Role of the Artifact
“Evidence in Hand: Report of the Task Force on the Artifact in Library Collections”, CLIR, November, 2001, is so busy weighing the balance between the attributes of the artifact vs. the attributes of the surrogate that it has overlooked the attributes of their interaction.
The report is presented as a study of preservation as contrasted with a study is addressing dynamics of reading behaviors. Implications of changing and expanding reading modes provide the actual context of the exposition. For example, interest in digitizing cannot be based on preservation functionality. Digitizing is a more expensive and complicated a method of preservation than the conventional options, but digitizing is justifiable, even attractive, as a method of mediation between reading modes.
The final report is more balanced and wider in scope that the draft report. But how can this be while still missing the mechanism for evaluating artifacts? The mechanism for evaluating artifacts is to consider their full meanings as augmented by mediation to other reading modes.
The problem remains with the “articulated framework”. While the categories of collection types are now evenly distributed to “print, analog audio visual and digital” these are ill-defined categories in terms of reading behavior. For example, “print” is associated with “traditional formats such as paper” (the only other such formats are vellum and papyrus). That’s fine as far as it goes, but the real category is collections that need no technological support for their delivery; where the medium is directly interfaced by the reader alone.
A better approach would have been to consider the role of technological mediation in the transmission, use and preservation of collections. Such an articulated framework would then enable less confused discussion of the dynamic of original and surrogate in each distinct reading mode.
Another problem is questions associated with the task of articulating a framework. An important question is left out between the following pair; ”What qualities of an original are useful or necessary to retain in their original form? Under what circumstances are original materials required for research?” and ”When is it sufficient and appropriate to capture intellectual content through reformatting and not necessarily to retain the original.” Another needed question is; “When are originals needed to sustain continued reformatting?”
The needed realization here is that mediation between reading formats produces new meaning not apparent in the original. As a result, a loop of continuing interaction emerges between the new meaning and the evidence of the original.
artifact in question
This is an eight page section on the definition or the concept of an artifact. Of all the features of an artifact; age, evidential value, aesthetic value, scarcity, associational value, market value and exhibition value, one feature is missing. This is its role as an exemplar for reproduction and facsimile. No matter the refinement of expression, if an artifact is not defined in terms of the dynamic of original and copy the definition ends up saying nothing more than an artifact is an entity.
”An artifact is a physical object produced at some time in the past, and attesting to a given set of practices, thinking, and ways of viewing the world, and whose importance will be defined by present and future needs and use. The value of the artifact is strongly influenced, but not completely determined, by its rare or unique features.” Such a definition could as easily describe a person or an experience shopping. The needed definition is some thing else.
An artifact is a physical object subjected to interpretive study. The richness or value of the artifact is indicated by its capacity to increase its meaning across modes of investigation or behaviors of reading. This is a clue to the adventure that this CLIR Report could have addressed and traveled.
“Surrogates do not obviate some scholars’ need to consult the object itself; however, in many instances, a surrogate can serve scholarly needs as well as, or better than, the artifact itself.” The clue here is the phrase “or better than”. With a valuable artifact, the surrogate can serve the scholar much better. In other words, if the artifact is conveyed to another medium the reformat engenders new meaning; tons of new meaning.
Technologically assisted reading modes have multiplied the meaning of artifacts previously confined to unassisted mediations. It may be possible that the explosion of information or meaning is as much a product of the increased meaning of artifacts via threshold to other modes as it is a product of digital surrogate itself. We may be adventuring in the domain of new meaning from old stuff rather than in a domain of different, digital meanings.
Perhaps then, the preservation needed is the preservation of a continuing interaction or circle of interactions between the artifact and its deliveries via other modes of interpretation and reading. The meaning is in the interaction and the meaning is growing. The good news is that, with the artifact retained, we only need to preserve the additional meaning.
The bad news is that the new meaning is a product of technologically supported and synthesized reading modes and we need to preserve these delivery systems along with the new meaning. We need to preserve the tools for thought that engendered the new meaning. This cannot really be done yet and this is an anxiety that haunts this CLIR Report.
Compared with the scary prospect of conveying the technologies of new meaning, some of the other concerns begin to fade. If and when digital files become the default mode for access – even for materials such as journal articles or encyclopedias, which were originally physical artifacts – what will be the implications for the collections of physical artifacts that have been simulated? The worry over such prospects for weeding and “de-duping” is worrying about the inevitable.
Nicholson Baker sympathizes with the burden of this anxiety. He wrote a whole book about it. And the CLIR Report, to its credit is also beginning to face the anxiety of disposal of physical source collections. But how do scholars, librarians, and archivists work together to prevent the kinds of losses that we can now regret in local newspapers, silent films, early television broadcasts, among others? Do we simply regret the outcome of regrettable loss? What other kinds of newspapers are there?
states of the artifact, 1800-2000
This section is also about definition including the mortality of the artifact and the options of its demise. The exposition is intended to ease anxiety over the demise of artifacts by digital replacements. But, then, another anxiety emerges.
The list of the consequences for print omits its physical format as documents or books. This is actually important as the physical format is essential to the direct, hand held, mediation of the print reading mode. A key phrase (p.19); “retreating like a mirage”, is used to describe the features of an artifact conveyed across the threshold to another reading mode. Its difficult to imagine a more apt description of crossing the threshold. Yes, the precept of the print artifact will not be directly serviceable as analog magnetic or digital media. Such transitions, as from print to verbal transmission, are consequential.
But, as we are configuring the material definitions of various artifacts and their physical mortalities the narrative begins to wander. This is because of the lack of a clear matrix that reading modes could have provided.
So we wander to distinctions of local and remote users, first saying that artifacts provide local, but not remote use, not recognizing that the artifact is the source for remote use as well, then saying that saving one book in its original form does not increase access to it while at the same time admitting that libraries prefer to provide book repair services because these services increase access. All that is really needed to be said here is that local and remote delivery differs in levels of technological mediation and can cross reading mode thresholds.
But now we come to a crucial problem, where lack of premise leads to real collapse of logic. The Report needs to admit that crossing thresholds to other reading modes creates new meaning but it cannot do this because it is too busy watching the scale of artifact attributes vs. surrogate attributes. Do we really want to confine scholarship to less than all of the available reading modes? The Report prompts scholarship to a false choice; ultimately measuring favorites and fashions between digital access and hard-copy access and ultimately suggesting favorites and fashions for preferred collection formats.
This is bizarre and certainly has nothing to do with preservation of meaning. The Report logic would store one last copy of each print item in a central depository and lock the door. Come to think of it, with the Report’s mention of scan-on-demand from stored collections, that is exactly what is intended. This is the ultimate weeding program and it could all be done in the guise of improving access.
The swing from conventions of artifact preservation to preservation of an artifactual process of its production emerges here. As the interface between the artifact and its readers depends more on technological mediation this shift becomes necessary while it also suggests that reading modes evolve with such technological mediation.
The shift of focus also explains why the field of audio and video preservation is more advocated and advanced by audiophiles and video technology enterprise rather than scholarly advocacy. The action needed is at the front of mediation before the options of reformatting can even become clear. And the problems of preservation of analog magnetic media are more urgent than and as complex as those of preservation of digital media. Even concern for deteriorating microfilm seems to trump concern for deterioration of analog magnetic media. Imaging is closer to text than listening.
An important concern here is that complexity and cost of audiovisual preservation will be dumped on the doorstep of the print library. The print library already is faced with the challenge of delivering print resource to other reading modes. Needed is a new infrastructure of preservation for collections where the parent source material is in another reading mode.
The situation of audiovisual preservation is also more desperate than that of brittle books. For one thing the delivery products, as in broadcast media and digital transmission, can be artifact-less or otherwise lack authorizing rights for their preservation. Another aspect of desperation is that audiovisual collections, unlike brittle books, may receive less agitation for action from the scholarly and preservation communities. This is due to a special aspect of the delivery products as contrasted with the source products. Preserving broadcast media is tantamount to preserving the readings rather than the message.
”The best practices that have emerged include retaining as much of the original material as possible ..Technology is increasing the fidelity of reformatting so successfully that most researchers do not need access to the original.” So the Report comes close to making the case for preservation – not of the artifact per se – but of the circle of continuing interaction between original and delivery copies. There is also suggestion of redistribution of the preservation responsibilities back to the originators; dispersion rather than centralization of responsibility. It is crucial that scholars attend to their own collections.
“When can a digital surrogate stand in for its source?” (always) “When can a digital surrogate replace its source?” (never) “When might a digital surrogate be superior to its source?” (always) “What is the cost of producing and maintaining digital surrogates?” (infinite) “What risks do digital surrogates pose?” (none)
The report self destructs as it enters into its discussion of digital artifacts. After all, it is somewhat of a paradox to convey conceptual works via physical objects at all. The conceptual decomposition of the artifact takes hold at another, almost invisible, intersection.
“There is a growing consensus that digital, rather than analog, reformatting will best meet the demand for accessibility, fidelity, ease of reproduction, and cost-effectiveness.” The keyword in this statement is “a”. In the print reading mode the statement is fully incorrect as the report itself confirms. In the screen reading mode, the statement is fully true although the report does not bring out all the evidences that it could.
There is a glint of this insight later on (p42) where the Report confirms that there is not much difference between born-digital and re-born-digital files. ”From the researcher’s point of view, however, the distinctions are great.” Exactly! The role of the digital object depends upon the reading mode from which it is approached and interpreted. Different reading modes have different precepts of the artifact.
Just for example, what is the artifact of a Winston Churchill wartime broadcast? It is one thing heard live, another thing listened to decades later and a third thing read as a printed transcript and another thing in the context of a web site audio. Note how the reading mode assumes a different genre of artifact. The first is delivered via a radio transmission in an aural/verbal mode, the second in the same mode but via a reformatted recording, the third in print mode via a document and the fourth in a composite screen mode, again live as a digital file transmitted from a server. Perhaps the artifact to be preserved can only be determined from the perspective of the given reading mode.
Now, is it such a conceptual leap, to imagine that the combined interactions of these reading modes, taken together, convey the meaning of the Churchill message? What if the reading modes are elaborated and extended technologically and the readings continued over time? Or, what if the interaction is interrupted or confined to a single reading mode?
Unfortunately the Task Force charge was to distinguish between those times when the researcher needs the original physical manifestation and those when a secondary or reformatted manifestation is sufficient. No middle zone of the interaction of different reading modes and no new meaning side effects, to be considered. And, no transformer artifacts either.
The work of the CLIR Task force on the role of the artifact was doomed by the confinements and innuendoes of its initial charge. Scholars and researchers have endless insight into the interaction of sources and their interpretations and the CLIR should have turned to them for elucidation of that interaction. If so a product would have been the definitions sought; the definitions of artifact and surrogate and their roles in collection building.
But the CLIR wanted a mandate to manage collection building; a mandate to centralize and simplify the transmission of knowledge. We have done that before with microfilm but now the new allure is conversion to digital facsimile. Masquerading the investigation as a preservation activity only added distraction and paradox to the effort.
The Report intersects the obvious going in the another direction. Weighing relative attributes of source and surrogate, artifact and its interpretation is a distraction. They are weightless without their interaction. But taken in interaction they weight or mean a great deal. A well interpreted artifact can engender entirely new meaning as a result of its simulation. What is going on when this obvious result occurs?
The new meaning pops-up crossing thresholds between reading modes. And reading modes themselves, as a product of increasing technological mediation, are proliferating. Even the simple scenario of delivering the print reading mode to other modes and composite modes, is enough of a challenge for libraries. Delivery of the print mode to other modes is enough threshold crossing to multiply the meaning of those library collections.
The CLIR report wants to find a simple procedure for managing not only the kaleidoscope of interactions of the print reading mode it also wishes to unify in a simple routine the interactions of the oral/verbal/visual mode, the mode of writing and the composite modes of on-line reading across all the possible various thresholds between them and all in a context of churning technological mediation of reading skills.
We need preservation of new meaning engendered by the interactions. It is also, weird to say, we need preservation of the continuing interaction of artifacts in the context of changing delivery systems; the very interaction that the CLIR Report seems intent on discontinuing.