söndag 19 september 2010

The uniqueness of documents

When I was a teenager, I started to collect musical rarities, bootlegged recordings of – primarily - David Bowie and other artists and musicians related to him. Getting hold of these obscure recordings and concert tapings always gave me a thrill. The uniqueness of the musical documents was almost tangible. One of the most renowned Bowie bootlegs was the so called “His Master’s Voice”, a recording made from the last concert of Ziggy Stardust at the Hammersmith Apollo , 3 july 1973. Among collectors it circulated in two versions. The more common one featured the same content as the official live album made from that concert, released in the mid 1980’s. The other one was similar except for a few songs at the end of the set featuring guest guitarist Jeff Beck – these songs have even today not been released officially. It was of course the latter which attracted interest. This was the unique document of this landmark concert in rock history – and I had it.

In the late 1990’s, with a collection of unofficial Bowie recordings approaching 500 items, I suddenly lost interest. I discovered I could get hold of almost every single item I owned on the Internet. The ones I lacked was there too – and they were cheap. The very essence of collecting, getting hold of the uniqueness of singular documents, was lost. None of the traditional criteria of value were present anymore.

I remembered this the other day as I was surfing around the obscure corners of YouTube. The sense of boredom over the fact that “everything” seems to be there came over me and at the same time joy over the fact that it is all just – there. I made an impulse nerd search for “S R Ranganathan” (the library pioneer – not famed Bollywood actress Suman Ranganathan) in the midst of all the music visuals. To my surprise I got a few hits, most of them uninteresting, but one hit struck me with awe. A tape recording from 1964 where Ranganathan, master of bibliographic classification, speaks – on the subject of Melvil Dewey!

The original tape is owned by the University of Toronto. The sound quality is rather bad. Regardless, it provides a feeling of being thrown back into the very midst of library history. This globally shared document is unique in that it takes us directly to a man who has been immensely influential on modern librarianship – reflecting over his meetings with the perhaps one man that has been even more influential. The content of the recording is in every sense of the word unique.

But, what about the document itself, the one every individual on the planet can take part of, with the appropriate apparatus – is that a unique document? The original should thirty years ago be considered a truly unique obscurity, not available to more than a handful of people and perhaps mentioned in some scientific text as a “rumored” recording. Perhaps it would even attract economic value. We don’t know. One thing is clear though – the social media of today pressures our conception of uniqueness in documents.

In many cases, like the elaborate digitization of the works of William Blake in the William Blake Archive or the Codex Gigas (the Devil’s Bible) in the National Library of Sweden, research has benefitted from increased access to unique physical documents of major historical value, providing opportunities to increased knowledge, both of the works and the individual documents.

But YouTube? Is anything unique there – and if so – what are the criteria for uniqueness of these documents? Would it at all make sense to start collecting……rare YouTube clips?

The Ranganathan tape is divided into two clips. The sound quality is significantly better in the second one:

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