onsdag 28 november 2012

On the documentality of a mummy

I love museums – in a very conservative way. I want them old and dusty and free from the plague of pedagogy. One such museum where I have spent  much time wandering through the seemingly endless collections of artifacts is the New Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, established in the early 1880’s. It is a remarkable museum with a winter garden surrounded by collections from almost all times and places. Most notable perhaps are the collections from classical Greece, Rome and ancient Egypt. When I take the kids there, the highlight is always the descent into the ”Egyptian tomb” where there is an actual mummy on display along several objects and caskets from graves of pharaonic times. There are no narratives to be found in the room, but the objects themselves; documents, in Suzanne Briet’s sense,  of a distant and strange time. They exilerate the mind and triggers our fantasy.
Another favourite of mine is the Museum of Natural History in Göteborg, founded in 1833. It has both odd creatures in formaldehyde solutions and large drawers filled with systematically pinned butterflies and bugs in the entomological department. The specimens are there to be seen as evolution created them, and yes, they are strange indeed.
When wandering through the collections of these museums I am often stricken by how time seems to have been standing still since the very time of their organization. They are in themselves examples of a view on collecting and the value of organized originality. The fact that the mummies, sculptures, butterflies and bugs are real is not only important – it is the very legitimacy of the collection.

Last weekend I took the children to an exibition in Malmö, promising  a full experience of ”Tutankhamun – the tomb and the treasures”. It proved to be the very opposite of  old style museum exhibitions. It was a commercial exhibition and as such it could be expected to display the very latest in exibition standards. Visitors were  given headsets at the entrance and put into groups taken in through a series of films telling the story of the young Pharao and the excavations of his tomb in the 1920’s. Facts were given in a semi-dramatized way with readings from what must have been Howard Carter’s diaries performed in the local South Scanian dialect. When the actual ”tomb” was entered, the visitors were left on their own devices and it was possible to stroll around the objects in silence with headsets on. It was a completely non communicative experience and the thought of free discovery of the displayed treasures and their meanings was just not there. The fact is that not even the treasures were there – what was shown were replicas and copies of the strange and fascinating objects and documents so remarkably found in Tutankhamun’s tomb.  There was even a replica of a corpse; a ”real” mummy – most definitively not that of the young king.
In this exhibition, the prime concern was not the artifacts and documents. Instead it was the story (badly told) of what they signified.  The storyline was suppose to catch the mind of the visitor. But what is the story of Tutankhamun in an exhibition setting without the arifacts? Leaving the event (yes, event), driving home in the misty autumn rain, we were all bit estranged. It was later on that I realized how much this exhibition said. Not about Tutankhamun or ancient Egypt, but of this time today that we call our own. Why bother showing unique archeological findings when it is possible to make and display replicas and tell a story?
Another analysis, perhaps somewhat deeper, of contemporary life also comes to mind. Canadian scholar Marcus Boon has, in his brilliant book In praise of copying, gone through the use and significance of copies and replicas in society. The need for originality is lost and in a way, he argues, this does ot necessarily need to be a bad thing. His theoretical argument does however not come from any of the expected post-modern schools of thought, but instead from buddhism. Is there such a thing as an ”original” in the first place? Is there any such thing as "essence"? If not, what is there to see and to relate to? It is an interesting and deeply anti-materialistic way of thinking.
The problem is also addressed - from the very opposite point of view - by Italian scholar Maurizio Ferraris. He formulates the concept of Documentality as an inscribed social act. In this way original artifacts and documents can be said to form an ontological necessity for the preservation of past social actions and events. Without documentality, narratives are empty. Without the original objects, the connection to the social events and objects constituting not only the tomb of Tutankhamun, but its time is… lost.
The tension between the in-house collections of original artifacts and documents in classical museums and the display of copies and replicas of temporary exhibitions is not only interesting. It is important. It tells us much about how we perceive history and meaning. In both cases the value of documentation is at centre; in the museum authentic artifacts represents reality. The documents carry meaning. In the temporary exhibition a story is told. The documentality of the items displayed is illusory – they do not carry any inherent value outside of the story told in the headphones handed out to visitors. It’s basically a tension between the value of documents in modernity and post-modernity.  We may of course prefer one over the other.
One question, however, keeps nagging me: if the mummy in Malmö was real, but not Tutankhamun – then, who was it? Does it matter in terms of documentality? Does it matter at all?

 Books mentioned:

Boon, Marcus (2010) In praise of copying. Harvard University Press.
Ferraris, Maurizio (2012) Documentality: why it is necessary to leave traces. Oxford University Press.

 Picture shows Howard Carter examining the Sarcophagus of Tutankhamun n 1922.


fredag 21 september 2012

Democracy lost? Public libraries in the era of "economic growth" ideology

Public libraries have during their entire existence been associated with democratic development. They have been key institutions in the opportunities for citizens to make informed choices and be active parts of the democratic process, based on a notion of the value of individual, non-instrumental learning – Bildung. Today this has changed.
In Europe, the notion of democracy is more dimmed than ever, as easily seen in the economic development in countries like Greece and Spain. Decision makers in the EU deliberately go against the will and well-being of ordinary people (formerly the basis of democracy) only to fulfill the wants of financial markets – economic growth is to be secured, no matter the cost. This is of course a dangerous and destructive path to go; the democratic vitality of European countries have had to make way for economic administration, dressed up in democratic language.  A fiscal discourse is dominating the discussion and countries (and thus people) can be “helped” or punished at random.
In a society ruled by economism, "the market" defines the content of social and individual integration. Citizens are being reduced to consumers, and their democratic rights are replaced with their rights as consumers. This is a very different way of looking at people than the progressive democratic movements of the 20th century that created so much economic – and social – wealth were inspired by.     
In this destructive environment libraries should have a chance to make a difference – but can they, or even more important, do they want to? We seldom see libraries explicitly talk about democracy, or democratic development, or individual learning, or Bildung anymore. What we instead see is a discourse that talks about access to not only “information” in a general, abstract sense, but to specific technical and commercial platforms and products as well. The bluntest example of this is the struggle among public libraries across Europe to get access to e-books.  The access to e-books is today the one single most important question for libraries, not least here in Sweden. In a European context where a whole new way of thinking democracy is badly needed, this is, to say the least, embarrassing.
EBLIDA, the European Bureau of Library, Information and Documentation Associations has initiated a EU-spanning campaign in order to “solve” the e-book issue with the publishers. The campaign takes its departure in a “position paper” (or “manifest”, as these things used to be called i a less administrative age). It is a statement which is clear enough: the word democracy is not mentioned. Access to information, as libraries provide, is defined as essential for a “competitive market”. Is this what libraries in Europe today has been reduced to, providers of information to a competitive market, sustainers of the ideology of economic growth?
Democratic development does not just need access to this or that “information”, it does require critical discussion, consideration of alternatives, political conflict. Without this democracy is dead. Public libraries has been very good in making all this happen – but how can they now, when they focus on issues which are important to please, first and foremost, those taking so many people down in the name of economic stability and growth?
Public libraries used to be able to sort out the bad guys from the good ones. They used to be strong in integrity towards politicians. Today the battle is with commercial actors - politics are not on the agenda at all. Really, you don’t have to be nostalgic to grieve this devaluation of libraries, neither in terms of their political relevance nor their social integrity.
The future is dark. A true change would require a completely different economic and democratic system, based on the good of man instead of economic growth – but, who dares speak seriously of this today? Certainly not librarians or their organizations.

Picture taken from CNN web site (may 25, 2012); Elderly woman praying outside the Bank of Greece in Athens, february 2012. We might assume she is not praying for more e-books.

torsdag 20 september 2012

When documentation was a threat to libraries – a 20th century tale

Studying the history of the European documentation movement in the early 20th century, one is mostly confronted with just a few names - Otlet, LaFontaine, Briet – whose contributions are mostly seen as individual achievements rather than parts of a general movements of their times. When Otlet and La Fontaine constructed the Universal Decimal Classification and the International Institute of Bibliography in Brussels around the turn of the century, they also defined aspects of a discussion which would engage many and increase in importance in the 1920’s and 30’s.
After these pioneers we find a second generation documentalists, whose work in many cases is more anonymous, but never the less built directly upon the limits and opportunities created by those before them. Among those who took the documentation movement into a more confrontational relation to librarianship was Frits Donker Duyvis of Netherlands Institute for Documentation and Filing (NIDER), and Federation International de Documentation (FID).  His dedicated work covered several areas in documentation and standardization, not seldom related to industrial development. He was also the one who initiated the development of the UDC into what came to be the perhaps finest bibliographical classification system to date.
When the documentation movement became more institutionalized, both with FID, and through the rapid increase of technical and industrial libraries and documentation centers, the library sector felt the need to in some way discuss and position itself to this “sign of the times”. Donker Duyvis was at the centre of events and, like many of his peers, he was deeply engaged in international work within his field. The first time that the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) seriously discussed the issue of documentation was at the annual meeting in Warsaw, June 1936.  The discussion came as a response to an invitation from the International Institute for Documentation, which in its conference in Copenhagen the year before had approached IFLA with the notion that primarily bibliographical issues needed to be dealt with in a new manner.
The reply from IFLA was skeptical. Marcel Godet, head of the Swiss National Library and chair of the Warsaw conference saw documentation in the light of the rapidly changing documentary environment, especially in technical economical and social fields, away from books towards more contingent document forms such as periodicals, bulletins reports and various loose sheets. The bibliographical adaptation needed had de facto already taken place in silence within many academic libraries, but on the international scene there was a need to keep distance between the technology-driven documentalists, and the tradition-laden libraries. Documentation was discussed merely as a sign of the times. Godet however was well known as a broad-minded man, and meant that this did not necessarily have to be a bad thing.
However, the division between librarianship and the documentation movement was to be maintained. In his work and writings Donker Duyvis and other documentalists more or less let librarianship go to focus more on how to handle technical and commercial information, creating standards for both types of documents and their bibliographical representation. Simultaneously in, primarily, national libraries, the need for new technology for bibliographic treatment increased. In Sweden the discussion reached a peak in the mid 1970’s with the first implementation of what would become today’s national union catalogue, LIBRIS.  By this time technology had reached such a level that the issue of documentation versus librarianship was not just a technical or practical issue, but one of identity. Documentation could no longer be discarded as just a sign of the times, but an approach to a cluster of professional identities that were slowly, but steadily merging – librarians and documentalists.
Today we can see this conflict as a tale from the 20th century. The turn of the century symbolically buried the hatches as the rapidly maturing Internet simply erased the differences. To understand the mechanism in the developed relation between librarians and documentalists is still important, however, to be able to make sense of today’s world of dynamic documentation and librarianship.

Some references:

A collection of bibliographical essays on Donker Duyvis and his work is found in

F. Donker Duyvis: his life and work (1964) The Hague:  Netherlands Institute for Documentation and Filing

Donker Duyvis, Frits (1959) "Die Enstehung des Wortes Dokumentation im Namen des FID". Revue de la Documentation, Vol. 26 (1), 15-16.

A thorough account of the Swedish discussion is found in:

Olsson, Lena (1995) Det datoriserade biblioteket: maskindrömmar på 70-talet. Linköping: Linköpings universitet. 

fredag 24 augusti 2012

Why do we digitize "cultural heritage"?

Huge efforts are today made in finding practical solutions and funding for digitization of cultural heritage.  Initiatives like the Europeana gather digital representations of artifacts such as paintings, photographs, manuscripts, films etc and display them universally.  In most countries memory institutions are driven to relocate funding into various digitization projects, many of quite poor quality. In the strive for world dominance Google initiates book digitization en masse together with large libraries around the world, who exclaims the prestige of being part in this global project.

As I am once again preparing a course in cultural heritage digitization at my university, there is one question that keeps nagging me that no-one seem to ask anymore, and that – as far as I can see – very seldom has been asked at any point in time: Why?

Derek Gillman discusses in his eminent book The idea of cultural heritage, two ways of looking at cultural heritage. The first views cultural heritage as something belonging to the whole of humanity. Thus the problems of colonial theft and war-trophies are easily solved – cultural artifacts have the same values wherever they are. The second states an increased value for artifacts and document when relating to the context in which they came into being.  Palawah rituals and artifacts simply make more sense in Tasmania than in London, Brussels or Gothenburg.
The tension between these two ways of looking of the intrinsic value of cultural artifacts, whether material or immaterial, is well known and has during the last decade given rise to discussions and several demands on colonially based collections in Europe to “give back” certain artifacts and documents. Because this is what cultural heritage is about:  documents and artifacts, what is left of historical events and traditions, crafts and customs, and which is sometimes forgot, individuals. They bear witness.  They matter because they are real. None are digital.

When skimming through policy documents of the EU, and digitization strategies in, for instance, Sweden, one is struck by a disturbing lack of interest for the value of these documents and artifacts.  “Cultural heritage” is reduced to just another term in lack of meaning. What has meaning, however, is the contribution cultural heritage digitization will make to the economic growth of the European Union. The digitization industry is in focus.  In order to achieve increased funding, memory institutions are driven into formulating digitization strategies – to become more “visible”.  When confronted with the myriad of tools, versions, metadata that are out there, and the obvious lack of long term preservation solutions, it is becoming increasingly apparent that cultural heritage digitization has very little to do with culture, or heritage, or any value that might lie in the actual documents and artifacts being subjected to digital treatment. Instead it has everything to do with supporting the European (and global) IT-sector and thus (finally) getting a way to legitimizing the very existence of memory institutions in a society that has lost every sense of memory and is exclusively focused on economic growth. 
 Is this a bad thing? Well, no, perhaps not, but when the social system built on the idea of economic growth starts to crumble, as it does today in Europe, and finally collapse (as it most likely will) there will be trouble. 
Digital representation cannot replace original documents and artifacts. There can be smart displays and attractive presentations and, on a very superficial level, increased “access”. But, the values are lost, and without values cultural heritage is nothing but “a shell full of memories”, as Bryan Ferry once crooned. 
Do these thoughts mean that I am “against” digitization efforts? No, but I believe that we must allow ourselves to raise the fundamental questions about why we do things. The digitization industry doesn’t want us to do it, politicians set to “lead” the development do not want us to do it – thus it is important to do it. Because, soon enough the day might come – and I believe it will – when the care and preservation of actual, value laden documents and artifacts will no longer be funded, since they are digitally "available". How will museums, libraries and archives then be able to uphold their legitimacy, which is in every sense founded in a pre-digital social order? 


The book referred is:
 Gillam, Derek (2010) The idea of cultural heritage. Cambridge University Press.

torsdag 12 april 2012

'As we may digitize' - new article on cultural heritage digitization

" 'As we may digitize' - institutions and documents reconfigured" is an article co-written by Mats Dahlström, Swedish School of Library and information Science, University of Borås, Ulrika Kjellman, Dept. of ALM, Uppsala University, and myself. It has now been published in European Open Access Journal Liber Quarterly.

The basic argumentation in the article was first presented a few years back at DOCAM'09 in Madison, WN, USA. It has since evolved, slowly rotating between the three of us, until we felt it ready for publication.

So - enjoy:


This article frames digitization as a knowledge organization practice in libraries and museums. The primarily discriminatory practices of museums are compared with the non-discriminatory practices of libraries when managing their respective cultural heritage collections. Digitization of cultural heritage brings new practices, tools and arenas that reconfigure and reinterpret not only the collections, but the memory institutions themselves as well as the roles they respectively play on a societal level. The development of digitization promises to bridge some gaps between libraries and museums, either by redefining their respective identity, or by forming new ground where the interests of the respective institutions naturally meet or even converge, or by neglecting particular tasks and roles that do not seem to find a natural home in the new territory. Two poles along a digitization strategy scale, mass digitization and critical digitization, are distinguished in the article. As memory institutions are redefined in their development
of digitized document collections, e.g., by increasingly emphasizing a common trans-national rather than national cultural heritage, mass digitization and critical digitization represent alternative avenues. Museums, libraries and archives (MLA) endeavour aiming for joint tools and practices in digitizing cultural heritage collections need a thorough understanding of such mechanisms. The article re-contextualizes current digitization discourse: a) historically, by suggesting that digitization brings ancient practices back to life rather than invents entirely new ones from scratch; b) conceptually, by presenting a new label (critical digitization) for a digitization strategy that has hitherto been downplayed in digitization discourse; and c) theoretically, by exploring the relations between the values of different digitization strategies, the reconfiguration of collections as they are digitized, and the redefinition of MLA institutions through those processes. The arguments in the article are drawn from examples of digitization in different library contexts on both a national (Swedish) level and a European level.

Key words:

knowledge organization; mass digitization; critical digitization; research libraries; national libraries; museums; cultural heritage

Full article in pdf format is here

fredag 23 mars 2012

Open Access, scholarly communication and the academic library

It has been about a decade now since the start of what is generally referred to as the Open Access Movement, starting off with the Budapest manifesto in 2001. The thought was to break the paradigm in scholarly communication dominated by commercial publishers and constrained copyright agreements. Emerging new, more communicative, ways of using the internet was paving the way for a more open way of disseminating scientific results. In this development academic libraries have come to play an important, but not uncomplicated, role. Open access is primarily directed at two kinds of output: academic journals and open institutional repositories. In the latter case, libraries in higher education institutions (HEI) have in many cases been (and are) responsible for the development.

During the last couple of years a number of studies in LIS research have focused on the actual development of open access, both from a library point of view, and a scholarly. Did it indeed change the patterns of scholarly communication as it was intended to? Has the role of academic libraries increased in relation to research processes and publication strategies of teaching faculty? Well, the situation is evidently quite complex and somewhat ambiguous. There seem to be a general agreement that open access is an amendable initiative, and that the possibilities really are there. But, when it comes down to real action, there seems to be a lot left to wish for.

In many countries today academic libraries work with the development of open institutional repositories. Sometimes these are shared between more than one HEI, as the Swedish DiVA. These repositories might be of value to the institutions they serve, they might provide an insight between faculty in individual universities, and the might be good for individuals that may publish their collected research output in one place, thus achieving a very dynamic list of references. The problem seems to be, that the scholars themselves do not see these advantages to a very high degree – if indeed they are aware of their existence. Instead there does not seem to be much that indicates any significant change in the patterns of scientific communication and publications of research results. The commercially based system of ranked academic journals still holds up against a more “free” way of publishing, and the question is whether academic libraries in any way can influence this. Libraries have, ever since the the “modern” scientific journal emerged in the mid 17th century held a very strong position as the very institutions where scientific results are kept available. Even though it has not been without trouble (extraordinary raising costs etc), one can claim that they still hold this position today. An open access alternative does not perhaps constitute a threat to libraries, but they sure do not seem to know what to do with it. Without doubt the potential is there, especially with the development and hosting of institutional repositories. But if this is to work, if academic libraries will be able to meet their positive attitudes to open access and their contribution to it, they evidently need to bring communication with local scholars to a whole new label. There is no reason why they could not, but the initiative must come from the library side. Scholars still tend to rely on more traditional ways of publishing, where the award system is well known and stable.

The most significant agent now, meeting the increasing social demands for open access that we see today, are various forms of funding agencies and research councils, not least in Sweden. Many of them now demand some form of open access publishing if tax payers’ money should be spent on research projects. Perhaps it is through these agencies academic libraries should go to strengthen their position in relation to scientific publishing strategies among the scholars in their HEI’s. The perceived uncertainty of open access as a “threat” or not might just find its answer there and yet another distinct role for academic libraries emerge – to the benefit of open access to research results.


As mentioned, a number of studies on these issues have been published during the last couple of years. Here are a few examples:

Creaser, C (2010) “Open access to research outputs: institutional policies and researcher’s views: results from two complementary surveys”. New Review of Academic Librarianship, Vol. 16, 4-25.

Cullen, R. & Chawner, B. (2011) “Institutional repositories: open access and scholarly communication: a study of conflicting paradigms”. Journal of Academic Librarianship, Vol. 37(6), 460-470.

Haglund, L. & Olsson, P. (2008)”The impact on university libraries of changes in information behavior among academic researchers: a multiple case study. Journal of Academic Librarianship, Vol. 34(1), 52-59.

Palmer, K., Dill, E. & Christie, C. (2009) "Where there's a will there's a way?: survey of academic librarian attitudes about open access". College & Research Libraries, Vol. 70(4), 315-355.