Last night I attended a talk at Princeton title Stop Making Sense: On Collecting, Sorting and Presenting Data presented by Rudolf Frieling, Curator of Media Arts at SFMOMA, San Francisco. I have to start by saying that the artsy parts lost me! Frieling would show and art piece and say – of course you’ve seen this or – you know this – and I’d be thinkin “huh? should I?”
Other than that – this was an interesting talk about how we organize our data and how technology is changing so fast and so much that our delivery methods and storage methods are not going to be the delivery methods and storage methods of the future – so how does one successfully archive media materials? When Frieling was introduced, the professor mentioned a few stories that were a bit funny – but also very sad if you think about it. The first was that when presenting in a newly built theater, he found that he could not play his VHS tape because the people who designed the theater had decided that VHS was no longer a valid storage format. The other was about a store here in town that actually sold its entire collection of VHS tapes to an artist so that he could make a sculpture out of them – this store no longer sells VHS tapes. The final story was about the library at the university no longer storing VHS tapes. He had approached them to ask for a space in the the high density storage unit for his tapes and the library said they were no longer keeping tapes and that anyone who had provided to the VHS collection at the library could come pick up their items or they would be given away first come first serve.
Along those lines, my husband and I donated all of our VHS tapes to the local public library a couple of years ago – the plan being to replace them with DVDs – a media type that takes up less space on our shelves and that we found ourselves using more than VHS.
Frieling provided some keywords for his talk (I didn’t catch them all): collecting, linking, presenting all in terms of data. The fact of the matter is (and we librarians know this already) not everything is available online and if it is – it’s possible that it’s not accessible because of hardware, software, or firewall reasons. He spoke of a tool that he and others had developed for CD-ROM that no longer worked on current systems due to hardware and software changes in these systems. He spoke of websites developed at the beginning of the web that no longer work as they were intended because they were developed with system limitations in mind. The long and short of it is that systems change and as archivers and curators how are we going to preserve information for future generations?
Freiling mentioned a TV show collector by the name of (excuse mis-spellings – the font was small and I was in the back of the room) Pentti Pajukallio. This man has spent most of his life recording TV shows and collecting these VHS tapes. He only stopped to have open heart surgery and even then his wife recorded what she could for him. The question is that what value does this collection have to anyone but Pentti? And if it does have value for others how will we access it?
One of the best slides (for me) was the one of a pile of 3×5 index cards that Frieling had put together as his first database. These cards contained bibliographic references that were of use to him. He keeps this “database” today because it has nostalgic value for him – but most of the references are probably inaccessible or unavailable – or even out-dated. This collection only has value to him or those studying him. Another great point that he brought up in reference to his note cards – information like technology is always changing so databases like this are not always going to be valuable – so are they worth archiving and making accessible? I don’t know – that was the question of the night.
One great quote was when Frieling mentioned that now that we have search engines and the world wide web it’s even harder to find the “pearl among the rubbish” when we’re browsing through collections. Books are a strong model to provide content. They can be browsed, you can jump back and forth, or you can read cover to cover. This 2D model (sounds a bit like Weinberger’s first order of order) allows the user to read the text as is or randomly, but it’s physical – it’s the pearl and it’s easy (in theory) to find because it’s not (in theory) surrounded by rubbish.
When it comes to webpages we may think of the “home” page as the entry point into our site but in reality people are entering our sites from every which way because search engines are indexing all (one again – in theory) of our pages and providing them in piecemeal to searchers. Frieling described this as users coming at our sites diagonally instead of straight on like they do with books. This means they only get parts of the information we’re providing and not getting the whole picture.
One way to look at information or media is that each item has two stories. One story is that of the artist or the collector and is usually personal in nature. The other story is that of the viewer. This story gives us the perspective of the outsider. This is the perspective that we’re giving in our catalogs – the perspective of the cataloger when viewing the item – so why not let the other “viewers” (our patrons) add their perspectives as well? This isn’t something that Frieling said exactly – just something I thought when he started talking about the two stories. What he did show us was Steve and how allowing others to add tags to art gave the piece a whole new perspective and a whole new value.
He ended by showing us the Way Maker (if you have a link please share it with me). This program is downloaded to your phone and then you attach your phone to your body and you record your life through your eyes. Does this hold value for anyone but you? Maybe not – but it allows you to see your life from another perspective. It shows you things that you maybe weren’t paying attention to throughout the day – and maybe even makes you more aware of your surroundings. Would a series of videos like this be worth archiving? Who knows – maybe it would be educational for future generations or other cultures to see what a day in the life of Nicole is like. Would I do it? Nope! I don’t need to go to that level of sharing my life – I have this blog and my personal networks – that’s enough for me 🙂
It was a great talk, while the art aspects were over my head, I’m glad I attended – I just wish that there were more links provided or that the slides were available as I’d like to link you to more information and I don’t have the time just now to do the research on Pentti or the Way Maker.