Some interesting articles on curating in a digital environment crossed my path this week.
In her article “Archiving Design: Cataloguing images from the Kilkenny Design Workshops”, Dr. Una Walker illustrated some of the various artefacts emanating from the Kilkenny Design workshops, ranging from linen cloth dolls to stoneware teapots. The records of these artefacts are photographs, over 20,000 of which are being catalogued.
In Sabina MacMahon’s article “Document!” , she wrote about the archiving of artistic endeavours by the National Irish Visual Art Library (NIVAL). There is a need to record artistic endeavours and as exhibitions cannot remain physically present for eternity, a digital representation does seem to be the solution. But what happens when the digital means by which the exhibition has been preserved becomes obsolete?
It is an issue which has also come up in our Digital Libraries course. When technology is constantly changing, one of the biggest problems which librarians and archivists will face is technology obsolesence and the need to continuously transfer digital material to new media in order to keep it viable. In his book Timeline Michael Crichton posited the possibility of sending humans through time in the same way in which we send a fax. The problem was that each time a human time-travelled, the resulting reproduction was just a little out of alignment, until eventually veins and arteries no longer joined up. It’s an extreme example but it very neatly illustrates the problem we have with digital material. Everytime it must be transferred there is a potential for loss of data.
Assuming then that we can financially afford to upgrade our digital systems every 5 years or so – from 5.25 floppy to 3.5 floppy to CDR to DVR to USB to multi-TB hard-drive, we risk loss of data simply through the transfer process. In addition, we must also address the fact that we must also house the physical storage material. Gone are the days when a computer took up a whole room. Now the problem is that storage media are so small they can be easily lost. A 64GB SDXC card is now smaller than a 1 euro coin.
This makes it a wonderful way of storing digital material, but where do we keep this tiny little memory card to ensure that it is available when required? In a plastic pocket file? In a storage card file? A credit card holder? And how do we know what is on it? Further cataloguing is required, matching the digital material to the card, the card to a memory card storage file. It is in fact an industry in itself to manage these materials, as new each transition creates additional metadata to be recorded and catalogued.
But how will members of the public find the material? The more digital we go in an attempt to save space, the less opportunity there is for individuals to browse. Theoretically they can browse computers, but has anyone else noticed that this happens less and less? The opportunity to simply meander around the stacks and see what takes their fancy is gone.
It is no longer just the architecture of space for learning and for accessing materials which must be considered. Redesigns such as that of the Rhode Island School of Design written about by Carol Terry may incorporate new learning spaces. They also include space for visual exhibitions and for the storage of digital versions of those exhibitions once the physical exhibition has been dismantled.
But they will also need to include a large amount of space to hold the storage media and the means to access them. Will the libraries of the future be like icebergs, the learning space visible and accessible to the public will be warm open and inviting and offering only a tiny fraction of what is actually there, the remainder sitting in a vast warehouse which will be known only to the librarians?