thread led back to Amartya Sen, who with the philosopher Martha Nussbaum had proposed the capability approach, a framework for discussing development with less attention to raw income than to choice and fulfillment. I was broke and unhappy, and this cheered me up. In Sen’s essays, he mentioned that he had gone to an experimental school and been named by its founder—Rabindranath Tagore.

I’d made a friend. Since that night, Tagore appears to me in the archives like a playful ghost. He strolls across the stage in the crowd scenes of biographies. He is heard momentarily in letters and newspaper clippings. Like a graffiti artist’s tag in corners all over the city, his name is tucked into prefaces and footnotes in every room of the library. I find him in the indexes of books where I wouldn’t expect to—but not where I would. He is very hard to bring into focus.

Tagore in Tokyo

Tagore in Tokyo

A lifetime ago, Tagore was the world’s most famous living artist. He was friends with Yeats and conversed with Einstein. Woodrow Wilson and Bertrand Russell wrote to him. Maria Montessori visited his model school, attended by the prime minister Indira Gandhi and the auteur Satyajit Ray. He toured every inhabited continent. He met Caruso when Hellen Keller read their lips, and he was the first foreigner to meet Pǔyí, the last emperor of China. The war poet Wilfred Owen died with a stanza of Tagore’s penciled on the back of old marching orders. When Owen’s mother read it, she wrote Tagore to ask which poem it was from, and her letter found its way to Tagore with no address on the envelope, only his name.

And now he is almost forgotten from the English-speaking world. Or from my part of it: I find him in the archives, but I have never heard his name spoken in person.

One reason he’s gone is that he was a fad. He was taken up by a reading public full of an interwar spirit of optimism and internationalism that looked appallingly naïve after the Holocaust and during the Cold War. And to contemporary readers, the esteem in which Europeans and Americans held him can stink of soft racism: he was exoticized, tokenized, and made an object of the most unreflective Orientalism.

His writing is as much to blame. Taken out of context or read impatiently, it wilts. Most translations are stilted and dated. It can be sentimental. It is easy to dislike. It is also a vast and loving picture of the world, full of mundane details, long relationships, mistakes, wit, inequities, instants as sharp as shards of glass, post offices, birds, death, complicated institutions, second chances, childhood, appalling impulses, hope, ambiguous advice, food, and people. It records the world, it interprets the world, and it invents the world. One of its curiosities is that all its people, through their connections, have paths to joy and truth.


Who are you, reader, reading my poems an hundred years hence?
I cannot send you one single flower from this wealth of the spring, one single streak of gold from yonder clouds.
Open your doors and look abroad.

From your blossoming garden gather fragrant memories of the vanished flowers of an hundred years before.
In the joy of your heart may you feel the living joy that sang one spring morning, sending its glad voice across an hundred years.

— Tagore: The Gardener 85 (1915)

Tagore’s influence scattered into the world, beloved but uncollected, like the impromptu stanzas that he wrote on admirers’ paper scraps while touring. He is in politics and activism, hidden behind the image of his friend Mohandas Gandhi, whom he held back from many ill-advised projects. He is in education via Montessori, and in economics via Sen and the Grameen Bank. He is especially in literature: via Anna Akhmatova, Bertolt Brecht, T. S. Eliot, Pablo Neruda, Victoria Ocampo—a reader could live many happy years on books by his admirers. Kawabata, who wrote The Master of Go, was a particular fan.

Whenever I looked for something specific of Tagore’s—a painting or a ledger—I was cobwebbed by bureaucracy, closed collections, arbitrary fees, waiting periods, unclear rights, unintelligible translations, inconsistent transliteration, political squabbles, confused naming schemes, mislabeling, broken CGI scripts, and bad scans. I could not seek out, only browse.  There was one biography of him in Portland’s central library, and I read it while walking around downtown. I was in the hotel district when I read how, in Portland on tour in 1916, he’d lost his dentures down a hotel bathroom drain. I laughed.


Archives cut up the understandings we make of things as we live them. As fragments, distant pieces of the world can find each other. When we visit the archives, we are visited by what arises among the fragments: by memories with their own power, by coincidences, by hidden patterns and new understandings. As we step out of the archives into everyday life, and back and forth, like we cycle between dreaming and waking, we stitch our own seams.

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41 Ferry Street, This City http://contentsmagazine.com/articles/41-ferry-street-this-city/ http://contentsmagazine.com/articles/41-ferry-street-this-city/#comments Thu, 11 Apr 2013 16:44:16 +0000 Kathleen Summers http://contentsmagazine.com/?p=2731 There were no photos of my father in our home.

That’s not precisely true.

When I was about ten, I think, it occurred to me that there must have existed, at one point, some photos of my father and me together. Fathers pose with their first-born children. It occurred to me that this absence of photos might be because my mother had hoped to wash away all traces of him. It also occurred to me that it’s very hard to wash away all traces of a person.

Having a family with secrets will turn a child into a detective. One night, after my mother had gone to sleep, I got my baby albums out of the cupboard in the living room and tiptoed back down the hall to my bedroom. I closed the door. I turned the pages, looking for any sign of him. A man’s shirt, maybe, slung over a chair in the background? What I found was a photo of me as an infant, being bathed in shallow, milky-colored water. A man’s hands were propping me up. I could tell that the man had taken off a watch and a wedding ring; when he removed them, they left pale traces of themselves on his skin.

As a teenager, I often wondered if I would recognize him if I ran into him. (In an airport? At a huge stadium concert? Would I trip over a backpack, and look up to apologize to the owner, and be undone by the sight of my father?) For a while it was part of my nightly routine to lean in close to the mirror before I washed off my face soap. I would lather a white mustache over my lip and gaze at myself as the faucet ran warm water, and try to see traces of my father’s face.

When I was a junior in high school I took a trip to visit my paternal grandmother, who had kept in close touch with me. On that trip, it was my grandmother’s file cabinet I infiltrated, looking for information about my father, after everyone had gone to sleep. My grandmother keeps meticulous records. I found a manila file folder labeled with my father’s first name, and it was full of hand-written letters. My father’s handwriting. Elegant, with lots of loops.

Many of the letters were from my father as a young man to his parents and siblings, trying to explain why he had snuck out of the house right before high school graduation and joined the Navy without telling anyone where he was going; he had just disappeared himself one night, and reappeared via letters in their mailbox, telling them he’d moved on.

In a later letter, he wrote to tell his parents that I had been born. He described me as “a very beautiful baby daughter. Very health [sic], well shaped, coordinated, and alert.” I must have read that phrase 30 times, trying to suss out just how much love it had been written with.

There was also a letter from my grandmother to a judge, written in the year I was five-years-old, concerning an adoption case.  It seemed that my father was trying to adopt a young girl named Cassandra. I remember hunching over my folded legs on the beige carpet, propping myself up on my elbows as I read this letter, but I don’t remember the precise emotions it drew out of me when I read it. When I try, now, to reconstruct what I must have been feeling, I feel my face tighten and my chest hollow out. I think that’s called “longing.” I think I might have thought, “When I was five, I needed a father.”

In the first paragraph of this letter to the judge, my grandmother writes, “My name is Sally A. D___ and Max A____ is my son. I talked yesterday to the case worker, Harlan T____, who suggested that I write to you concerning Max, whom I know as Michael D____.”

I think this was the first time I learned that he had used an alias. Later in the letter, my grandmother tries to explain the name change: “Mike has been married twice, and with his second wife has a precious little girl whom he considers the most important person in his life. His child was born out of wedlock, and when they later married, Mike assumed his wife’s name in order to give legitimacy to the child.” When I read that, I remember thinking, “But why did he change his first name?” I scoured the contents of the file for an answer to this question. I didn’t find it.

I also searched for something in those letters I could recast as fatherly advice, but I came up empty on that front, too. My father had just disappeared himself from my life, and then made me search for him in my soapy-faced reflection, or in old papers filed away in the back of a cold metal drawer. But he wasn’t in either of those places, of course—not the parts of him I was hoping for.

In my twenties I gave my longing an aesthetic framework. I started to write a show about the disappearance of my father.

I make theater. I’m not very good at describing what I do exactly, I’m always getting tongue-tied. “What kind of skits do you do?” people ask me. “Oh, you know, just shows,” I say. “Shows about my life, or sometimes not about my life. It depends.” Then they ask, “Can I see a video?” and I say, “Oh, no, no. I don’t show videos of what I do.”

I grew up in a family of secrets, and I longed to have the truth. It’s what I try to do with my shows: to say things that would be overwhelming in casual conversations, and to do it with my heart wide open, so that we can all be in the room together without pretending for a while. Only, you know, sometimes it’s fictionalized.

But I never show videos of what I do. It’s because I’ve got a nervous disposition. The only way I can be brave enough to tell the truth with my heart wide open to a room full of strangers is if I know the moment will consume itself. Growing up in a family full of secrets will teach a person about the safety that comes from leaving no traces.

Growing up in a family full of secrets will also teach a person about the power that comes from teasing out someone else’s traces. I wanted a list of my father’s aliases. I used online background search databases, and later, when I was overwhelmed with the tangle of names I was turning up, I hired a private investigator. He turned up the same names mostly, and cautioned me that they were just initial guesses. I asked him where all this information came from. He shrugged and said, “Ever order a pizza and pay with a credit card? This information is for sale.”

 

Mike A____

Mark A____

Maxamillion C____

Mike S____

Mark S____

Greg A____

Melvin B____?

Frank B____?

Howard S____?

Maxamillion A____

 

Google searches for the aliases led to the tiniest glimpses of his life, as if through a keyhole. As Max A____ it looked like he was helping to run a Ponzi scheme, and he also appeared to be selling a product called Jurak Classic Whole Body Tonic. By this point, his use of aliases was making perfect, stomach-turning sense to me. Disappearing himself was just what he did after he caused all the damage he felt like causing.

The background search also showed that as Maxamillion A____  he’d used an address that was just ten miles away from where I was living at the time, as a six-year-old. Claiming to his mother I was the most important person in his life, and then using an address ten miles away, and never coming to see me. “You brazen, lying fucker.” That’s what I thought.

One winter morning, when I was 29, my mother called me to tell me that investigators had called my grandmother, wanting to know if she was the mother of the man born as Michael B. D____ but arrested as Prince Maxamillion K____ A____. Wire fraud. I didn’t know what “wire fraud” meant exactly.

I pulled out my laptop and googled the alias again. I did not find any reports of his arrest (and the Department of Justice wouldn’t mention him in a press release until much later), but I did find a recent news article about a man named Max A____ in Las Cruces who was claiming to have been defrauded by a landscaper.

a still from the video I saved

From the video

The news story had a video.

Look at his face. Oh my god. I can see my grandmother in there, I can see my great-grandfather. Oh my god.

I was undone by the sight of my father. For a moment I forgot all my disgust.  I had never learned to recognize the rhythm of his footfalls coming down a hall, I did not know the smell of his shampoo or the way he held a pen. There were a million missing mundane intimacies. But this news story had a video.

I clicked on the video. It wouldn’t play. I needed Windows Media Player. I downloaded Windows Media Player. Windows Media Player crashed my browser. I bundled up and went to the Copy Central down the road. I convinced the man behind the counter to let me use the owner’s workstation, upstairs, because it was the only computer in the establishment that had speakers. I watched that video over and over. There were about 24 seconds of footage of my father: three full body shots, two three-quarter shots, two close-ups on his face. Seven weight shifts, nine hand gestures, five rotations and five inclinations of the head. 68 words, six stammers, 85 syllables.

I recorded the screen of the computer at the Copy Central with the camera on my laptop. The man running the embroidery machine looked at me funny and I readied a speech about how my actions might be illegal but not immoral. He never asked me to give it.

I counted 801 frames, and I wanted to notate them faithfully, but I realized that notating them on paper would never be sufficient. Too much would be lost in translation. I notated them instead with my body. I learned his presence in the 801 frames as choreography. I watched that video of my father every day for months, maybe. I retraced his performance to hate it. I wanted to carve out my anger as specifically as possible.

Things got kind of topsy-turvy around that video. If you wanted to find it now, you’d have a very difficult time, and I think that’s largely because I went hunting for it. I did something kind of stupid. I e-mailed the ABC affiliate that ran the story, and I told them two things: 1) The man in the video claiming to have been defrauded wasn’t a credible source. He’d just been arrested for fraud. 2) I happened to be that man’s daughter. I’d like a copy of that video. Would they be willing to mail one to me?

No, in fact. No, they would not be willing to mail one to me. They would be willing to avoid my follow-up calls for a month or so, then they’d be willing to tell me that they’d lost their archive of that segment. I left a voicemail for the webmaster and asked if he would be willing to give me a copy of the file they used on the website. No, actually. No, he would not. The webmaster would be willing to ignore my message.

There was a moment when I thought that my very act of searching for that artifact had obliterated it, like a buried codex that turns to dust when it encounters the air. But I have programmer friends whom I’m sometimes able to convince to do my bidding, and one of them downloaded the video directly from the website.

I hired a composer to create a score for the clip, and I put it in a performance, which I will never show you a video of. And when I forget my notation of those 801 frames, when I forget my choreography, that particular trace of that particular video will be erased.

Here’s something that’s not easily erased: the people who really paid the price for the existence of this video, this video which I arguably benefited greatly from, were the landscapers my father was maligning. I’ve talked to them on the phone a handful of times. Their business really suffered, and the news team never amended or followed up on the story, even when a judge dismissed my father’s suit against the landscapers. Later, the landscapers hired a lawyer to sue the station for defamation. They told me the lawyer bungled the case by filing it under the wrong statute, and then he presented them with a hefty bill, which they had to declare bankruptcy to get out from under. Just a disaster. All these landscapers did was accept a client, and their life exploded, and this news team had a part in that and won’t even admit they might have been irresponsible, and it makes me so mad.

photos of my grandmothers, grainy and in black and white

Mary Summers (L) and her daughter Julia (R)

This is Mary Summers, my great-great-grandmother on my father’s side. At one point she was married to a man named George. No one really knows what happened to George, and my grandmother can’t find the photo of him anymore.

And this is my great-grandmother, Julia, daughter of Mary Summers.

After I finished the show about my father’s disappearance and reappearance, I toured it to a festival that was not too far away from Adams, Massachusetts, where Mary had lived with Julia, so I spent a couple of days there.  I was especially curious to see Adams because in my early twenties I had chosen Mary as my namesake. I’d been using the last name of my mother’s second husband since I was about eight, and I didn’t like the man. I wanted a fresh start, and I chose Summers because, not only did it come from someone in my family, it came from someone in my family I knew next to nothing about. No baggage.

Part of the reason I changed my name was so that my father couldn’t find me—he’d learned the last name that came from my mom’s second husband when she wrote to my father asking him to relinquish his paternity. But five years after I changed it anew, he did find me. It’s so banal: I was friends with a relative on Facebook who searched out my father and contacted him through his profile. He saw that a “Kathleen” was connected to this relative—this was back when it was impossible to hide one’s friend’s list—and just like that my new last name was spoiled. He found out about my show, he found my performance schedule, and he found my website.

My husband and I watched two computers in New Mexico scour every page of my website and click on every link. He sent me emails. He called my husband’s work. He wanted me to stop doing my show. An investigator turned up an old permit for carrying a concealed weapon. Just before this, I’d just been sitting in on the murder trial of a man I’d been on a single date with. This man had never killed anyone before, until he wanted something badly enough, and then he just did it, because he had the psychological ability to do it. After my father found me, fear took over my whole body for weeks. It subsided a bit, but every time I performed my show again after that, I hired a guard. Ridiculous, maybe, but I did it. I also deleted half my blog. Safety in obscurity.

I knew next to nothing about my great-great-grandmother, Mary, because my grandmother knows next to nothing about her. My grandmother had always just assumed that Mary had died young, leaving her daughter Julia an orphan. Julia had talked about being raised by two old maids in Adams, and if pressed further, she would sternly insist that her life had started when she got married, and would refuse to answer any more questions. I don’t know whether she was trying to keep someone safe with these omissions. Maybe.

The records in the City Clerk’s Office in Adams indicate that Julia was not an orphan—they list her as having lived with her mother, Mary, until she was 22. The town directories list occupations, and they suggest that Mary had supported the two of them by working in the textile and paper mills in town.

I found their address, and it was such a short walk from the City Clerk’s Office. It was just across two little roads, past CJ’s Sports Bar, which looked like a train depot. It was a hot, muggy day. My shirt clung to my back, and the shade of the depot structure was so welcome as I stood under it to take photos of the place my great-grandmother had lived. It was such a small town that Google didn’t even have a street view available. The waitress at CJ’s Sports Bar was friendly. She told me that it had been the train depot, and that the trains stopped running in the 70s. Mary must have heard the trains from her apartment. I imagined her arriving in Adams for the first time, getting off the train with her young daughter in tow, and seeing a for-rent sign in that building right across the street from the station.

There are no listings for Mary in the Adams town directories after the 1925–1926 edition, which indicates that she “remitted to Springfield.” Had she gone in search of her daughter, who did her student teaching in Ludlow? Had she gone because work in the mills was getting more scarce? Had she gone because, without her daughter, there was nothing keeping her in that town?

Something happened between those two, that mother and daughter pair. That’s what I think. You know what Julia did? In 1924 she went to New York to get married and she started over with a new name. Though she didn’t legally change her first name, she started going by “Sally” (a name which she later gave to her daughter as well, my grandmother Sally). Right after she married, Julia-turned-Sally moved to Mexico with her new husband where she’d be simply out of range of easy communication.

The letter

A letter to the Inspector in Charge

The records in my grandmother’s files show that in 1928, Julia-turned-Sally was trying to register for a U.S. passport from Mexico, and she needed Mary to verify that Julia-turned-Sally had been born in the U.S. As far as I can tell, this letter reveals the final severing of ties between mother and daughter. Mary had moved away and didn’t, or couldn’t, tell her daughter where she went.

I recently looked back over my notes from that trip out to Adams. I looked at the photos I took and the pages I photocopied from the yearbooks at the college Julia attended, and from the town directories in the City Clerk’s Office. I found that I did not write down things which now seem urgently important to me, things like the color of the carpets in the City Clerk’s Office, or the names of the clerks who helped me, or the ways they walked.

I mourn these details. I remember thinking of writing them down, but then I didn’t. I lacked the energy for it, I figured if I ever made this bit of research into a new  show, I’d go back to Adams anyway, to perform it in one of those big buildings that used to be the mills my great-great-grandmother worked in. I figured that while I was there a second time I could fill in those details. But I’ve never been back.  Now I long for memories of these kinds of idiosyncrasies of bodies and buildings. I don’t just want to know the kinds of things one can learn from photocopies of old papers pulled from the backs of cold metal drawers. I want the mundane intimacies: they’re proof that one got the chance to love well and attentively, not just in traces. They’re proof that one didn’t take that chance for granted.

I don’t know when or where Mary Summers died. I don’t know if she was alone. I haven’t gone out to Springfield to look for traces of her life there. I could do that. I wonder if the records would have survived the big 1936 flood, the one I assume washed away Ferry Street, which was her last known address, but which no longer exists.

I want more than that. I want to go back in time and comfort her. I want to sit beside her and hold her hand. I want to notice the texture of her bedspread and the smell of the room. I want to tell her that I remember her, that whatever feud there might have been didn’t totally erase her, I want to tell her that her name gave me a fresh start. I want to tell her that I wish she hadn’t been so much of a secret.

I’m writing here pseudonymously because I still feel a need to hide from the archives. As long as my father is alive, I’ll probably feel like hiding. I’m not sure how long I’ll feel compelled to try to resolve all these unresolvable things, this recursive family legacy of name changes, of dodges, of unretrievable losses. Maybe one day I’ll come to regard it all as elegant, with all of its loops. I think what I hope for, most of all, is to not take for granted my chances to love attentively, in full detail, and to let people see me plainly whenever I can manage the courage.

Reader, tonight as I type this I’m sitting with my back propped up against the arm of an oversized chair. My feet are wedged against the other arm. I’m wearing a navy blue and mint-green horizontally-striped  long-sleeved lightweight cotton shirt, and jeans that are slightly too big, and black footie socks. I’m listening to an album called “Endless Falls,” by Loscil. The walls of this room are all obscured by red velvet drapes, and the wood floor is barely visible, what with all the papers and photos and notebooks scattered around. The light is dim in here, and it’s comforting. I feel like crying but it’s not overwhelming. I just wish I could tell you everything.

The names of persons living and dead have been altered throughout this essay. —ed.

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Dark Archives http://contentsmagazine.com/articles/dark-archives/ http://contentsmagazine.com/articles/dark-archives/#comments Thu, 14 Mar 2013 13:55:38 +0000 Tim Maly http://contentsmagazine.com/?p=2687 Hello and welcome to our Dark Archives tour. We’re glad you could join us. I should note right here at the outset that this is a tour of a conceptual space so things tend to get a little crowded. Please make yourself as comfortable as you can. I am required by law to inform you that this tour may involve cognitive risks that include but are not limited to epistemic uncertainty, sudden categorical shifts, and a high likelihood that more questions will be asked than answered.

On a personal note, I’d just like to say what a privilege it has been to work with this material. Dark archives are slippery beasts, and I’m grateful that the Institute has given me the opportunity to work with—whatever it is that I’ve been working with.

Are you ready? Then we can begin.

Some of you are no doubt wondering what a dark archive actually is. I can tell you, I struggle with the same question every day. The Institute’s working definition is: Dark archives are the repositories of human knowledge to which we no longer have operational access. They are the documents that have been lost, even though they still exist and the records that hold information we don’t realize is there.

Dark archives are, by their very nature, nearly impossible to see. We can really only notice them when they’ve been uncovered, or by observing the way they distort the course of human history.

First, let me show you three things that dark archives are not. On the left is an artist’s conception of the burned Library of Alexandria. That great library was once an archive, but when it was destroyed, it was destroyed utterly. It is no dark archive, it is simply gone. Proceeding clockwards, we have an artist’s rendering of the universal theory that connects gravity to quantum mechanics. This theory and countless other pieces of missing scientific knowledge are contained in no dark archive (so far as we know). They are simply unknown. They remain to be discovered. Finally, we have a screenshot of Amazon.com’s homepage. Its database of goods is vast, but Amazon invests considerable resources in ensuring that whatever is there is findable, and, through its network of affiliate links and public relations, ensuring that we know to look. Its archives are bright.

If you’ll follow me through here, we come to the statue of Donald Rumsfeld, former Secretary of Defense for the American United States. The Institute commissioned this statue because Mr. Rumsfeld has become, in a way, our patron saint.

You may recall that in the wake of the decision to conduct a retaliatory invasion of Iraq in 2002, Mr. Rumsfeld infamously tried to explain the problems around planning for war. “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

Known knowns. Known unknowns. Unknown unknowns.

If you think about that formulation, you’ll see that there is an unspoken fourth quadrant. These are the unknown knowns: the things we don’t know that we know. It is appropriate to our field of study that Mr. Rumsfeld left it off.

This brings us to the first artifact of a dark archive that we have on display here. It is a replica of the August 6th 2001 Presidential Daily Briefing. These documents are prepared by analysts in the American government and given to the President to keep him or her abreast of the state of the world. They are classified TOP SECRET.

The August 6 PDB was declassified as part of a political stunt during a series of hearings on the September 11th attacks, wherein terrorists acting under the leadership of Osama Bin Laden had flown jetliners into American buildings. 9/11 Commission member Richard Ben-Veniste was questioning National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, and—here, I’ll just play the recording for you.

BEN VENISTE: Isn’t it a fact, Dr. Rice, that the August 6 PDB warned against possible attacks in this country? And I ask you whether you recall the title of that PDB?

RICE: I believe the title was, “Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States.”

This infamous title became a symbol of the information that the United States security apparatus had collected that should have been adequate to warn them of the impending attacks, but was not. Instead of serving as useful intelligence, that information remained hidden, only to be uncovered later as damning evidence of incompetence. The United States knew that an attack was coming, but it did not know that it knew. And so the attack occurred.

As you can see, we are on tricky epistemic ground.

Lest you think that we are only interested in American military matters, consider also this ship’s logbook. I can’t recall which ship’s logbook it is and it doesn’t matter. Indeed, if you look closely, you’ll see that it is not one ship’s logbook, but rather hundreds of thousands of logbooks with billions of individual entries, spread over hundreds of commercial and governmental archives.

Why do we have the logbooks? These days, detailed climate data is extremely valuable. As humanity comes to grips with to what extent and in what way it is changing the climate, you hunger for historical information. This was not always the case: climatology only began to use statistical analysis around the time of World War II, and systematically collected climatological records are quite scarce for earlier years.

However, for a very long time you have been intensely interested in the well-being of the ships you sail, and so there are centuries of recorded data hand-written in globetrotting ships’ logbooks. These include both precise reckonings of location and records of the weather. Alongside information from farmers’ records and birdwatchers’ notes, these logbooks form a massive corpus of climate data which is only now beginning to be unlocked for scientific use by efforts like the oldWeather project. As these projects progress, the logbooks slowly leave our care.

These two objects, the embarrassing Presidential memo and the unexpectedly useful ship’s log nicely describe the contours of our investigations, here at the Institute.

Before we continue, I’d like to pause for a moment and commit some light theory.

Archives as commonly understood are bastions in the war on entropy. From within the archives, a holding action is fought against the ravages of time. The mission is to preserve the few scraps of knowledge, art, and memory you have clawed out of a barely intelligible universe, and to pass them down to future generations.

The basic activities of an archive are collection, storage, preservation, search, and retrieval. Together, these form interrelated but non-identical streams. When the rate of some streams outpace the others, things start to go strange: when the rate of collection and storage outpaces search and retrieval, we begin to lose access to an archive’s contents, and the archive begins to go dark.

How will we know when we have dark archives? Let Saint Rumsfeld be our guide. With his help, we can construct a taxonomy of ignorance. It is analogous but not identical to the operational ignorance of military affairs.

The search-engine-optimized collections of information that dominate public discourse and life are the known available. The information locked behind paywalls, security clearances, trade secrets, redacted reports, and dark conspiracies are the known unavailable—somebody knows this stuff, but it’s not us. Reality as it exists beyond the horizon of human understanding is the unknown unavailable.

Dark archives are the unknown available. They are the reams of knowledge that have been carefully collected and catalogued, but are effectively missing for want of a good analysis system or even clues about where to look. Their contents are effectively unknown.

Even here, our taxonomical task is complicated by realities on the ground.

There are as many ways to slice up archives into known and unknown, available and unavailable as there are factions of humanity. To the people with the right security clearance, the impending destruction of the WTC towers was unknown but available. To those with no security clearance at all, the event was simply unknowable. To the architects of the attacks, it was front and center in their structure of knowledge.

It is no coincidence that so many dark archives are or were secret archives. Secrecy requires limiting access, and as you limit access to an archive, it becomes easier for it to slip into darkness. In this, individual private collections are as vulnerable as any military vault.

Indeed, through these doors, we come to the Hall of Digital Photographs Sitting on a Disc Somewhere. If you are an avid photographer but not prone to engaging in the careful processes of adding good metadata to the thousands of images you take, you yourself may be the proud owner of a dark archive. With a large enough volume of photography, it becomes impossible to maintain good information about what the photos contain.

The relative darkness of our personal archives is always teetering in one direction or another. Perhaps you will one day install powerful image recognition software that will automatically group and categorize the gigabytes of photos. Perhaps instead you will die without taking adequate steps to ensure your digital legacy, and what little knowledge of the archive’s contents that ever existed will be lost entirely.

Indeed, here past the Hall of Digital Photographs Sitting on a Disc Somewhere, we descend to the Crypts of Dead Media. Throughout history, countless means and methods of storing and retrieving information have been tried and many have been left by the wayside. We collect those and bring them here.

The crypts themselves are not safe to travel, but here on the threshold we have an original, barely working terminal from the BBC’s Domesday project. Conceived as an update to the 900-year-old Domesday Book, it is a collection of multimedia images, virtual tours, writings, and other contributions from more than a million contributors, intended to be a comprehensive survey of life in the United Kingdom. Within years, it had become nearly completely inaccessible as the computers and drives needed to access the project became increasingly rare.

For a time, the Domesday project seemed doomed to exist only as a mythological example of the dangers of archiving on unstable platforms. Several efforts were made to re-digitize it, and over and over they failed. On the project’s 25th anniversary, the BBC launched a website called Domesday Reloaded. It is sadly only a partial republishing. The Community Disc has been made available and supplemented with contemporary photos and notes, while the National Disc remains locked away in the darkness.

I said earlier that archives are at the front lines of the fight against entropy. To be precise, the entropy of decay that robs us of the scraps of knowledge we have managed to collect. Here at the Institute, we have come to understand that there is a second kind of entropy at play: the entropy of an archive grown too quickly, which outstrips its maintainers’ abilities to retrieve the information being stored.

Even Amazon, which I earlier offered up as an example of a very bright archive, must constantly struggle against a flood of new products and offerings. Spam content, algorithmically generated books, texts with titles confusingly similar to that of bestsellers, and a rising tide of new products: these are the forces that strain Amazon’s discovery algorithms and threaten to make the great online retailer’s archives go dark. The other great risk is that commerce rather than spam could overwhelm Amazon. If the company were to go out of business, its intellectual property is likely to end up among the Towers of Undeleted User Data from Failed Startups.

This question of retrieval is a slippery and relative one. Your emails, stored on a simple hard drive using an unsophisticated client, may join our collection in the Unpublishable Personal Correspondence Reading Room, while service providers like Google offer powerful search features intended to return your archives to the light.

This ebb and flow—and the publicity that can accompany it—sometimes drives professional archivists mad. From time to time, your popular news media will publish a story about the “discovery” of a “lost” letter or artifact, when in fact the “missing” item was in some archive or other, neatly numbered and catalogued, all along. Indignantly, the archivists ask whether they should publish a press release about “discovering” new things every time they release better tools for indexing and retrieval.

At the Institute, we argue that yes, they should. In the moment, there is very little difference between an unknown known and any other kind of unknown. The difference emerges only later, when the unknown known resurfaces for good or ill.

Dark archives can become a liability, as we saw with the PDB. Archives that appear dark to people working day to day in an organization may be bright to an investigative team with time and a clear agenda to guide their search. In this sense, archives can become a serious liability, both expensive to maintain and containing potentially damning evidence. Our collection of Unexamined Evidence of Corporate Malfeasance is sublimely vast. No wonder so many corporations have comprehensive document destruction policies. Better to have information fall away into the unknown unknown, than risk legal action based on evidence found in an unknown known.

But dark archives also contain treasures. As information retrieval systems get better, newly recovered information may be immeasurably valuable to our descendants, while the harm they might do to their creators fades behind statutes of limitations and brief human lifespans. This is why we archive, after all: our deep belief that someday, someone somewhere, will want to know what we knew.

I have heard that archaeologists on a dig site will purposefully mark off sections to be left unexcavated. This is because they work on a long view. They want to find out what they can about the past, but they know also that their future colleagues will likely have access to better tools. So they leave some evidence undisturbed, purposefully accepting present ignorance to enhance future knowledge.

Might you create a model like that for our gathered information? Could you agree on a commons of files with time locks? Perhaps an amnesty of some kind to those who contribute to the cause? No one can be liable for what’s in them, but they will be open to future generations who will, we hope, have better tools—and better questions—than the ones we can offer.

And here I must conclude our tour. Thank you for visting the Institute, and please feel free to explore the lighted areas on your own. Take notes and pictures if you wish.

But not too many.

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Enormous Changes at the Last Minute: Giving Fiction a Home http://contentsmagazine.com/articles/enormous-changes-at-the-last-minute-giving-fiction-a-home/ http://contentsmagazine.com/articles/enormous-changes-at-the-last-minute-giving-fiction-a-home/#comments Thu, 14 Mar 2013 13:55:36 +0000 Jeremy Bushnell http://contentsmagazine.com/?p=2681 In December 2012, I became one of Longform.org’s two fiction editors. As you might know, Longform features links to quality things to read on the web. In my role as fiction editor, I point readers to a good piece of fiction every weekday, and, in doing so I drive a little bit of traffic to magazines and book publishers who share fiction online. My hope is that this attention contributes, in some small way, to the overall health and survival of these publishers.

This morning I was looking at my copy of a Grace Paley collection of short stories, Enormous Changes At The Last Minute, published in 1974 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. First paperback edition, 1985. Enormous Changes At The Last Minute is probably one of the best short story collections ever published. And, as a person who wants to see good fiction circulating in the world, I found myself thinking that I would love to feature one of the stories from this collection at Longform. But here’s the problem: as near as I can tell, none of these stories have ever made it onto the web in any official capacity.

Four of the stories appeared originally at The Atlantic, which hasn’t put them on its website. Three of them appeared at Esquire, which hasn’t put them on its website. One appeared at Fiction, which features almost no fiction on its website at all.

If I were to chastise The Atlantic or Esquire or Fiction for this oversight, it’s likely they’d tell me that they don’t have the rights to republish these stories in digital form. I get it. Here are the copyright dates of Paley’s stories: 1960, 1962, 1965, 1967, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1974. In 1974, the Altair 8800 home computer doesn’t exist yet. In 1974, you know who is thinking about computers? Ted Nelson. That’s about it. Nobody at The Atlantic or Esquire, in 1974, is thinking about digital reprint rights when they’re buying these Grace Paley stories. That’s fair.

Of course, if I were at The Atlantic or Esquire or Fiction today, I would be working overtime to secure the digital reprint rights not just for Paley’s short stories, but for every short story we’d ever published. Taken in the aggregate—I would think to myself—all the short stories we’d ever published form a big corpus of important work that makes the argument for our centrality to the cultural history of the 20th century, which in turn makes the argument for our continued relevance into the 21st century.

Securing all these rights requires both a certain amount of money and a certain amount of sustained attention. Fiction probably doesn’t have the money. The Atlantic and Esquire probably have the money, but don’t seem to have the attention, if one is to judge from some of their recent output.

The search continues

What about Farrar, Straus and Giroux, who published the Enormous Changes collection? They’re seen as an important vanguard of literary fiction: surely, one might be forgiven for thinking, they might have obtained the digital reprint rights at some point? Maybe they could even help us with the stories that appeared in journals that either stopped existing before the advent of the web or that still exist but don’t have a substantial web presence? Let’s look at the Farrar, Straus and Giroux website.

As it turns out, Farrar, Straus and Giroux has a pretty good blog and a kinda cute Tumblr, but FSGbooks.com redirects to a dedicated subdirectory of the Macmillan Publishing website. FSG and Macmillan—both owned by the not-very-sexy-sounding Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group—merged in 2008, and it’s probably relevant to point out that along the way, FSG lost their subsidiary rights manager, Michael Hathaway, who was maybe one of the people best poised to understand the value in the digital rights to a set of forty-year-old short stories.

OK, well, yes, if you dig around in the FGS subdirectory at the Macmillan website, you can find the dedicated page for Enormous Changes At The Last Minute, and somebody’s gone to the trouble to ornament it with some selected reviews and a little piece of script that serves up the latest Goodreads reviews of the book. Of course, what you can’t find is a sample story, which, it seems to me, is the one thing from the book that people would actually actively take value in sharing and circulating.

This seems too simple to have to say, but sadly it has to be said: if you are in the business of selling fiction, your website should have fiction on it.

An aside here about “book trailers.” If you are in the business of selling fiction, you should not be making book trailers. You know why people like movie trailers? Because they are little pieces of the movie that people can share and get collectively excited about. You know why people hate book trailers? Because they’re bad short films made about books. The trailer for a book should be a little piece of the book. For a novel, that is either the first chapter or a good stand-alone setpiece. For a book of short stories, that is one short story, at minimum.

Giving it a home

So: if you are in the business of selling collections of short stories, you should make it a priority to feature one short story from every collection you sell. You should render it in cruftless, platform-agnostic HTML, and you should give it a permanent, linkable, shareable home on the open web.

Is this giving away the store? Is this going to result in you, the wary publisher, selling fewer books? I doubt it. Now, I should preface this by saying that I buy a lot of books. I like books, physical ones. Despite my association with Longform, I’m not a person who wants to read long-form content on my phone. I’m a person who has books stacked up on every surface I have available. I’m a person who took some of my favorite free web content from last year and paid money out of my own pocket to have it made into a book, semi-legally, which tells you something about my relationship to content and maybe reveals me to be something of an outlier.

But I don’t think I’m the only person who’s bought a book that contains stuff that I’ve already read. If you’re a person who buys books, you probably do this all the time. You take a book out from the library, or you borrow a book from a friend, you read it, you enjoy it, so you buy a copy for yourself. Maybe you think about it as a souvenir. Or maybe you buy a copy of a book that you love and give it as a gift. (My copy of Enormous Changes At The Last Minute was given to me by someone who had already read it.) If we accept that these are reasonably common human behaviors then it shouldn’t be too hard for you, the wary publisher, to imagine people reading a few chunks of a book at your own website and then throwing the book into the cart.

And the author?

And should authors be nervous about a free sample of their work being loose on the internet? I think most authors believe, as I do, that having some of their work out there in a spot that can be “pointed to” fulfils a promotional service and thus increases their shot at surviving in a very crowded media ecosystem. You don’t have to look far to find that many authors working without publishers are actively embracing the idea of putting great chunks of their work out there on the open web. And not just samples, not just chunks, but entire works. Many authors believe that this is serving them well—although we should be very cautious about assuming that we can generalize broadly from some of the specific success stories out there. Nevertheless, here are some examples, and their accompanying cautions:

Craig Mod believes that he’s selling more copies of Art Space Tokyo because all the content is freely available online—but he has specific reasons for this, dealing in part with the book’s subject matter. Frank Chimero elected to make a free online version of The Shape of Design—but he also knew he could count on selling copies of the physical thing because, as a design book, it’s a beautiful object. The creators of webcomics consistently put massive archives of material up online for free and make their money selling not only those archives in book form, but also selling a whole host of subsidiary goodies to an enthusiastic fanbase—but webcomic creators generate that fanbase by maintaining update schedules very different from those of fiction writers. It should also be said that webcomic creators are also keenly aware of some of the absurdities of this model.

It’s also worth noting that all of the examples above are creator-owned projects without partnership with traditional publishers, and the dance between fans and creators does get complicated when a publisher enters in. Authors especially have to be cautious when the literary culture becomes one where publishers are making their money on the webcomics model: hawking T-shirts and coffee mugs because not enough people are buying books. My first novel is coming out next year, and if someone reads my book for free at my publisher’s website and then buys a tote bag as a way of saying “thanks” to my publisher, I don’t make progress toward earning out my advance, and my royalties go away. If we put on our Pessimist Hat, which authors sometimes enjoy doing, we can imagine a dystopia where publishers give away our work as a means of selling tchotchkes: where our work is the giveaway inkjet printer and everything else is an expensive inkjet refill.

Valuing books in a digital age

But the situation is actually more harmonious than that. After all, publishers want their books to sell too. The Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group stays in business by selling books, not tote bags, and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. Around the time that FSG was losing their subsidiary rights manager, an unidentified FSG source said this, in a gloomy New Yorker blog post called “Publishing Death Watch”: “We have to figure out a way to get people to buy books. Real books.”

So we have agreement. Buying books will help authors (like me). Buying books will help small indie publishers (like mine). Buying books will help FSG, buying books will even help big gross conglomerates like the Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group. But that’s OK. I want to see publishers do well, even the big ones. For the most part, the good books are still made by publishers, because you figure out how to be a publisher if what you really want to do is make good books.

But here’s the thing I keep coming back to. If you’ve pledged yourself to making good books, then you owe it to those books to value their content, and valuing content means—increasingly means—lovingly placing it where other human beings can see it, discuss it, and share it. If you’re a publisher, big or small, you paid good money to see this material made manifest in the world. Why not act like it?

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Chance Is a Good Librarian http://contentsmagazine.com/articles/chance-is-a-good-librarian/ http://contentsmagazine.com/articles/chance-is-a-good-librarian/#comments Thu, 07 Mar 2013 16:21:25 +0000 Alberto Manguel http://contentsmagazine.com/?p=2649 Late last month, we corresponded with Alberto Manguel, the author of our book club selection, The Library at Night, and he graciously answered a few questions for our readers.

Contents: With over 35,000 volumes in your library and a lifetime of close reading, how do you document your responses to what you’re currently reading? In other words, how do you keep track of those copious conversations and record the connections you make while reading?

Alberto Manguel: I don’t. Chance is a good librarian and the encounters she allows don’t follow any pre-conceived order or method. So it happens that, through my wanderings in the library, I remember some encounters and forget others, much as happens in my meetings with people. And the connections between these encounters weave and interweave, and form patterns that I can’t fully see or be conscious of. But they are there. So when a subject comes up in my mind, some of these interweavings, a few of these meeting-places are brought to mind, and then the subject is illuminated by the memory. Unfortunately, as I grow older, the memories are fewer and far between.

Alberto Manguel
Manguel at home in the library

In “The Library as Identity,” you quoted Thomas Carlyle’s complaint that patrons used the library for purposes totally unconnected with scholarship and study. What’s the function and purpose of the ideal, inclusive public library? Has an existing institution come close to your ideal?

AM: Libraries have always, since Alexandria, been meeting places. (This is one aspect that the virtual library will lose, for better or for worse: The physical presence of other readers.) A public library should be many of the things I describe in my book, but above all, a place of social memory, a mirror for that society’s identity, changing according to that society’s changes. It must not become a café, an art gallery, a kindergarten, a flop-house, a free boarding room. It can have a few of these elements, up to a point, but it must not forget that it must still fulfill its essential function: to be a place where readers come to find and read books.

You’ve said previously that the memory of an electronic text is not the same as that of the book and that our relationship to paper is not the same as that on the screen—that a fragility exists within an electronic text that doesn’t apply to paper books. Since The Library at Night was published in 2007, a combination of electronic and print reading has become more common, and many ebook readers and formats have changed to allow easier annotation, highlighting, and bookmarking. Do you feel the same today as you did six years ago?

AM: Up to a point, my views have evolved. I see that the electronic technology can provide some of the interactive features of a printed book. However, I still maintain that it allows for a different relationship between reader and book: Less personal, less hands-on, less material, of course. And I’m still concerned by the enormous pressure that the industry inflicts upon the reading public, making us believe that the electronic technology is the solution for everything. They do this for commercial, not intellectual reasons, and try to make us forget to ask the question: cui bono?

Do you feel that there’s a parallel between Socrates, who despised books because he thought they were a threat to our gift of memory, and our own aversion to reading electronic texts?

AM: Every society fears a new technology, and when it eventually embraces it, it does it by declaring the death of the previous technology (which never dies completely) and adapts the vocabulary of the previous technology for its own uses. And yet, both in Socrates’ case, and in the case of the electronic technology, our active memory is threatened if we allow an instrument to do the memorizing for us. There is a distinction that is important between memorizing, as a book or a computer can do, and remembering, which we alone can do through the unfathomably complex system of thinking.

You’d written that “The web is quasi instantaneous; it occupies no time except the nightmare of a constant present. All surface and no volume, all present and no past…” Have your views of the web changed?

AM: In this particular sense, no.

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The Library as Dinner Party http://contentsmagazine.com/articles/the-library-as-dinner-party/ http://contentsmagazine.com/articles/the-library-as-dinner-party/#comments Thu, 07 Mar 2013 16:21:23 +0000 the Book Club http://contentsmagazine.com/?p=2612 The Library at Night is a book for magpies and meanderers, so there are no plot points to spoil: the dinner party is distributed. ]]> Our aim in this experiment has been to attempt a loose, communal reading experience without the time pressure (or any pressure) of a regular book club—and to allow us all to enjoy the savory bits together on our own time instead of assembling a formal, highly structured meal.

In this kind of book club, you’re welcome any time, and there’s no “too late.” The Library at Night is a book for magpies and meanderers, so there are no plot points to spoil: the dinner party is distributed.

Readers in conversation

This week’s brief conversation with Alberto Manguel is accompanied by a wide-ranging conversation between the book and its readers. As we begin week seven of the book club, The Library at Night has accrued 98 comments and 586 highlights spread across individual Readmill readings and a whole collection of tweeted quotations and commentary.

On their blogs, Mandy Brown has written that future online archives will help us to make connections among our reading and help us overcome our penchant for forgetting, and Erik Westra has shared a serendipitous musical connection he made while reading The Library at Night. As the first few readers finish the book, they’ve begun to leave closing remarks on Readmill:

“Manguel’s love of libraries is contagious. Fifteen essays, fifteen metaphors—they pushed me to consider tensions b/w public and private, real and imagined, inclusion and exclusion, old and new, static and fluid. A well-researched, unpretentious book about the pleasures of reading and discovery.” —John Benson

“Living in a country where threats of closure loom large over many of our smaller public libraries, much of this book served as a timely reminder of their status as beacons of liberty and equality—a shared learning space for the young and old, rich and poor, mobile and immobile. Together we explore the most extraordinary avenues and pathways into different words from the one we left outside.” —Richard Ingram

“Meandering and associative. One has to be open to getting lost.” —Allen Tan

More to come

We’ve started to post some interviews with Alberto Manguel on Library at Night over on our Tumblr. We’re just getting started—as this issue wraps up, look for podcasts, lectures, reviews, responses, and more. And for all our talk of distribution, there’s still something to be said for getting to a book while others are still talking about it. This issue of Contents runs for another few weeks, so do jump in, grab a copy in any format, and get lost in the library with us.

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The Archive is a Campsite http://contentsmagazine.com/articles/the-archive-is-a-campsite/ http://contentsmagazine.com/articles/the-archive-is-a-campsite/#comments Wed, 27 Feb 2013 12:25:12 +0000 Aaron Lammer http://contentsmagazine.com/?p=2582 I help run a site, Longform, that collects great non-fiction, past and present. Every day, we post links to four pieces, emphasizing evergreen interest over current events. The articles come from magazines well-known and obscure—it’s a straightforward project that serves audiences simply looking for something to read. Some of the picks are newly published, others decades old, as relying on the entire corpus of articles available online provides a deeper well from which to recommend.

Magazine editors occasionally ask us about trends we see, and what gets clicked. We find that articles on sex and crime overperform, while those on politics or the media seem to lag. Not shocking—people like sex, and any political leaning divides a crowd. But a second peek into the analytics seems to surprise almost everyone: older stories are read at the same rate as new ones.

Our data set is, of course, limited. But as few other sites present new and older material alongside each other consistently, it’s an interesting spark for discussion: Why is the relative interest in pieces from the past so surprising? And, as we move print archives online, how can the back catalog thrive?

The new vs. the archive

Currently, the presentation of reading material online is driven by two approaches: the new and the archival. This dichotomy is visible on nearly every landing page—what should sit on top? The newest stuff? If “the new” represents the landing page, then “the archive” represents everything else.

When we present articles based on their newness, we suggest that their primary appeal is as news. News occurs in real time and we champion shaving even a few seconds off the lag between events and their dissemination. As writers, we research in-depth features, sure—but we blog to fill time between features, and we tweet to fill time between blog posts. As readers, we pull-refresh and pull-refresh again, awaiting the news like a child up too early on Christmas morning. When we separate from our connections for a day, we wonder what “news” we have missed. And we miss not just the news itself, but our collective experience of news. We ingest current events—presidential debates, the Super Bowl, even massacres—together in real time, to the degree that the next morning’s headlines feel increasingly like an afterthought.

Because we think of the news item as a basic unit of communication, when we visit a publisher’s site, we expect to find a river: a strict vertical list with the newest stuff at the top and the oldest stuff at the bottom. The river makes a lot of a sense: regular visitors need to know if anything new has been published since their last visit. Its design also suggests that new articles, like new cars, lose value the minute they are driven off the lot. The river, we assure ourselves, is democratic. Each article gets its fair shot, then floats away, forgotten and obsolescent. The river is progress. The articles being published today are better than the ones published last year. And far more relevant to the concerns of today!

It has not always been so.

An interface for the past

The early web wasn’t built for news. Pages had to be updated by hand without the steadying ease of a content management system. When your favorite site published a new page, there was no easy way to get notified. Nascent web surfers often first experienced digital news not through a webpage but through a proprietary portal. The AOL of my memory, for example, offered chat rooms, a news page, and a web browser (order of importance my own, age 13). Later on, the rise of search meant that pages could be discovered, summoned from the aether with a mere description. The web began to shape itself not as a newsstand but as an archive, a library without a footprint.

By the time print publishers began to care about the web, things had changed. A new format had lured readers to screens by the millions: blogs. Blogs took their format—a reverse chronological river—from the CMS’ that made them possible. As longstanding print publishers arrived (a bit late as usual) to the party, they chose to follow suit. For these publishers, the initial challenge was simply getting new pieces online and convincing an audience to view them, and perhaps even pay to do so. New, web-based publications had no back archive to contend with, and were free to live in the eternal present. Archives were not a concern. At least, for a while.

But Salon is 18 this year. Gawker turned 10. Projects enormous (Google Books) and humble (home scanners loading pages from defunct magazines onto blogs), join the millions (or billions? I have no idea) of pages that publishers large and small shovel into their archives each year. Publishers come and go, but the archive just keeps getting bigger.

The obvious entry point into these archives is search. Looking for a restaurant menu? A clip you remember seeing on Sesame Street as a child? Search has you covered. Looking for something to read on a flight? Not so much. If you don’t already know what you’re looking for, you simply aren’t going to find it.

Search is an interface for accessing the archive, just as the front page is an interface for accessing the news. The archivist’s task is to build an interface that offers a better experience than search. Such an interface might constantly reassemble the contents of the archive into a manageable and coherent subset that both surprises and delights, a sort of serendipity machine.

But what makes a serendipity machine go? Human input. Or, what is commonly referred to as taste.

The human touch

Basing a system around human taste doesn’t preclude algorithmic help, but the clear imprint of a curator elevates it. The reason that Longform visitors click new and old stories in equal numbers is that real live breathing humans make the selections. It doesn’t necessarily matter who is doing the recommending, or their intentions in offering selections. I have no idea who selects Criterion Collection releases, but they slice the whale of cinema history into nice filets that give me access to something I prefer over a list of new releases. Once you accept that you’re taking a bonafide tip from a fellow member of the species, much of the bias and skepticism that goes into decision-making erodes.

Would-be archivists must use the tools at their disposal to build trust in visitors: limitation, enthusiasm, and honesty. A good recommendation leads to trust. While publishers have something of an obligation to push all their new stories, they might only spotlight a few particularly great items from their archives—which in turn makes those selections more trusted.

Archives work best when they escape the content silos that drive the creation of new material. When art and information from disparate sources are merged into a single archive, new pathways into the content emerge. Napster gained a (deserved) reputation as an epicenter for P2P piracy, but quietly also functioned as an unparalleled archive of rare recordings. YouTube offers a completist’s compendium of video and audio that was unimaginable a decade ago. Services like Spotify and Netflix offer seamless entry into worlds of music and cinema in which the “new” is a side option. These services are built around vast archives, and the consumption patterns they have inspired are far less oriented to new releases than to recommendations distilled from the taste of others.

Building a better archive

As much as I’d like to see a YouTube for text (someone please make this!), there’s plenty that individual sites large and small can do to invigorate their archives. Add space on the homepage to bring stories back to the homepage. Help connect the old and new with topical collections that include selections from both. All articles are not created equal—track the best ones and put them into a Greatest Hits section. Seeing what kinds of writing drives enduring interest can also inform the editorial process in seeking out timeless pitches.

Being a fan of your own archive is the first step toward engaging others and doing right by the writers, editors, and designers who have poured their hearts into work that deserves to live longer than the week it’s posted. Archives aren’t a technical problem that can be solved with a plugin or recommendation engine. Their contents were built by people, and they require real human effort to shine. When you invest in your archive, however, you do more than simply pad your pageview count. You announce to the world that your work merits ongoing interest, and you confirm to your readers that the relationship you’re building with them is long term.

“Leave a campsite,” my father would always say, in relation to everything from actual campsites to our recreation room, “in better shape than you found it.” The web is our campground, and decisions made today will affect what future generations find there. A dystopian landscape of link-bait slideshows with barbaric headlines is one possible outcome, but it’s not the only one. Focusing on the archive is, at its core, a strategy for creating outstanding new work. Articles considered in the context of their influence over years and decades, instead of minutes and days, must inherently aim higher. While such ambition asks more of both the creator and the consumer, it’s worth it, because it leaves something of value behind.

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Digital Archives & the Content Strategist http://contentsmagazine.com/articles/digital-archives-the-content-strategist/ http://contentsmagazine.com/articles/digital-archives-the-content-strategist/#comments Wed, 27 Feb 2013 12:25:09 +0000 Sally Whiting http://contentsmagazine.com/?p=2589 Since graduating from library school, I’ve fielded occasional questions about archiving “as a professional in the field.” Then comes the second question, “So, what kind of archive do you work in?” But I don’t. Although I was trained as an archivist and care deeply about archives, I’ve been an editor or a content strategist on most of my recent projects. And though I sympathize with archivists’ anxiety about their continuing relevance, I’m also excited for them, as I am for anyone who has content worth sharing.

I started library school intending to use the degree to help people navigate all kinds of topics, be they about literature, science, or online tax filing. Archives appealed as I learned how digital collections were gaining a foothold, bringing collections to the internet, and figuring out their processes on the fly. My priorities eventually took me in a different direction, though still with a common aim of making the messy understandable. Along the way, I began to get a sense of where those two things—archival practice and online content—intersect.

On archival intent

Archivists learn, above all, to ask questions. One professor of mine joked that her answer to nearly every best-practices question we were likely to pose was going to be, “It depends.” There is no One Way to Archive. In every instance, a good archivist takes a hard look at the context of a collection, asks a lot of questions, and makes decisions based on that information.

This questioning nature shows up in the principle of provenance. Respecting the provenance of an artifact means that you maintain a record of as much of its original context as possible. When a collection is donated to an archive, the first thing you do is inventory its contents, one box at a time, carefully putting it all back in the exact same order in which it was packed—artifacts are often grouped for a reason that only becomes clear at the end of the inventory. Over time, a story emerges about the collection: Maybe this group of maps is a story about travel or federal highway grants or the birth of a city. Often this context isn’t provided up front; instead, we hear something like, “My uncle sure liked maps.”

So we ask questions about provenance not out of mere curiosity, but because we need to know the story of those artifacts so we can explain it for archive visitors. The broad overview of that story might sound something like, “This is a collection of survey maps from southeastern Michigan dating from 1930 to 1960. They depict all major highways and show the rezoning plans that went into place when I-94, the region’s first interstate highway, was built in 1:60 detail.” (Did you know your uncle was a highway engineer?)

Inside the archive

Good archivists know that, like Chekhovian firearms, each item in an archive must be there for a reason. It can take years of practice to distinguish signal from noise.

This work is especially challenging for digital archives, because good metadata for an artifact is never assured on arrival. Physical archives at least have to decide where to physically put their “uncategorized” collections (which are called “backlogs,” and considered rude to ask about, as they imply poor planning, like a laundry basket stuffed with dirty clothes). Digital collections have only metadata to rely on in their categorization schemas. And despite the work of several impressive groups of very smart thinkers, discrepancies exist in how digital collections are processed and organized—particularly since spurts of technological development occasionally inspire archivists to completely rethink their workflow. (“Built on sand” is a commonly-uttered phrase in this field.)

Asking questions about a digital collection’s provenance is just as important. Digitization doesn’t equal relevancy, after all; a digital collection still needs a story to support outside interest, something stronger than “full-text searchable.” Without curation, what’s the difference between a digital archive and the rest of the internet? This careful consideration could also be extended to the metadata maintained at the item level. When virtual storage seems infinitely scalable, it’s easy to get carried away with digital acquisitions. Should we accept all the content we can, and log all the metadata values we can think of? Or does this enthusiasm for acquiring new content trump the practice of good curation? And what might the hidden costs of this decision be? These are questions another practice—that of content strategy—can help us explore. 


Enter content strategy

Concurrent with my misadventures in metadata entry, I started exploring content strategy—and the more I read about it, the more it resonated with me. It was the part of information science I’d always gravitated toward, the part where you look around and say, “I know we’ve been talking about metadata standards for years now, but are people actually finding what they need once they get past the landing page?” Serving people seemed to me like the point of having such standards to begin with; and when I explored the details of its methodology, content strategy didn’t seem so different from the way I’d been trained to think about content as an archivist.

Further, I liked the idea of having a stake in the content that appears on the web. Publishing online is easy, of course—maybe too easy, because the internet is full of inaccurate and outdated information. Back in library school, we spent entire classes fretting over how to help patrons navigate web resources, and there’s still no clear method besides teaching them to look for cited sources. But this is really a challenge to content creators, i.e., the people posting all this crap in the first place.

Archivists understand this in a very personal way, because this is what curation is all about. Curation properly begins with a mission statement, whether you’re a content creator or a researcher assembling resources: What is it you are trying to say? What does your collection represent?

When you’re a content creator, focus becomes even more crucial. A good content strategist wouldn’t let you set up even a Twitter feed without a full understanding of how you’re going to use it and what it’s going to do for you. Are you a design firm looking for new clients? Sure then, use Twitter to talk about design in a public space. Are you an addiction rehab center? Then think long and hard about who you’d reach out to publicly, and how.

Like an archivist, a content strategist starts by asking questions about an organization and its goals, and assuming nothing. We do content inventories (or “audits”), methodically going through entire websites and cataloguing the content and its characteristics. Audits help uncover things like duplicated material, broken links, and sections entirely orphaned from the rest of the site. But besides being economical, (now that we’ve uncovered two FAQ pages, we don’t have to draft a new one entirely from scratch) it’s also a nod toward respecting the provenance of the original content.

There is no One Best Content Strategy; it’s all about context. What do you need to say about who you are and what you do, and to whom? What do your users expect to find there? If a website has a clear content strategy, visitors will get more out of it with less frustration. Exactly what they get depends on the goals of each site, since a successful interaction could be quantified in any number of ways: tickets sold, pages viewed, orders placed, tweets twittered.

A failed interaction is when a user doesn’t catch the underlying story or its relevance to their needs. “Wow, they have a lot of maps here, but I don’t have time to look at them all,” they think, and move on without realizing that all the maps tell a fairly specific story about southeastern Michigan in the mid-20th century.

Strategizing archives

Where content strategy helps create streamlined, valuable content on the web, a similar approach could shape how archives defend and expand their roles as modern resources. Archives are accustomed to a passive role, asking reflectively what their patrons want to find. As they work to help researchers tell their stories, it’s easy for archives to forget to keep shaping their own.

Likewise, many archives have done a tremendous job shaping collections for users/researchers, but could improve their internal workflows, particularly as digital archives race to keep up with technological advances. The content strategist who questions why an organization needs a Twitter account, or a new website section, will follow up with a second question: “And who will keep it fresh and relevant?” Archives should ask similar questions, especially as they expand into managing digital collections on a web-based presence.

For a direct example, let’s return to the enormous role metadata plays in organizing and managing digital collections. Metadata entry itself is still shockingly manual, and thus expensive. Many digital archives don’t account for this when they consider how quickly they could expand their collections with cloud-based storage, but it’s crucial to examine the amount of metadata used to categorize collections, and ensure its weight won’t overload the ingestion process with drawn-out manual data entry. It’s not only users who benefit from this thinking: It’s the only way a digital archive can sustain itself while maintaining high quality. And it puts the content—historically a point of strength for digital and “traditional” archives alike—first, ahead of ever-changing search methodologies.

Finally, archives could benefit from content strategy’s models for user testing and measuring success. Physical archives, like libraries, still rely heavily on foot traffic statistics to measure use. Digital archives have a difficult time moving past this model, and tend to rely on similar statistics such as page views and Facebook “Likes.” More in-depth user research methods, ranging from keyword analytics to focus groups, can inform how people perceive a collection. Generally grouped under the umbrella of user experience research, these methodologies apply to far more than just web design.

A new kind of archivist

Archives are still romanticized in the way that libraries are: stunning monuments to intelligence and learning, doomed by budget cuts and the fact that it’s frankly a lot easier to just Google for answers these days. Sometimes it seems like fledgling librarians and archivists should just cut their losses, but what they actually need to do is broaden their job descriptions. Applying archival principles to content strategy makes for solid content—I can demonstrate this, and I exercise it in my work. Applying content strategy to archives, however, just might keep those archives alive.

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Reading Between the Texts http://contentsmagazine.com/articles/reading-between-the-texts/ http://contentsmagazine.com/articles/reading-between-the-texts/#comments Thu, 21 Feb 2013 15:42:01 +0000 Corey Mahoney http://contentsmagazine.com/?p=2443 If you know how to read them, the words between the lines are as important as the ones in black and white. If you know how to follow them, the connections between books are threads of conversation. If you know how to look, every book is a quilt stitched from a fabric of borrowed words.

In the Heart of the Country, J. M. Coetzee’s 1976 novel about an embittered, bewildered woman spinning half-nonsense tales, is gripping and confusing. The book is full of language that seems borrowed. When Magda (the narrator) isn’t parroting the psychoanalytic tropes of some German philosopher, words are literally falling from the sky. Literary scholars in the 37 years since gave up on making sense of her ramblings, threw up their hands, and called her mad.

Over a hundred years earlier, L. M. Alcott’s Old Fashioned Girl made perfect sense—it was a lovely little story for children. Alcott scholars focused on her other books, tracking down her influences all over Boston. None noted her protagonist’s name: Mary Milton. Despite critical histories of Milton reception in New England and Alcott’s obvious references, it simply didn’t come up; scholars were focused on another track.

With both of these books, we missed the influences—or, as Harold Bloom calls them, the “hidden paths” from text to text. I like Michael Riffaterre’s term for them: intertexts, or “a text or series of texts selected as referents by the text we are reading” that refer us to them “in such an obvious way that we cannot fail to read on two levels at one time.” When intertexts surface, they let us read between the lines, where they add depth and complexity, drawing the text-at-hand into a rich conversation. Intertexts are authors’ way of laying claim to a conversation, tradition, or history. This kind of borrowing can work as shorthand, or, at its most interesting, it can allow authors to unmake sense—using texts that are remnants or reminders of how the world used to make sense.

When we miss the intertexts, our readings are limited. We construct meaning based on the context we’re aware of—which is limited by our knowledge and assumptions. Coetzee scholars assumed the contexts for In the Heart of the Country would be mostly South African, leading them to miss an intertext that helps makes sense of the book’s most bewildering sequence. In the penultimate scene of the novel, Magda hears voices, which speak to her in a Spanish of “pure meaning.” The quotations that fall from the flying machines are so dense that it can be hard to tell where one ends and the next begins. But if you track down their sources, another book emerges as a sort of lens. Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude seems to be the source or mediator of several of the phrases, suggesting that Coetzee is engaged in a wider international conversation about postcolonial identity and consciousness. At the very least, Magda’s ramblings seem more lucid if she’s demonstratively wrestling with the cultural and literary antecedents of colonialism. At best, it illuminates Coetzee’s ambitions, challenging us to read Magda as the nexus of his investigation into the possibilities and limitations of [white] South African postcolonial consciousness.

Scholars missed the referents because they were looking in the wrong places (everywhere but Mexico). Coetzee is famously oblique and widely read. His references aren’t cited, and he’s never named them—scholars could only guess. I don’t think he expected casual readers to catch his intertexts, but even the connections that have been noted by scholars would do little to benefit readers; their explications are all locked in scholarly journals behind academic databases.

Coetzee is a bit of a special case, but we often miss or mistake intertexts for more pedestrian reasons: sometimes we don’t expect them, we can’t track them down, or we just haven’t heard of the text being referenced. Scholars missed a crucial intertext of Louisa May Alcott’s An Old Fashioned Girl because they didn’t expect to meet Milton in a sentimental romance for children. Current readers miss it because they just haven’t read much Milton.

When An Old Fashioned Girl was published in 1870, John Milton was a fixture in New England popular culture. Schoolchildren read his poetry, magazines referenced his life and work, and a fictionalized biography had just come out. He represented an authoritative voice that could be invoked to support progressive theology or defend the elite classes’ position of power. Alcott’s “Mistress Milton” is just a girl—but a girl who argues for women’s influence beyond the home. The allusion to Milton, light as it is, imbues Alcott’s character with some of the consensualism and progressive authority of that Milton. To her 19th-century readers (even the young ones), the Milton name made her arguments seem a little weightier and a little less radical.

Allusions like these used to work reliably (at least within the English-speaking, British- and American-educated world). A shared canon meant readers had read roughly the same things, and likely in similar contexts. This shut out a whole world of writing, but it did provide a pretty safe set of referents to use: authors could assemble those texts expansively, gesturally, trusting that readers would be able to spot intertexts surfacing and understand the tone of the references—a nod to Milton here, an ironic wink at Keats there. The canon, of course, blew up—and with it went the legibility of many of those intertexts. We just don’t all know the same books anymore. Within certain fields and traditions, references still work, but that limited scope constrains their power; there are no reliably common ways to claim a stake in a different tradition or challenge an adjacent narrative.

This should be fixable. Doesn’t the internet give us hyperlinks for linking to anything, regardless of niche? But instead, some of the divides are deepening. Online texts link amongst themselves, but run the risk of drifting further from offline texts. Alcott scholars missed intertexts for An Old Fashioned Girl because they didn’t look beyond Boston; we’re dropping links because we forget to look offline.

We need solutions at two levels: to investigate and document our readings, and to enable legible intertextuality in the reading experience itself.

Investigate & document

First, we need to be better at investigating and documenting. Reading isn’t always a one-way track. Sometimes we spend years with a book, reading and re-reading or tracing back its influences. Sometimes we come back to books and find that they make more sense with new contexts. This is the fun of the network: Texts make sense differently when they’re connected. Books that seemed like nonsense become sense. Books that seemed simple reveal complexity. Threads of conversation unspool through centuries and across continents.

But it can be hard to know where to start, especially when you’re stuck in a book that seems slow or nonsensical. We should help each other, sharing the networks we uncover and illuminating the connections we find. We do this faithfully as we read online—we pull together related links, bookmark and tag our reading, and credit our friends for pointing us in the right direction. Let’s do it for books, too, as a way of battling our addiction to recency; let’s dig into the archive, then share our re-readings. When we bother to track down the referents for a book and make sense of it, let’s share that hard-fought sense.

The most important part of this is writing, and not just reviews. Writing meditations, interpretations, questions, and essays. But the choose-your-own-adventure magic of academic writing is all in the bibliography. In the bibliography, or works cited, you can find all the pieces that went into the reading, all the scraps of sense other people made, all the lenses and frameworks and context. Here’s how I propose bringing the bibliography online and making it lovable:

  1. Working libraries instead of bibliographies. Mandy Brown’s is of course the clearest of vision, but we should build more. These should be a place for further inquiry, a way to follow the writer down the rabbit-hole. They could be essay-specific or works-in-progress for longer lines of inquiry. They could be personal or collaborative. All that matters is that they gather the texts that helped make sense of something. (I’ve made an example working library with some of the texts that went into this exploration.)

  2. Trustworthy links. The beauty of an academic style guide is that, after all the agony and copyediting, the result is a consistent list with enough information to track down every source. For texts that are natively online, we link to the text itself. But for texts that don’t live online (usually paper books), we tend to link to Amazon or other store pages. This puts the onus of keeping that source functional on the store, and they only care about listing it as long as they can sell it. Sales links also reinforce the sense that every essay is a review, focused on whether you should buy the book; they favor information like price, ratings, and “similar” offerings. Instead, we should be building a reliable library that we can improve, add to, and draw upon.

Readable intertexts

Second, we should be experimenting with intertexts—how they surface, how we follow them, and how they change the text at hand. Books have traditionally used the narrative to surface intertexts: A book comes up in dialogue, characters act out a tableau, a book is spotted on a table, or, in Coetzee’s case, words fall from a flying machine. Sometimes quotations are set off by italics or quotation marks, but often the boundaries are less clear. If we understand the reference, it adds depth. If we’re confused, we flag it to come back to. Either way, we keep reading. The text at hand remains at hand.

Online, we behave differently and have different expectations. We’re used to reading nonfiction, so we see hyperlinks as branches to explore, often leading us away from the text at hand. And we expect all relevant other texts to be hyperlinked. As we read more books on devices that can also display websites, we need to find ways to represent intertexts without losing their nuance or focus. We should be able to capture—and improve on—the complexity of our paper references, while adapting hyperlinks to make intertexts more legible.

What if intertexts could be invisible unless you were looking for them, so you could read without noticing them or mouse carefully over every word looking for clues? What if intertexts could overwrite, fade, or push aside the text at hand? What if the text could fight back? What if the texts that fall in In the Heart of the Country actually fell, landing in Magda’s musings to give them shape and sense?

At one point in her story, Magda laments: “these words of mine come from nowhere and go nowhere, they have no past or future, they whistle across the flats in a desolate eternal present, feeding no one.”

She’s wrong; her words come from somewhere, and have a past, are going somewhere and have a future. But if our texts are going to be more nourishing than hers, we’ll need to keep them grounded—to their places, to their pasts, and to each other.

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